Jewish Views on Reproductive Technology: Part 1

Frequently, when discussing reproductive issues (abortion, repro tech, etc.) among Christians, Old Testament scriptures come up. Psalm 139, for example, is frequently cited for its beautiful notion that God knows us intimately from our earliest days in the womb:

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

So I have always been interested in exploring what Judaism has to say about reproductive issues, given that our Old Testament is their Hebrew Bible, the central scriptures of their faith. Today and tomorrow, I’ll offer a basic overview of Jewish views on reproductive technology.

First important caveat: There is no universal “Jewish perspective.” As with Christianity and other faiths, there are different traditions within Judaism, and there are liberal, moderate, and conservative movements. However, Christians should not assume that Jewish perspectives on reproduction and reproductive technology are divided along liberal and conservative lines that mirror the divisions between liberal and conservative Christians. On the contrary, I have found a great deal of consistency among Jewish traditions. (That said, my research has been attentive but not terribly extensive. So I welcome any additional information, particularly from Jewish readers, who are invited to clarify and correct anything I say here.)

Jews of various traditions, including orthodox, conservative, and reform, tend to support use of reproductive technologies that allow people to have healthy children, if they would otherwise be unable to do so because of infertility or family history of serious genetic disease. In many cases, Jewish authorities don’t merely support but actively encourage use of these technologies. Israel, for example, has the highest birth rate of IVF-conceived babies in the world, and IVF is provided free of charge to any woman up to age 45 (including non-Jews).

Like Christians, Jews believe that God is the creator and giver of life, and emphasize moral decision-making that respects the dignity of people made in God’s image. There are, however, three significant differences between Judaism and Christianity that influence Jewish views on reproductive technology: 1) different views on scripture, teaching, and authority; 2) different views on human embryos; and 3) unique characteristics of Jewish theology, identity, and history. I’ll address the first two in this blog post, and the third in my next post.

Jewish Views on Scripture, Teaching, and Authority

While the Hebrew Bible is central to Jewish faith, when it comes to figuring out how to live ethically, Judaism relies on a broad legal system known as halakha. Halakha encompasses biblical laws as well as the Talmud (a record of rabbinic discussions) and other writings, customs, and traditions. The Talmud and other sources essentially provide an oral law that complements the written law contained in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, Jewish tradition emphasizes a decentralized, consensus- and discussion-oriented process for determining how Jews are to live. As Ari Zivotofsky and Alan Jotkowitz explained in a 2009 American Journal of Bioethics article,* the “dynamic yet precedent-oriented” practice of halakha stands in contrast to the more centralized, authoritative tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations. Zivotofsky and Jotkowitz explain:

Because there is no one authoritative body or individual, new technological challenges are confronted on multiple fronts until a single, or several, consensus positions are reached. But these are always based on precedent of specific laws, principles, and values. Halakha has developed over the course of millennia across much of the globe without any centralized authority and in periods of poor communication. The product of this seemingly stochastic system is nonetheless surprisingly well structured, internally consistent, and agreed upon by Jews who were widely dispersed and dwelling among disparate cultures. While the starting point is always the Hebrew Bible, which is often cited, it is never the final determination of halakha because it is considered to be only half the storyA contemporary rabbi will typically examine earlier sources in search of analogous circumstances before deciding a point of law. No one will rule without citing the relevant passages from the Talmud, and usually from the early commentaries on the Talmud, and almost always the major codes…This diffuse system will often result in there being more than one acceptable position within Judaism. [emphasis mine]

Compared to Christianity, Judaism thus offers a significantly different way of “doing ethics.” While, again, it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about a faith that encompasses many different traditions, Christians tend to look to some central authority for guidance on moral matters, whether that’s the Bible, the Pope, a local pastor, or some combination. While it is impossible to read the Bible (or anything) without interpreting it, many Christians approach modern moral quandaries with a belief in a coherent, overarching Biblical morality that transcends time, place, and individual interpretation. For some Christians, the idea that there could be more than one acceptable moral position is indicative of a dangerous moral relativism. We tend to approach ethical questions with the goal of finding a definitive answer concerning what is right and and wrong for Christians.

If it sounds like I prefer the Jewish approach to the Christian one…well, I do. No, we Christians don’t have the same oral law tradition. But given the complexity and ever-changing nature of reproductive technologies, and therefore of the ethical questions these technologies raise, a consensus- and discussion-oriented approach that concedes the value of different interpretations seems to be more useful than an authoritative, definitive approach that seeks a single “right” answer. Christian discourse on reproductive technologies—the conversations taking place among pew-sitting Christians, not among bioethicists and theologians—has been hampered by reliance on absolute pro-life and pro-choice arguments, rampant oversimplification of the moral questions these technologies raise, and a focus on deciding whether Christians should or shouldn’t use IVF, PGD, surrogacy, sperm donation and other technologies, vs. a focus on asking good questions and providing information, resources, and space for conversation and consensus.

Jewish Views on Human Embryos

Judaism does not perceive fertilized eggs as fully human in the way that the Catholic church and many other Christian traditions do. Thus, Judaism does not share Christian concerns that techniques such as IVF and PGD manipulate and/or destroy human embryos. Jewish authorities have laid out very specific timelines of fertilization, implantation, gestation, and birth, making determinations at each stage as to the moral status of the developing baby and the relationship between the baby’s moral status and the mother’s. Implantation in a woman’s uterus is significant, and before implantation, a fertilized egg is not perceived as having independent moral status. Specifically, “A zygote that has gestated fewer than 40 days and has never been implanted into a woman does not have the same legal status as an implanted embryo that has gestated over 40 days.”**

It’s important to note, however, that Jewish authorities do not allow for unlimited manipulation of embryos. There are relevant rabbinic teachings, for example, concerning both abortion and the discarding of embryos during preimplantation genetic diagnosis. While Judaism typically allows for embryos testing positive for a genetic disorder to be discarded, rabbinical authorities have raised moral concerns about discarding both healthy excess embryos during a normal IVF cycle and discarding embryos after genetic testing to determine non-disease traits (such as sex selection).

Jews have a necessary interest in preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) because Ashkenazi Jews are much more likely than people of other genetic backgrounds to have children with several serious recessive disorders, such as Tay Sachs disease. Jews have also been victims of eugenic policies (i.e., policies designed to rid a population of people with undesirable qualities and genetic backgrounds), most notably at the hands of the Nazis. These and other aspects of Jewish history and identity have influenced Jewish approaches to reproductive technology. I’ll discuss these aspects of Jewish theology, history, and identity in my next blog post.

*Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Alan Jotkowitz. 2009. A Jewish Response to the Vatican’s New Bioethical Guidelines. American Journal of Bioethics 9:11, 26–30. November 1, 2009.

**John D. Loike, Ruth L. Fischbach, and Moshe D. Tendler. 2009. Jewish Views on the Beginning of Human Life and the Use of Medical Intervention to Produce Children. American Journal of Bioethics 9:11, 45–47. November 1, 2009.

 

For another perspective, check out this Huffington Post piece offering a Jewish perspective on the so-called “war on women’s health” that some see in efforts to repeal Obama’s healthcare reforms and make abortion illegal.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.


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