Advances in genetic technology have been among the most startling and controversial scientific developments in recent years. Genetic screening, genetic engineering, and cloning raise essential questions about human nature and power and are thus among the most difficult and exciting issues in bioethics.
Screening for genetic diseases can be conducted at various points of human development. Carrier screening can be done to determine whether a person has an unhealthy gene that could be passed on to a child. Pre-implantation screening can be done on a zygote that has been fertilized in vitro, which can then, in theory, be discarded if a genetic malady is discovered. Prenatal testing can detect diseases like Tay-Sachs during pregnancy, when abortion is a logistical option.
From a Jewish perspective, carrier screening is the most favorable of these options. Two people who test positively for the Tay-Sachs gene can be—some say should be—discouraged from marrying. However, it is important that the results of the screening be kept confidential to avoid genetic discrimination. Amniocentesis, in which a small amount of the fluid surrounding a fetus is extracted from a pregnant woman—as well as chorionic villi sampling (CVS), which can be done even earlier in pregnancy—can determine whether a fetus carries a genetic disease like Tay-Sachs or is affected with Down syndrome (which cannot be detected through carrier screening).
There is no consensus about whether abortion is permissible if such testing does discover an affected fetus. Those like the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who reject abortion in such cases also question the permissibility of amniocentesis. However, there are rabbis, such as Eliezer Waldenberg, who permit both amniocentesis and abortion if a terminal disease like Tay Sachs is discovered. For a non-terminal condition, the permissibility of testing and abortion are less clear. Authorities disagree on whether to extend the permissibility of abortion to situations in which a fetal genetic problem is discovered that could cause psychological danger to the mother. Pre-implantation screening, particularly when both man and woman are carriers of a genetic disease, is less objectionable than abortion according to all authorities.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.