Jewish Genetic Issues

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Gene therapy is in its early stages, and for the most part, Jewish thinkers have yet to respond to many of the specific questions it raises. Nonetheless, certain broad guidelines characterize Jewish positions to date. In general, genetic engineering for therapeutic purposes is condoned and encouraged by Jewish authorities. Consequently, stem cell research—which supporters say can yield cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes—has been endorsed by many rabbis.

bioethics quizStem cells usually come from aborted or discarded embryos, and for this reason many in the “pro-life” camp have rejected this practice. Jewish bioethicists, however, cite the concept of pikuach nefesh—the Jewish value of saving lives—coupled with the idea that an embryo less than 40 days old is traditionally considered “like water,” as reasons for supporting stem cell research.

Cloning for therapeutic purposes has also been embraced by most Jewish authorities, though cloning for reproductive purposes (a future possibility) has been rejected by most. Some believe that cloning would create a person in a human’s image, rather than God’s. Others are disturbed by the possible similarity to Nazi experiments aimed at creating a master race. However, some authorities see cloning as a potential option for couples who can’t conceive normally. Michael Broyde, an Orthodox rabbi and professor of law at Emory University, is among those who argue that we should consider cloning in cases where reproduction is otherwise impossible. He believes that cloning may be a mitzvah in such circumstances.

Beyond the life and death health issues of genetic screening and engineering, there are other potential and actual ethical and halakhic questions as well. Is it ethical to pre-determine the sex of one’s child through pre-implantation screening of embryos conceived in vitro? Is a pig that’s been genetically engineered to chew its cud kosher? Some of these questions have been answered—a pig is, for now, still a pig, so kosher bacon isn’t on the horizon—but more fascinating and difficult problems are sure to be raised in the coming years.

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