Jewish Bioethics 101

What is Jewish bioethics? There is no simple answer to this question. The relationship between Jewish law (halakha), Jewish ethics, and the ethical principles of general society are navigated differently by different Jewish authorities. However, there is one principle that can be singled out for its prominence in Jewish bioethical discourse: the sanctity of human life and the duty to save and preserve it wherever possible.


Judaism does not categorically approve or disapprove of abortion. Jewish law does not consider a fetus to be a human being; thus it actually requires abortions when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger. Jewish authorities disagree on whether to extend the permissibility of abortion to situations where the pregnancy or birth is psychologically but not physically dangerous. Those who allow for abortion in suchcases disagree on how far to extend this permissibility. Most of these authorities allow abortion in cases of incest or rape and cases where the fetus is affected with a terminal genetic disease such as Tay-Sachs. Other authorities extend permissibility further and may include cases where the fetus has a non-terminal genetic defect or even situations where the mere fact of pregnancy and anticipated childbirth is a threat to the mother’s mental health.

Organ Donation

A slew of ethical and halakhic questions arose when organ transplants first became viable. Ultimately, however, most of these problems were neutralized by a single legal and ethical concept–pikuach nefesh, the Jewish obligation to save lives. Except in those cases where one of two parallel organs, e.g. kidneys, can be donated by a living individual, it is imperative that an organ donor be halakhically dead before her vital organs are removed; thus, defining the moment of death is essential. Today, most rabbinic authorities accept brain stem death–as opposed to cessation of heartbeat–as halakhic death, thus allowing organ transplantation under Jewish law.

Genetic Issues

jewish bioethicsJewish authorities encourage genetic testing so that individuals can determine whether they carry genes for any characteristically Jewish genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs. Some rabbinic authorities endorse testing on fetuses as well and allow abortions for fetuses that test positive for terminal diseases. Genetic engineering–including cloning–for therapeutic purposes is endorsed by most Jewish authorities. However, many object to the potential use of cloning for reproductive purposes.


According to the Talmud, a goses, a dying person, is considered no different than any other human being. Not only does the Talmud consider one who kills a goses to be a murderer, it prohibits any actions that may speed up her death. Thus, traditionally, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are prohibited by Jewish law. Nevertheless, most Jewish authorities object to any actions that impede the death of a sufferer. Additionally, modern authorities like Reform rabbi Peter Knobel support the termination of life in situations of extreme suffering, when a person’s tzelem elohim, or divine image, is compromised. Conservative rabbi Elliot Dorff has also questioned the relevance of the goses category, and in doing so comes to more liberal conclusions about end-of-life issues.

Fertility Technologies

A host of options now exist for couples and individuals who have difficulty conceiving through conventional means. “Artificial” insemination, in vitro fertilization (IVF), and surrogate motherhood all raise ethical and legal questions. Could insemination with donor sperm be considered adultery? Is the child born from such procedures illegitimate? What is the status of unused embryos after IVF is completed? Who is the mother–and what is the Jewish status–of a child born to a surrogate mother? There are few unanimous answers to such questions. However, procreation is a mitzvah, a fundamental Jewish obligation, and so these procedures are often permitted, particularly when the egg and sperm are those of husband and wife.

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