Gene Therapy and Genetic Engineering in Judaism

Using genetic technology for therapeutic purposes is acceptable, but many related issues have yet to be addressed.

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Reprinted with permission from Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law, published by KTAV.

The literature on gene therapy and genetic engineering in Jewish law is very sparse indeed. Two rabbinic articles with genetic engi­neering in their titles deal primarily with artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood, and only briefly men­tion cloning. The production of hormones such as insulin and erythropoietin, and antibiotics and other therapeutic substances by genetic engineering through recombinant DNA technology, is certainly permissible in Jewish law because nature is being properly used by man for his benefit for the treatment and cure of illnesses. Gene therapy, such as the replacement of the missing enzyme in Tay-Sachs disease or the missing hormone in diabetes, or the repair of the defective gene in hemophilia or Huntington’s disease, if and when these become scientifically feasible, is also probably sanc­tioned in Jewish law because it is meant to restore health and preserve and prolong life. 

The technical medical problems of modifying the defective gene or genes in an individual sperm, ovum or zygote by gene surgery and implanting the replaced or repaired genes into the mother thereby producing a healthy child have not yet been surmounted. However, assuming such surgery can be successfully performed, gene sur­gery will probably be sanctioned by rabbinic authorities as a legiti­mate implementation of the mandate on physicians to heal the sick. Further, argues Rabbi Azriel Rosenfeld, genes are submicroscopic particles and no process invisible to the naked eye is forbidden in Jewish law. For example, laws of forbidden foods do not apply to microorganisms. In addition, a priest only declares ritually unclean that which his eyes can see.

DNAAnother argument favoring the permissibility of gene surgery or genetic manipulation is the fact that a sperm or ovum or even the fertilized zygote is not a person. Thus, gene manipulation is not considered as tampering with an existing or even potential human being, since that status in Jewish law is only bestowed upon a fetus implanted in the mother’s womb. One can also argue that any sur­gery performed on a live human being must certainly be permitted on a sperm or ovum or fertilized zygote. For example, if a surgical cure for hemophilia, Tay-Sachs disease or Huntington’s disease were possible, it would surely be permissible. Hence, it should cer­tainly be permissible to cure or prevent these diseases by gene sur­gery.

If it were possible to perform gene transplants by transplantation of genes from one person into the ovum or sperm of another, the following Jewish legal questions would arise: Are gene transplants considered to be a type of perverted sex act between the gene donor and the recipient? Would such transplants be forbidden, in particu­lar, if donor and recipient are close relatives? Would a child con­ceived from such a manipulated ovum or sperm be regarded as related to the gene donor? Can one draw parallels from rabbinic responsa dealing with ovarian transplants and conclude that since no sex act is involved in a gene transplant, the recipient is not for­bidden to marry the donor’s relative, and the child conceived and born following agene transplant is not related to the gene donor? In most organ transplants (kidney, cornea, heart, ovary) the organ becomes an integralpart of the recipient. A transplanted gene may be different in that it is incorporated into all cells of every tissue and organ in the body.

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Dr. Fred Rosner

Dr. Fred Rosner is Director of the Department of Medicine of the Mount Sinai Services at the Queens Hospital Center and Professor of Medicine at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Internal Medicine and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.