Cats with bits of luminescent jellyfish DNA. Sheep-goat hybrids -- "geep" -- with furry legs and floppy ears. Human stem cells inserted into the brains of newborn mice. Embryonic screening that allows parents to choose to implant an embryo without the breast cancer gene. Human-human chimeras that allow gay couples to have children that belong, biologically, to both of them.
To paraphrase Dickens, these are not things that will happen in time, these are things that are happening.
Speaking from a Jewish law perspective about the ethics of reproductive technologies, Rabbi Michael Broyde, a law professor at Emory University and a member of the Beth Din of America, the largest Jewish law court in the country, is just getting warmed up in his delivery of the Decalogue Lecture for Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion Sept. 13.
He's enjoying the reaction this bioethically edgy information -- complete with slides of an adorable glowing kitten and a hybrid "geep" -- is getting from his audience.
Broyde has covered artificial insemination: "No adultery is associated with AI. The dominant Jewish law view doesn't look at misplaced paternity, absent sexual conduct, as a moral or religious wrong... It's even discussed in the Talmud."
And cloning: "When people think of cloning, they think of Star Wars, or The Boys from Brazil. They are opposed to cloning because they think it will allow creation of armies or will be used in some way that's dehumanizing. But cloning could be a form of assisted reproduction for profoundly infertile people."
Broyde moves on to reproductive xenotransplants -- the placing of a fertilized embryo of one species into the uterus of another species.
"Like human-animal chimeras, when cells of a human are mixed with cells of another mammal, basic ideas of human identity come into play," Broyde says.
"Of course, one definition of humanity is, that which comes from a human mother is human," he adds. "Yet, if you put a human fetus in a gorilla and it gives birth to a human being who, six years later, is playing chess or reading or engaging in other human activity, there's no doubt at all that Jewish thought would label that a human being even if the mother is not."
At this, I am sure I'm not the only one in the audience who is having a flashback of Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes beating his brilliant geneticist human "father" at chess.
But Broyde says these frightful, fascinating visions are no reason to halt the advance of assisted reproduction, no matter how rapidly the biotech may be slip-sliding into areas that make us uncomfortable.
The centrally important question under Jewish law would be: Have we produced another healthy or healthier child?
"People are using reproductive technologies because they have no choice," he says. "The old-fashioned way is cheap and entertaining. Artificial insemination, surrogate motherhood, this is something desperate people do to have children that they love. It's too easy to imagine worst-case scenarios and craft theoretical opposition. But processes that allow people to have children who can't are processes we should support."
So should we fast-forward to designer children that glow in the dark? There are limits, Broyde says: "You can abuse genetic engineering, or any technology and use it for entertainment. That's a violation of the sanctity of humanity."
Any genetic choices made by the parents or researchers should be governed by the "best interest of the child" standard, he adds.
But creating children who are more resistant to cancer, to AIDS, to diabetes? Or allowing couples to reproduce who otherwise would not be able to conceive or bear children?
"That is a fulfillment of our mission, our mandate, to fix the world," he says.
"We ought to not be afraid of new technologies, new ways to cure old illnesses. Jewish Thought is not a Luddite tradition, even if we sometimes dress like the Amish."
Children are a blessing, Broyde concluded, and "any processes and technologies that allow the production of children -- even with a little bit of a mouse in them -- is intrinsically good. Jewish law says Matzel tov."
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