Nathan Diament, director of public affairs for the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella group, has consistently backed legislation allowing federal support for research on stem cells derived from unwanted frozen embryos. Diament and the UOJCA are usually at odds with liberal groups on social questions, however, and have taken heat from Christian conservatives for their position. And with good reason: The argument for destroying nascent human life in pursuit of medical breakthroughs weakens the boundaries that define the human community. Equally important, supporters vastly underestimate the consequences of state-sanctioned killing, as well as the powerful economic incentives to exploit women and commodify human life.
Nevertheless, the statement by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations opposing Bush’s veto is a model of sober and civic discourse in a debate saturated with vitriol. “We recognize that those who oppose this research and this legislation do so upon the basis of deeply and sincerely held moral beliefs,” writes the UOJCA. “We appreciate the President’s position on this matter which allows this research to proceed when privately funded and his principled reservations against allowing taxpayer funds to support it.” The organization goes on to “respectfully disagree” with the president’s position.
Notice what is missing: No conspiracy theories about a theocratic takeover. No chatter about the eclipse of Enlightenment reason. No specter of religious extremism haunting the political landscape. No contest between scientific progress and medieval superstition.
Here are religious conservatives — orthodox Jews — who have learned to engage an emotional debate over bioethics with grace and sobriety. They take seriously the moral and religious objections of their political adversaries. Though siding with political and religious liberals in this debate, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations shames them with their fairness and intellectual honesty.
By contrast, a press conference held by Democratic leaders the morning of the presidential veto was a stunning exercise in sophomoric sloganeering — even for politicians. Whatever one thinks of research on human embryos, the idea of using taxpayer money to fund it is a massive step into a brave new world. Yet, despite all the overwrought moralizing, there was not even an innuendo of an ethical dilemma. It’s as if none could be contemplated. When asked why they thought President Bush followed through on his promised veto, every Democratic spokesperson feigned ignorance or cited the president’s “extremist” or “radical” base. Senator Charles Schumer, stammering for an answer, simply called the president’s reasoning “confounding.”
This is the liberal narrative of the real meaning of the debate over stem-cell research: It is a tale of religious fanaticism standing in the way of hope and healing. Here again is liberalism’s willful deafness to the moral and spiritual ideals of millions of Americans. Orthodox Jews reject this animus against religious belief, even as they part company with their faith-based allies on the issue of stem cells. I disagree with them, but I’m grateful that they have a seat at the table.