Screening Jewish genes

Screening Jewish genes

Halachah and emerging reproductive technology

Jewish law supports current and emerging forms of biotechnology used in assisted reproduction – including artificial insemination, surrogacy, embryo screening, and even more debatable techniques – as long as the overriding intent is to “produce a healthy or healthier child,” says Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, professor of law at Emory University.

“We ought to not be afraid of new technologies,” says Broyde, who delivered the Decalogue Lecture hosted by Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) on Sept. 13. “It’s too easy to imagine worst-case scenarios and craft theoretical opposition. But processes that allow people to have children who can’t are processes we should support.”

A member of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Beth Din of America, the largest Jewish law court in the country, Broyde spoke on “The Bioethical Future: Some Jewish Thoughts on Reproductive Ethics” as part of CSLR’s “When Law and Religion Meet” lecture series. Broyde is a CSLR senior fellow.

Broyde classified artificial insemination (AI) as a fairly low-tech activity that is even discussed in the Talmud. “No adultery is associated with AI. The dominant Jewish law view doesn’t look at misplaced paternity, absent sexual conduct, as a moral or religious wrong,” he says.

While surrogate motherhood can raise questions of maternity, Broyde favors the view that the mother is the one who carries and gives birth to the child. “Maternity is established in Jewish tradition through birth, not merely genetics. In competition between the egg donor and the birth mother, the dominant Jewish law view labels the birth mother as the mother,” he says.

Cloning should be considered a potential reproductive technology since scientists have successfully cloned horses, cats, mice, and almost every other mammal, Broyde says, noting that human cloning has not yet occurred because “governments have taken steps to restrict this, it violates our sense of ethics.”

He favors allowing cloning for “profoundly infertile people,” such as men who no longer produce sperm because of a military or industrial accident. The man’s genetic material would be inserted into his wife’s egg and she would give birth to a child who looks “astonishingly like him,” Broyde says.

Broyde then explored a half-dozen emerging reproductive technologies that “at first glance might appear scary,” but that are likely to become commonplace within the next 25 years. In each case, he maintained that Jewish law would use the “best interest of the child” standard when evaluating each process and, above all, ask this essential question: Have we produced another healthy or healthier child?

Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), commonly known as embryo screening, allows doctors to implant embryos that test negative for a specific, disease-causing genetic trait or, conversely, to implant embryos that possess a particular preferred genetic trait.

The benefits could extend beyond the child to the family: for instance, parents whose older child has leukemia could implant an embryo that is, with certainty, a bone-marrow match -previously a one in 16 chance.

“Some people say, ‘How sad a child will be born to be used.’ But when you’re finished with this activity, you know what you’ll have? Two healthy children,” says Broyde. “Implanting embryos that are healthy, that’s a wonderful thing although not natural.”

The use of a human artificial chromosome (HAC) might one day be possible in reproduction. “This would make maternity or paternity difficult to determine,” says Broyde. Still, he sees a place for HAC when an individual’s “genetic material is so corrupted, it needs to be significantly corrected to produce healthy children.”

Genetic engineering (GE), in which the traits of different individuals, or animals, are combined, already has resulted in amazing combinations, such as the Mayo Clinic’s recent development: bioluminescent cats marked with glowing jellyfish genes (who are also resistant to feline AIDS thanks to virus-resilient DNA from a monkey).

“The core technology is designed to cure illness, to make people more resistant to illnesses -AIDS resistant, cancer resistant. We could change the breast cancer gene so it doesn’t express itself,” Broyde says.

Intentional human-human chimerism, in which the embryonic material of two fetuses is mixed, “very rarely occurs in nature and is sometimes done in in-vitro fertilization labs as a service to same-sex couples,” Broyde explained.

Jewish law would support this technology, he says, when it “has potential to be done to introduce genetic material from a mother and a father to eliminate genetic disorders.”

Two final techniques “raise basic questions of human identity,” says Broyde: human-animal chimerism, in which the cells of a human are mixed with cells of another mammal, for the purpose of curing a disease in the human, and reproductive xenotransplant, which involves placing a fertilized embryo of one species into the uterus of another species.

While parental genetic choices should always be limited by the “best interest of the child,” he said, processes and technologies that result in healthy, or healthier, children are intrinsically good and should be embraced, not feared.

“Jewish law says mazel tov,” Broyde concluded.

read more: