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March 12, 2005

The David Brooks of bioethics

William Saletan does a little cringe-inducing pop sociology: Oy Vitae--Jews vs. Catholics in the stem cell debate

Here's Saletan on the recent debate at the President's Council for Bioethics about whether it is morally better to clone hobbled embryos to crank out embryonic stem cells than use to ordinary embryos:

Don't get me wrong. The Catholics had caveats, and the Jews had ambiguities. But caveats and ambiguities are different things. The Catholics were clear about what was moral and what wasn't. The Jews were fuzzy. The best part of the show was George's cross-examination of Krauthammer on the definitions of "creature" and "human." It was like Socrates trying to carve up a bowl of chicken soup. Periodically, Kass waded into the fray to say on the one hand this, on the other hand that. The original ban on funding of destructive embryo research "wasn't written at Sinai," he joked. "And even the things that were written at Sinai are"—he groped for a rabbinical exit—"under review."

Later at a Catholic bioethics conference in Rome, Saletan asks Father Nicanor Austriaco what he thinks of the whole Jew/Catholic stem cell thing:

Monday night at dinner, I ask Austriaco if he sees a Catholic-Jewish difference on these questions. He does, particularly among theologians. Jews follow diffuse commentary, he says; Catholics follow streamlined authority. Jews trust intuition; Catholics trust reason. "You don't have as clear a definition of boundaries as we have," he observes. This is why Catholics have an easier time getting over the yuck factor. "We say, 'Yeah, it looks yucky.' But I'm a molecular biologist. We make tumors in the lab all the time. For a Catholic, if I can articulate what I'm doing, it's not yucky."

The Jews on the Council are operating at a disadvantage when it comes to the conundrum of the embryo-derived parthenogenetic blastocyst-like entities--namely that they don't believe in Catholic theology. There aren't really any good arguments for the personhood of the embryos in IVF clinic freezers.* So, it's sort of a backhanded compliment to rationality that many of the panel's members fall back on unassailable first-person assessments of ickiness.


* Saletan is writing about a very rarified subdivision bioethical opinion. The touchy-feely arguments from some Jewish members of the Council have nothing to do with the general tenor of Jewish moral thought (or Jewish ethics as such) and everything to do with rationalization of an incoherent moral position. Most Jews probably reject the whole issue quite succintly: If you think ordinary embryonic stem cell research is acceptable, there's no reason to prefer the EDPBE approach. But if you do believe in the personhood of embryos there's no particular reason to think it's okay to fatally defrost an 8-cell embryo and scavenge it for parts, but not okay to defrost an embryo and use it for stem cells. So, it's not surprising folks in the middle ground are resorting to some pretty touchy-feely rationalizations.

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Well, in Jewish thought, human life doesn't begin at conception as it does for the Catholic Church (starting with Pius IX in the 19th century). Ensoulment in Judaism starts when the majority of a living baby has emerged from the mother's body (there is no ensoulment in a still birth).

In reading the article, it looks like the Catholics involved are doing the same thing to make an end-run around their church's dogma for use of embryonic stem-cells as the Catholic prolifers/hospitals are doing in performing early term inductions in the face of fetal defects to keep their hands clean of abortion. If all human life is sacred this should apply to parthenogenetically created embryos as well as those from IVF or in nature. Intentionally designing these such that they cannot develop further should be treated under Catholic law the same as abortion the same as hormonal contraception is - if preventing further development by possibly impeding implantation is abortion, then so should intentionally designing an organism of human origin in which further cell division and development is not possible.

I find it, um, intriguing that Fr. Austriaco gives Catholicism the nod in the "Reason" dept. Is this the same "Reason" that's derived from "Faith and good works"?.. or some other "Reason"?
Maybe it's the "Reason" that descends, like the "Peace beyond all understanding" from the knowledge that the Pope will decide- so none of the others need to fret. And, if the first version of infallibility (on Faith and Morals issues) isn't a comfortable fit, well, there will be a new Pope along, some day, who might make make it fit a little better... For all that the "streamlining" of Catholic "Reason" has done, the train still seems to spend a lot of time in the Station. ^..^

Orthodox Jewish law ("halacha") prohibits abortion except to save the life of the mother. There is disagreement about abortion prior to quickening (about the 40th day), which has resulted in some authorities permitting abortion prior to quickening where the fetus has a defect that would cause it to suffer (e.g. Tay-Sachs but not Down's).

Dispite the unfavorable view of abortion, the authorities are tending strongly to the view that use of unimplanted embryos for stem cell research is permitted.

Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler, a professor of biology and Talmud at Yeshiva University, gave a cogent explanation of the Orthodox Jewish view (the metaphor of the fence is very old and is central to the Jewish legal tradition):

"A good deal of rabbinic law consists of erecting fences to protect biblical law. Surely our tradition respects the effort of the Vatican and fundamentalist Christian faiths to erect fences that will protect the biblical prohibition against abortion. But a fence that prevents the cure of fatal diseases must not be erected, for then the loss is greater than the benefit… Mastery of nature for the benefit of those suffering from vital organ failure is an obligation. Human embryonic stem cell research holds that promise. ."

Isn't there a Krauthammer principle saying that he represents nobody but himself, especially not Jews, and that any panel he serves on is null and void?

And what does "Krauthammer" mean, anyway? "Kraut" just means and herb or leaf, apparently, but who hammers leaves?

My guess would be that Krauthammer is a corruption of Krautheimer, a person from Krautheim (a town in Southern Germany.) Place names are very common among German Jews.

I'm not clicking through, but isn't Saletan talking about the Jews on GW Bush's Bioethics Council? Weren't they selected specifically to uphold GWBush's position? That might make them not representative of Jews who think about Bioethics in general. (I think this is at least implicit in LB's last paragraph.)

Oy vey.

In the first paragraph, Saletan sounds like he's venturing into anti-Semitic territory (btw -- as far as this Jew's concerned, our "fuzziness" and "ambiguities" are not a bug but a feature -- the world is a fuzzy and ambiguous place and any moral system that cannot take such complexities into account is not a moral system worth heeding).

And then we have this:

Jews trust intuition; Catholics trust reason. "You don't have as clear a definition of boundaries as we have," he observes. This is why Catholics have an easier time getting over the yuck factor. "We say, 'Yeah, it looks yucky.' But I'm a molecular biologist. We make tumors in the lab all the time. For a Catholic, if I can articulate what I'm doing, it's not yucky."

Jews don't trust reason? I guess the only Jewish thinker Saletan has read is Bergson (not to knock Bergson) and he's not familiar with Maimonides, Spinoza, et al? And from my experience us "earthy" Jews have an easier time getting over the "yuck" factor than Catholics. I don't know where Bobo Saletan is getting his stereotypes as they certainly differ than mine -- perhaps from the same red-state eateries that Bobo Brooks gets his?

Orthodox Jewish law ("halacha") prohibits abortion except to save the life of the mother. There is disagreement about abortion prior to quickening (about the 40th day), which has resulted in some authorities permitting abortion prior to quickening where the fetus has a defect that would cause it to suffer (e.g. Tay-Sachs but not Down's). - JR

We conservative Jews (not to be confused with Jewish conservatives: most conservative Jews are quite liberal ... we Jews are just a confusing bunch) still have halacha as well -- even if some of us aren't good at following it. IIRC, abortion is generally permitted even after quickening if the woman's health (including mental health) is placed at sufficient risk by continuing the pregnancy. And I think conservative Jewish authorities tend to be even more liberal than Orthodox Jewish authorities on this matter.

Another issue, from the Jewish point of view, as a legalistic moral tradition, is one of standing: who has standing to be involved in the decision-making process regarding an abortion? For instance, I fail to see, from the Jewish perspective, how the husband has any standing in this decision (the issue is purely one of: does the pregnancy harm the woman enough to justify terminating it) -- so I would imagine that spousal notification laws rather go against Jewish ideas on abortion?

So, it's sort of a backhanded compliment to rationality that many of the panel's members fall back on unassailable first-person assessments of ickiness.

And yet Saletan uses this assessment of ickiness to create yet another stereotype of Jews? He uses this assessment of ickiness to somehow adduce that we Jews are just unreasonable people governed solely by our moonbat intuitions? Wonderful ... oy vey.

At least his arguments vis-a-vis Catholics make some sense ... too many people have managed to forget about a little period of history called the Counter-Reformation and Age of Reason.

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