Jewish Bioethics 101
What is Jewish bioethics? There is no simple answer to this question. The relationship between Jewish law (halakha), Jewish ethics, and the ethical principles of general society are navigated differently by different Jewish authorities. However, there is one principle that can be singled out for its prominence in Jewish bioethical discourse: the sanctity of human life and the duty to save and preserve it wherever possible.
Judaism does not categorically approve or disapprove of abortion. Jewish law does not consider a fetus to be a human being; thus it actually requires abortions when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger. Jewish authorities disagree on whether to extend the permissibility of abortion to situations where the pregnancy or birth is psychologically but not physically dangerous. Those who allow for abortion in suchcases disagree on how far to extend this permissibility. Most of these authorities allow abortion in cases of incest or rape and cases where the fetus is affected with a terminal genetic disease such as Tay-Sachs. Other authorities extend permissibility further and may include cases where the fetus has a non-terminal genetic defect or even situations where the mere fact of pregnancy and anticipated childbirth is a threat to the mother’s mental health.
A slew of ethical and halakhic questions arose when organ transplants first became viable. Ultimately, however, most of these problems were neutralized by a single legal and ethical concept--pikuach nefesh, the Jewish obligation to save lives. Except in those cases where one of two parallel organs, e.g. kidneys, can be donated by a living individual, it is imperative that an organ donor be halakhically dead before her vital organs are removed; thus, defining the moment of death is essential. Today, most rabbinic authorities accept brain stem death--as opposed to cessation of heartbeat--as halakhic death, thus allowing organ transplantation under Jewish law.