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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.
Another 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.
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