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And the L-rd said…maybe?

Is medical experimentation on human embryos OK under Jewish law? It's not just a question for the scholars

A recent study has sparked a major debate within the scientific community, related to medical ethics. A Chinese group of scientists has been working on genetically modifying human embryos. Such work definitely brings back frightening memories from 70 years ago, when the Nazis were regularly doing human experimentation.

We should all remember that the results of the Nazi studies were used by the “ethical” world, on the basis of the argument that these results could save lives, and nothing could return those who had suffered and died. Many Nazi scientists fled to the allied countries after the war and continued other research, based on a similar principle that they would now be doing more good than harm. I mention all of this because the idea of unethical science did not die off in 1945. We all have to learn what really happened and what continues to happen in many parts of the world. Then, we have to make very hard decisions about the future.

There are parts of the world where questionable research is being done using human subjects. This type of research skirts the edges  of ethical practice. There is no lack of volunteers for such research (which is most often done in the developing world), because the volunteers have no other way of gaining access to any reasonable healthcare. The subjects of the research literally see this as an opportunity, even with the associated risks of any research.

I find it interesting that there has been a strong recent movement to reconsider how hard we push towards high level artificial intelligence (AI). There seems to be a widespread fear that such an AI could develop sentience and decide that humans are more trouble than they’re worth. There should be no question that those frightened of such a future have definitely been influenced by many books and movies that describe the imagined effect of creating such an AI. I would argue that the same scientists should be far more worried about the ethics  of all science being practiced today in every part of the world, rather than worry about an intelligent computer that could legitimately challenge our morality.

Morality does shift over time. Things that we once thought to be acceptable are now considered ultimate crimes. Even today, there are far too many places in the world where girls are “married off” while they are underage. We now consider this to be the epitome of immorality. But it was not that long ago in the history of mankind,  when such practices were considered the norm. This raises the obvious question: how can we know where morality will stand in 50 years from now? Perhaps, in 50 years from now, after we are all benefiting from research on human embryos, people will have a hard time imagining that this was ever ethically questioned. Just 70 years ago, as I noted above, we [perhaps reluctantly] made use of the results from illicit science. Perhaps in 70 years from now, science will consider almost any type of experimentation to be legitimate. No one knows.

When people find themselves morally challenged, they often try turning back to their fundamental sources of knowledge and ethics. In the Jewish world, it’s still common practice to refer back to the Bible and the Talmud, when discussing the ethics of any practice. Especially for those who believe in the divine origin of biblical law, it’s pretty hard to ignore the many moral laws that come with the divine stamp of G-d. It seems though, that as clear-cut as ancient moral law may be, it is still constantly being reinterpreted based on new circumstances.

It is against Jewish law to experiment on humans. But there are definitely mechanisms by which researchers can test new medications and treatments on people. If not for such options, we would not be benefiting from modern medicine. The argument of the Chinese scientists was that the embryos they were working on were not viable. If one even considers microscopic life as human, the Chinese scientists were arguing that they were working on a collection of cells that could never develop into a human being. Their argument was that the genetic potential of a group of cells is what defines its humanity.

This is actually a very good argument. Despite the initial negative feedback, this might in fact be a legitimate way in which to study human genetics. No one has a problem working on animal embryos, that do have the potential of becoming fully grown live animals. Why should a bunch of ineffective genetic material still be considered human just because of its origin? If this genetic material has no potential for forming a living being, then it really is just a bunch of chemicals.

What does Jewish law say about this? I think the only person who could answer this would be someone who is expert in cellular biology, human genetics and Jewish law. There aren’t a lot of people like that around.

We have to set limits. We should not tolerate a Wild West attitude in science, even if we are talking about potentially life-saving treatments. Someone has to put their foot down and say that, for research purposes at least, certain collections of cells with a certain genetic potential, constitute human material. The same someone also has to be able to say that a variation on this human material is or is not also defined as human. I’m very happy I do not have the responsibility to make this decision. Nevertheless someone has to make that decision.

Whatever the decision is, we need to know that we are all complicit in it. An individual cannot claim ignorance when the procedure that they are undergoing was developed using human embryos that may have even been viable. This is one situation where we have a responsibility to investigate in detail the origins of our medical treatments. I am not expecting the entire world to take a course in human biochemistry. I am however expecting a great many people to seriously contemplate these issues and contribute to the discussion.

Personally, without investigating the Jewish law perspective,  I would think that human embryos without any possible genetic ability to form a human being are fair game. On the other hand, I would immediately bow my head and accept the opinion of the scientific council and/or religious body that deemed otherwise.

Despite the absolute language of the Bible, it seems that G-d allowed us a great deal of leeway. Maybe too much?

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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