Editorial: Pro-life Judaism

Out of a pragmatic reverence for both life and healing, Judaism allows stem cell research as well as IVF.

311_IVF doctor (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_IVF doctor
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Robert Edwards of Britain won the 2010 Nobel Prize in medicine this month for the development of in-vitro fertilization (IVF).
Edward’s breakthrough technique, in which egg cells are fertilized outside the body and implanted in the womb, was developed together with Patrick Steptoe, who died in 1988. Since Louise Brown, the first baby conceived through IVF, was born in 1978, some four million children have been conceived using this technique.
Today between 1 percent and 2% of all babies born in the US and other developed countries each year are conceived through IVF.
In Israel the numbers are even higher: about 4% of approximately 160,000 babies born annually here – both Jewish and Arab – are a product of IVFs, according to Judy Siegel-Itzkovich, The Jerusalem Post’s health and science reporter.
Generous state funding of fertility treatments partially explains the high percentage of local IVF births. But this public health policy is itself a part of a deep Jewish dedication to childbearing. Call it a Zionist answer to the Holocaust or perhaps the Jewish commitment to continuity and family life.
Whatever the reason, Jews, at least those living in Israel, will go to great lengths to have children, including via IVF.
YET THE Nobel Prize Committee’s celebration of all this life was not shared by all. Monsignor Carrasco, the Vatican’s spokesman on bio-ethics, said the Nobel Prize Committee’s choice was “completely out of order.” Because IVF disconnects the sexual act from the procreation, the parents’ feelings of responsibility for child’s upbringing could be dampened, resulting in the breakdown of the family institution, Church doctrine claims.
This makes no sense. Why should a couple that finally succeeds in having a child through IVF, after failing for years to bear children naturally and after going through the hell of fertility treatments, feel less attached to its offspring? The Vatican does not say.
Another problem the Church has with IVFs is the creation of zygotes or fertilized eggs which never are allowed to develop.
“Without [Edwards’ and Steptoe’s] treatment, there would be no market for human eggs,” Carrasco told Italy’s Ansa news agency. “And there would not be a large number of freezers filled with embryos in the world.”
That might be true, but there would also be four million fewer people and their offspring in the world. Without these two men’s technological advance, scientists would not be able to conduct stem cell research on the frozen pre-embryos left over by couples who used IVF to have babies. We would have to look elsewhere to find cures for some of our worst diseases – from cancer, heart attacks, strokes and Parkinson’s, to spinal cord injuries.
JUDAISM, IN contrast, has a radically different outlook. The egg and sperm providers are considered the full-fledged mother and father of an IVF-generated offspring, according to most rabbis. In fact, the two are fulfilling the commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Also, if undertaken for the sake of procreation by an otherwise infertile couple, the IVF procedure does not violate the prohibition against destroying sperm.
Regarding the use of pre-embryos for stem cell research, Judaism is open to the idea. However, unlike Confucian China, for instance, where stem cell research is rampantly unregulated, Judaism strikes a balance between respecting the life potential of a fertilized egg and its healing potential.
Judaism prohibits abortion unless the fetus poses a threat to the mother’s life. The Talmud, however, maintains that during the first 40 days of gestation, the embryo is “merely water,” though its potential for life is respected. An egg fertilized outside a woman’s body, which will never develop on its own into a living thing, has even a lower status.
Out of a pragmatic reverence for both life and healing, Judaism allows stem cell research as well as IVFs. Perhaps Catholicism should reconsider its position in light of Judaism’s teachings.