Central Role of Procreation in Jewish Theology
Judaism emphasizes the procreative purpose of marriage—its role in fulfilling God’s command to be fruitful and multiply—to a greater extent than many Christian denominations do. Having children is one of the 613 mitzvot (commandments or rules) that Jews are to live by. Persecution of Jews, and tragically successful efforts to eradicate entire Jewish populations, has reinforced an emphasis on maintaining Jewish identity and community by having Jewish children.
Jewish authorities, therefore, frequently view assisted reproduction as a tool to help Jews fulfill God’s procreative purpose for marriage. They have few reservations about separating the reproductive process from the sexual union of married spouses (which is a primary concern underlying Roman Catholic opposition to reproductive technology).
Jewish Genetic Identity
Ashkenazi Jews are more likely than other genetic populations to pass on a number of serious, sometimes fatal, recessive genetic disorders. Tay-Sachs disease, a progressive neurological disease that usually leads to death by age four, is the most well-known of these disorders. With first-hand knowledge of how Tay-Sachs and other recessive disorders can affect families, Jews have largely embraced the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and other types of genetic screening to help eradicate such disorders.
Dor Yeshorim provides an example of Jewish willingness to embrace genetic screening to eradicate diseases disproportionately affecting Jewish populations. Dor Yeshorim is a Brooklyn-based organization that has helped lower the incidence of Tay-Sachs disease and other recessive genetic disorders (cystic fibrosis, Fanconi anemia, etc.) through a proactive screening process. Young, unmarried Jews consent to genetic testing to identify whether they carry genes for any of a list of recessive disorders. If a couple determines that their relationship might lead to marriage, they can call a special phone number, type in a PIN, and find out if both the man and the woman carry any recessive genes in common. If they do—meaning their children would have a 25 percent chance of inheriting the disorder in question—it is recommended that the couple end their relationship. Many couples do just that.
Jews largely embrace genetic screening despite their history of being targeted by eugenic policies. Eugenics refers to the practice of selective breeding. In positive eugenics, people with desired traits are encouraged to procreate (e.g., the Lebensborn program in Nazi Germany, which provided medical care and housing to Aryan women, including unmarried women, to encourage them to have babies). In negative eugenics, people with traits perceived as undesirable (whether or not those traits have an actual genetic basis) are discouraged or prevented from procreating or contributing their genes to a population (e.g., forced sterilization of people with mental disabilities, immigration policies barring people of particular ethnic backgrounds that are perceived as undesirable). In Nazi Germany, of course, eugenic policies went even further, with state-sponsored murder of people with traits perceived as undesirable—Judaism, homosexuality, mental illness, or Roma (“gypsy”) background.
So while Jews have been the target of eugenics policies, most notably but not exclusively in Nazi-occupied Europe, they have also embraced reproductive genetic screening, which critics sometimes refer to as a “new” or “voluntary” eugenics.
Jewish scholars and writers seem to understand that there is an important difference between individual parents using genetic screening to have babies who will live past their fourth birthdays, and a cultural movement to use genetic screening to rid society of “undesirables.” Of course, one of the trickiest things about reproductive ethics is that reproductive decisions are both highly personal, and have significant public and cultural consequences. It’s not always possible to predict when thousands of private reproductive decisions will ultimately lead to significant cultural changes, when thousands of individual decisions to have healthy children might lead to overwhelming societal pressure to bear only certain kinds of children.
The Jewish embracing of genetic screening, combined with their history of persecution under eugenic policies, can perhaps provide an example of how to draw lines between acceptable and unacceptable uses of genetic technologies. Our culture needs to be willing to say, for example, that using PGD to ensure that a child doesn’t suffer and die is acceptable, but using PGD to ensure that parents get a child of the desired gender or with a gene associated with sports success is not.
One Jewish Scholar’s Take on Reproductive Technology
Rabbi Michael Broyde, a law professor at Emory and member of the largest Jewish law court in the nation, has written on a Jewish law perspective on reproductive technology. In this brief Huffington Post article, Broyde explains how using technology to help people have healthy babies is in line with God’s desires for the world.
I encourage you to read the article in full, but here are a few highlights of Broyde’s perspective.
- Broyde rejects the idea (which is a central tenet of Catholic views of reproductive technology) that use of artificial insemination (and presumably other gamete-donation procedures) is somehow akin to adultery, because it often involves a third party in reproduction and separates the sex act from conception. Broyde insists that, absent sexual misconduct, artificial insemination is simply not a moral or religious wrong.
- Broyde argues that finding new ways to eradicate old diseases and disabling conditions, including use of genetic screening, is part of God’s call on his people to “fix the world.”
- Broyde notes that use of reproductive technologies usually stems from significant suffering: “Artificial insemination, surrogate motherhood, this is something desperate people do to have children that they love.”
Broyde’s approach is full of common sense, and also echoes the actual experiences of people who use reproductive technologies, who cite the alleviation of suffering (their own and their children’s) as a primary goal, and who scratch their heads at some Christian theologians’ insistence that using third-party reproduction techniques violates their marriages.
But Broyde recognizes that reproductive technology can be abused. He argues that we need to ask whether an assisted reproduction technique violates the sanctity of human life, and whether its use is in the resulting child’s best interest.
I’d love to sit down with Broyde to ask more about how we answer those questions. That last question, in particular, is harder to answer than it appears. Many people would likely argue that it is in the child’s best interest to use PGD to ensure that a child does not inherit a non-fatal disorder like mine, which causes pain, disability, and sometimes social exclusion. But what of those people with disorders who would say that their life is richer because of the suffering they have endured and the accommodations they and others have made that allow them to live a full and rewarding life? What of the argument that, if our culture welcomed people with disabilities as equals and made accommodations just part of the norm, much of the suffering associated with disability would cease to exist? What do we say to parents who argue that ensuring that their child will inherit genes for traits associated with greater success and earning power (e.g., greater height in boys and men) is in their child’s best interest? What do we say to people with identified conditions, such as the person with autism quoted in my post earlier this week, who see parental attempts to cure or fix such conditions as, essentially, rejections of who they are, as attempts on their very life?
I find Jewish approaches to reproductive technology refreshingly straightforward and responsive to the lived experience of people who use that technology. Nevertheless, increasingly sophisticated and available reproductive technology means that even straightforward, responsive answers sometimes fall short. The complex questions raised by developing technology require responses that go far beyond the simple calculus that says that technology is good if it relieves children’s suffering.