While Jewish leaders joined in hailing this week’s announcement that the human genetic code had been deciphered, their enthusiasm was tempered by their knowledge of how the Nazis tried to use eugenics to create a master race.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, said this breakthrough becomes “Jewishly and morally problematic” if genetic manipulation were used to create a very tall child “just because his parents wanted a basketball player? Or if they would change a homosexual if it were proven that it is genetically rooted?
“That puts you smack in the middle of eugenics,” Rabbi Dorff said, “and we Jews know the dangers of that [because] that is what the Nazis tried to do.”
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, after reading that within 10 years many fatal diseases will be cured, exclaimed: “My God, how can we not celebrate?” But, he continued, “I would hope that morality would prevail and convince scientists not to go too far. I believe we should impose compulsive ethical groups in every hospital. Ethics must be a part of scientific research; the dominating factor should be ethics.”
Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, a senior fellow at the Bioethics Center at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that this is also a concern for scientists working on the project. He said the Bioethics Center was hired by Celera Genomics to “deal with the ethical implications of the project.”
Celera, a private company, is one of two rival groups of scientists working on the genetic mapping project. The other is the National Human Genome Research Institute, a consortium of academic centers supported largely by the National Institutes of Health and the Wellcome Trust, a London philanthropy.
The two jointly announced the virtual completion of their efforts to map a rough draft of the 3 billion chemical units that comprise the blueprint for human life during a White House ceremony Monday at which President Bill Clinton declared: “Today we are learning the language in which God created life.”
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, chairman of the bioethics commission of the Rabbinical Council of America and a professor of medical ethics at Yeshiva University, said he feared the mapping of the genome “could lead to increased racism” if scientists can say that “Jews or blacks or Chinese have more bad genes.”
Still, Rabbi Tendler said he was thankful that God has “allowed us to peel off another veil from human nature.” Now that the genome is spelled out, he said, scientists will next seek to determine what each gene is supposed to do and then develop the protein or enzyme that diseased genes are unable to produce.
Rabbi Wolpe, who is also director of the Finkelstein Institute, an interfaith forum for the exploration of bioethical issues, said the research being conducted “would fit entirely into the Jewish understanding of medical investigation.”
“It fits into the Jewish principle of tikkun olam — that human beings are mandated to help repair the world. God gave us the intelligence to do that which has to be done, and anything that eases suffering, eliminates diseases and helps the human experience is encouraged by Judaism on all levels.”
Although scientists say they are still years away from beginning to apply their knowledge to eradicate diseases, Hadassah, the nation’s largest women’s organization, has been actively working on Capitol Hill to help insure that what has been learned to date is not misused.
“We are trying to get bills passed in Congress that would guarantee the privacy of genetic information so that an employer or insurer could not use the test results to deny you employment or medical insurance,” said Judy Palkovitz, Hadassah’s chairman of government relations. “We have to make sure that public policy keeps pace with science. We believe the chances of passage have been greatly enhanced as a result of this week’s developments.”
Rep. Mike Forbes (D-L.I.), who has signed on as a cosponsor of a privacy bill introduced by Louise Slaughter (D-Buffalo), said the chances of getting the measure enacted this year are “very good.”
“There is still time to get it done,” Forbes said. “If not this year, next year.”
He said people are “very, very concerned” about this medical accomplishment.
“The mapping of genes is a tremendously wonderful breakthrough, but [since] it allows you to predict at birth who is destined to have cancer or have an alcohol problem, it can wreak havoc in society at large,” Forbes said. “So we do need privacy, and there is good bipartisan feeling on this.
He said the only reason the bill might not be passed this year is because of the “weightiness of the issue,” explaining the need for extra care in writing the bill.
But Rabbi Tendler scoffed at the usefulness of legislation to prevent the use of genetic tests by employers.
“An employer could say, ‘I’m not discriminating against you, but if you want this job, you have to take this test,’ ” he said.
Rabbi Barry Freundel, a member of the theological commission of the Human Genome Project, also found the work of the scientists to be in “keeping with God’s direction to go and use the resources of the world in a positive way.”
“This is not different from other information we have discovered,” he said. “After the discovery of the airplane there were some people who argued that if man was meant to fly, God would have given us wings. But that could be said about every technological advance.”
The rabbis have debated this issue for centuries, said Rabbi Avram Reisner, an adjunct professor at Baltimore Hebrew University. He said those who “believe that creation was intentionally left unfinished and that it was our job to master it” won the debate.
Rabbi Reisner pointed out the “tremendous Jewish tradition of active medicine.”
“I feel the issue of genetic research and modification when we come to it … will be embraced by Judaism openly and easily,” he said.
Palkovitz said that in the last few years Americans have gone to hospitals in Israel, including Hadassah Hospital, to seek genetic testing.
“They are paying cash for the tests that cost only a couple of hundred dollars, so that they have no paper trail,” she said, adding that two years ago an Israeli newspaper called this phenomenon “a new kind of tourism.”
Such tests would be helpful, said Palkovitz, in the case of a woman whose family has a history of breast cancer and who wants to know if she has the genetic marker that indicates an increased chance of contracting the disease. She said women with the marker might wish to consider various options, including a double mastectomy, in an attempt to head off the development of the cancer.
Palkovitz said Hadassah has been working the past three years with Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, on “trying to mitigate the stigmatization of the Jewish community” because of recent discoveries that Jewish women of Ashkenazic descent are more prone to have genetic defects for breast cancer.
Rabbi Wolpe stressed that “the mere fact that we have defined the gene does not take away that God created it.
“Creation becomes that much more beautiful and complex and you can really appreciate what God has done. The more I learn, the more devout I become. I stand in awe of the complexity of the whole genome structure.”