Jewish leaders from across the religious spectrum have united in their support of the government’s Fertility Bill, after senior members of the Catholic Church strongly condemned it.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill would allow scientists to create hybrid human-animal embryos for the purposes of medical research into conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
In his Easter Sunday sermon, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the head of the Scottish Catholic Church, attacked the Bill, claiming it would allow “experiments of Frankenstein proportions”.
But Jewish leaders have disagreed, with some hitting out at the Cardinal’s comments. Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger, who was on the scrutiny committee for the Bill, said: “I don’t think we have a problem with it in Judaism, from Liberal to Orthodox.
“As Jews, we have a different view on when life begins to the Catholic view. We don’t think of life beginning at the moment of conception.
“I believe God gives us our minds in order to further the wellbeing of human beings. It is incumbent on us to try to reduce suffering, and this is part of the way of doing that. I think that’s what most Jews will feel.”
Baroness Neuberger, who is also the president of Liberal Judaism, added: “We should do what we can to relieve human suffering.”
From a Reform perspective, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue said: “Judaism is just as concerned at the sanctity of human life as Catholicism, but strongly differs from Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s Easter sermon against the Embryology Bill.
“The creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for medical research is not to be condemned as ‘Frankenstein science’, but welcomed as a life-saving development that uses our God-given skills in the noblest of causes. It is irresponsible to hold back the progress that could benefit so many lives.
“The Cardinal is accusing scientists of creating monsters, but maybe it is even more monstrous to obstruct possible cures.”
Those presenting an Orthodox point of view agreed. Stamford Hill Rabbi Avraham Pinter, who is principal of the Orthodox Yesoday Hatorah School, said: “What they are doing is not capable of sustaining life and they can’t nurture it into an embryo, therefore I can’t see that there is any prohibition from a halachic point of view.”
The Bill would impose a limit of 14 days’ development on any research embryos. They would not be permitted to be inserted into any animal or human.
Rabbi Pinter added: “It’s a question of saving and enhancing life, and anything that does so should be welcomed.
“The Jewish approach to an embryo is not the same as the Christian approach, and although I think the situation should be closely monitored, I think the way it is being legislated is probably right.”
Rabbi Yehuda Pink, of Solihull and District Hebrew Congregation, who is the convener of West Midlands Jewish Medical Ethics Forum, also lent his weight to the Bill.
“The law generally is a positive one, from a Jewish perspective. It will facilitate research which can possibly help to save lives in future. From a Jewish point of view, we should be researching ways that illnesses can be cured and helping people with fertility problems.”
He added that medicine was “a partnership between humankind and God”, and therefore dismissed critics of the Bill who claimed that it would allow human beings to play God.
The previous chair of the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Baroness Deech, also lent her full support to the Bill.
Cardinal O’Brien’s comments, Baroness Deech said, were “ill-informed and histrionic.
“His comments are dangerous in terms of hindering future research. He wants to whip up support for his point of view, but we are not talking about creating half-man, half-animal here.
“It’s only people who think the embryo is sacrosanct from the minute it’s fertilised that are opposed to this, but I think it’s important to use our intelligence to save lives. It would be wrong to refrain from doing this.”
A spokeswoman for the London Beth Din explained: “The London Beth Din has already made its views known on stem-cell research, which is permitted in Jewish law so long as embryos are not created specifically for the purpose of research. Nor is the use of animal eggs with human nuclei forbidden under the safeguards provided by the proposed legislation.”
From a Reform perspective, Sara Nathan, a former member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, strongly supported the Bill.
“This is about trying to save life,” she said. “I can’t see why there would be Jewish opposition to this, particularly as it is about developing stem cells, which are not going to become children.
“The Chief Rabbi even once told me that he thought ‘saviour siblings’ were a good thing.”
She added that she did not believe “in all this slippery-slope stuff” from critics and said that the Bill would not lead to monstrous results.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced on Tuesday that he would be giving MPs a free vote on parts of the Bill after warnings that three Catholic Cabinet members might otherwise have quit.