Gene Therapy and Genetic Engineering in Judaism

Using genetic technology for therapeutic purposes is acceptable, but many related issues have yet to be addressed.

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Rabbi Moshe Hershler warns against blinding ourselves to the po­tential of genetic engineering and gene therapy, which is no longer a dream or a fantasy but becoming a medical and scientific reality. Hershler raises the question of the permissibility (or lack thereof) of experimenting with gene therapy to try to save the life of a child with thalassemia or Tay-Sachs disease if the unsuccessful outcome of the experimentation would be a shortening of the child’s life. Hersh­ler is of the opinion that gene therapy and genetic engineering may be prohibited because “he who changes the [Divine] arrangement of creation is lacking faith [in the Creator],” and he cites as support for his view the prohibition against mating diverse kinds of animals, sowing together diverse kinds of seeds, and wearing garments made of wool and linen (Leviticus 19:19).

This line of reasoning is rejected by Rabbis Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Yehoshua J. Neuwirth since genetic engineering is not comparable to the grafting of di­verse types of animals or seed. The main purposes of gene therapy are to cure disease, restore health, and prolong life, all goals within the physician’s Divine license to heal. Gene grafting is no different than an “organ graft.” such as a kidney or corneal transplant, which nearly all rabbis consider permissible.

Ethical and halakhic (Jewish legal) problems associated with genetic engineer­ing include speciation. Does a certain species lose its identity if other genes are introduced into it? Would the citron or etrog (Cit­rus medica Linn) used on the holiday of Sukkot for religious pur­poses lose its identity if lemon genes were introduced into it? How many transplanted lemon genes are needed to consider the etrog to be a lemon? Can the rabbinic concept of nullification (bitul) be applied to this situation?

Another example is the need for fins and scales for fish to be kosher for consumption. If genes introduced in a scaleless catfish induce scalation, does the catfish then become a kosher fish? Yet another example is the conversion by genetic engineering of annual plants into perennials. The latter are not subject to some of the laws of the Sabbatical year. Thus perennial wheat, corn or tomatoes would be permitted in Jewish law even if grown during the Sabbatical year. These problems and issues have not yet been decisively discussed and resolved by current halakhic authori­ties.

It seems clear that genetic engineering and gene therapy can and should be used to treat, cure or prevent disease. But should these techniques be allowed to alter human traits such as eye color, height, personality, intelligence and facial features? Probably not, although some rabbis including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein allow elec­tive surgery to improve one’s beauty or physical features to help in spouse selection. If tall basketball players are more successful than short ones, should we only produce tall basketball players? Obviously not. Should we create piano players with three hands? Obviously not. Should we create super microorganisms for agricul­tural purposes? Perhaps, but they may also be used for germ warfare and should, therefore, be disallowed.

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Dr. Fred Rosner

Dr. Fred Rosner is Director of the Department of Medicine of the Mount Sinai Services at the Queens Hospital Center and Professor of Medicine at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Internal Medicine and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.