WHAT IS A "SOUL" and where does it reside? When does life begin? At conception? When a fetus is viable? And what of a woman's autonomy--what role ought it play in decisions about reproductive rights? These old, familiar questions continue to influence debates on scientific policy, particularly when the discussion turns to embryonic stem cell research. But Robert Pollack, a biologist and director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia University, thinks we may be asking the wrong questions. We should be exploring the intentions of women and the availability of their bodies to nurture life, he says. We should leave discussions of the soul, an untestable concept, outside the realm of science, understanding that there are things destined to remain unknowable that must be accepted on faith. Unless we change the way we frame our debates, Pollack warns, American policies on stem cell research and related issues are bound to be misguided.
Pollack explained to Science & Spirit's Marianna Krejci-Papa how his Jewish faith informs his views on bioethics, and does so in a way that offers an alternative path for navigating today's national discourse.
Science & Spirit: Stem cell research begins with a fertilized egg--an embryo. Research that involves embryos raises the question of when life begins, an issue that is central to the stem cell debate. Do you think this is the right question to ask?
Robert Pollack: Let me start with a prior statement: Life never begins; it only ends. Life on this planet began 5 billion years ago, and all living things, including you and me, are related by common descent. Individual lives begin and end, but life never begins. So the phrase, "When does the life of the embryo begin?" is not really a useful question in biological terms.
S&S: What is a useful question?
RP: When does an individual have the capacity to live autonomously? For a mammal, the answer has to be very late in embryogenesis.
S&S: Is the ability to live autonomously what makes a group of cells a person? My skin cells may live autonomously if cultured in a dish, but they are not a person and can never develop into a person.
RP: So long as a woman's body is not available for gestation, no person can emerge from either an egg cell or an embryo. The intention to make a person must include the woman's intention. Until and unless every level of discussion--religious and medical and ethical--includes the autonomy of women, I don't think it's a fair discussion. In my religious tradition, no man owns a woman. It's a woman's decision whether her eggs will be available for research and a woman's decision whether her uterus will be available to make a baby.
S&S: Some might argue that a fertilized egg has a status different from other kinds of tissue because it could develop into a person if any uterus--not just the uterus belonging to the egg donor--were available. Does a woman have the right to determine the fate of an egg cell once it leaves her body?
RP: The way the argument has been expressed in our country is to make the assumption that women are not autonomous in their decisions about their eggs or their bodies. I don't want to participate in the diminishment of a woman's autonomy.
S&S: How has your religion, Judaism, influenced your view of a woman's right to choose?
RP: A woman's intent--her freedom to choose--must be regarded in religious terms, as an aspect of her soul. It is her religious burden. If someone says, "I decide a woman's religious life," then that woman no longer has free will. She cannot choose. She is a slave. A slave, in my tradition, is not only a piece of property; it's a useful piece of property. The Israelites suffered under the Pharaohs not because they had no value, but because they did have value: They could make bricks. Not being a slave means having autonomous …