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Altering Genes

May 9, 2009 | by Daniel Eisenberg, M.D.

Would it be good if we could genetically alter human characteristics like IQ and height?

Question: If we had the capability to genetically alter human characteristics like IQ, height, or strength, should society regard this ability as a boon or as a potential danger? L.L.

Answer: Technology is ethically neutral. It is the application of technology that raises ethical questions. When discussing medical advances, our job is to decide when it is proper to use new procedures and when restraint should be applied. Man was given the world with a mandate to rule over it, subdue it, and improve it. We take this mandate very seriously. However, we must use technology for noble purposes and anticipate the potential harmful effects technological advance may have on our fellow man (See: Judaism and Modern Technology).

Intrinsically, there is nothing immoral about using technology, including genetic manipulation of somatic cells, to treat disease. It is a mistaken form of religiosity to believe that man should not try to improve his lot. Judaism certainly accepts surgery as an acceptable avenue for the treatment of deformities. Similarly, Jewish law has no objection to altering the genetic code of a fetus carrying genes for a fatal or debilitating illness to avoid the otherwise inevitable consequences of the "faulty" genes.

There are caveats to the positive attitude of Judaism towards genetic manipulation like any other medical procedure. With the ability to manipulate comes responsibility. Any procedure for modification of the genetic code must be proven to be safe. One may not risk causing undue harm to an unborn child (or to an adult) unless the alternative is death or serious deformity. The same halachic parameters that apply to risky procedures for adults would probably apply to risky procedures for fetuses (See: Dangerous Surgery to Save a Life) .(1)

There is a fundamental difference between treating disease and "improving" the species.

Secondly, there is a fundamental difference between treating disease and "improving" the species. The Torah encourages us to treat disease and spare patients from pain and suffering. Genetic manipulation is potentially a great boon when it eliminates disease. But there are grave dangers to society if we begin choosing non-medical characteristics that are desirable and manipulating the human genome to create "better" humans. Who will choose which traits are desirable? Will people with "undesirable" traits become second-class citizens? There are a myriad of dangers ahead if we attempt to exceed our mandate to heal and enter into the realm of eugenics.

For instance, in some cases, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis with implantation of healthy embryos may be the only acceptable way according to Jewish law for a married couple who both are carriers of a serious recessive trait (such a Tay Sachs or cystic fibrosis) to have children born without a serious or fatal disease. But what of using the same technology to choose the sex of our children? Shall we implant only boys? Only girls? Shall we examine every embryo for a myriad of genetic flaws, including low intelligence (or average intelligence), poor eyesight, bowed knees, or brown eyes? Shall we design our children according to our own specifications?

The Jewish view of technology is no different than its view of any other aspect of life. While we can perform amazing technological feats, we look to the Torah for answers to when we should perform these acts. We must decide how to ethically channel our discoveries, when to perform our medical miracles, and when to restrain ourselves from applying the awesome power in our hands because it is simply not the right thing to do.


1) Eisenberg, Daniel. "A Traditional Jewish Approach to Risky Medical Treatment" Cancer Investigation 25.3 (2007). 06 Aug. 2007


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