By: Eli Neiman
It is often fun reading scientific fiction novels. We then return to reality and marvel at our technology but figure the science fiction can’t be real. However, some science fiction is becoming real as our biological technology is improving. Specifically, I’m referring to what’s known as designer babies. It’s important for us though to know what Gd thinks of it.
Designer babies are a newly emerging phenomenon. It is the technology that one could choose the DNA of a baby. It is still in its early stages, but the technology can advance to include genetic splicing from animals as well as changing the DNA pattern of living beings to eradicate diseases. In its current stage, designer babies include gene therapy and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis known as PGD. Gene therapy is the altering of genes while PGD is choosing which is the best sperm and ovum (egg) and using them. The process will usually take place out of utero. This is known as In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). Gene therapy usually utilizes Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. This is known as CRISPR.
But what does the Torah have to say about it? One major issue is that of IVF as this involves male masturbation. The Sefer Nishmas Avraham (Vol. 3, Siman 1, page 13) talks about it. He quotes some like the Tzitz Eliezer ( Chelek 9, Siman 51, Shaar 4, chapter 6) and Mishpati Uziel who don’t approve of this. However, some like the Maharasham ( Chelek 3 Siman 268), the Hahar tzvi, R’ Shlomo Zalman Aurbach (Kerach 1, 618, page 157) Sereidai Aish, and Yabia Omer (R’ Ovadia Yosef) all say it’s permissible. Basically by saying this isn’t wasting seed because it’s going to go somewhere in the correct fashion. I read online a couple of other poskim allow it as well. They are mostly talking about couples who can’t conceive children. However, there is no mention of designer babies because the technology was not around yet.
In my humble opinion, one who does IVF with the technology of designing babies for trivial things like hair or eye color might be violating various prohibitions like male masturbation and not populating the world (Pru Urivu). I read online that someone had a discussion with Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler who said that one should not engage in designing babies for the sake of trivial things. The responsa of IVF seemed to have only been for couples who can’t conceive, but to do it for no reason might be problematic. However, there may be some cases where it could be permissible. If the couple ALREADY has fertility issues, there will be less of a problem. After all, no seed is being wasted as described by the poskim above. PGD doesn’t seem to be much of a problem since there seems to be a significant amount of genetic material taken out of the couple. The couple could then choose what they want. However, an additional batch of seed would be forbidden if there is no risk of infertility since that would certainly be unnecessary male masturbation.
Gene therapy is a little trickier as doctors are actively altering genetic material. May Jews actively change genes? For example, if the baby will probably have brown hair and brown eyes, can one genetically alter it, so the baby has blonde hair and blue eyes? I think the analogy of cosmetic surgery is appropriate here. The Chabad website quotes Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Jacob Breisch who say cosmetic surgery is permissible even though there is pain involved. I have heard other poskim allow it as well. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg disagrees though and says it’s forbidden. However, by genetic therapy, there is no pain in the genetic therapy. If by cosmetic surgery, there is pain and it’s allowed (according to many poskim), then it stands to reason by genetic therapy where there is no pain, it should certainly be allowed. However, in my opinion, this should only be permissible where IVF is necessary.
There are two possible scenarios where couples would possibly be allowed and even encouraged to engage in designing babies. One scenario would be eliminating diseases. As Jews, we have every obligation to rid the world of diseases. Therefore, if a couple wanted to do IVF and design babies to eliminate all diseases, it should be allowed and possibly encouraged. In the discussion I mentioned above about R’ Tendler, he was quoted as saying we have an obligation to do so. The question comes up though that once someone is eliminating diseases, may they change things like eye color as well? I think it would be permissible as no Halacha seems to be violated.
Another scenario where couples would possibly be allowed and even encouraged in designing babies would be to choose the sex of the baby. The reason is that couples have the mitzvah of fulfilling the mitzvah of pru Urvu. Halachically, the mitzvah is fulfilled when one has a boy and a girl (Yevamos 61 Shulchan Aruch, E”H 1). So, if a couple had a boy, perhaps they may have a mitzvah to design a girl. In my humble opinion, while there is a mitzvah to have a boy and a girl, one is not required to go to such lengths to do so, especially given not all poskim would agree to this. If the couple chooses to though, I think Gd will reward them for their efforts.
It should be noted that all of the above is academic, as there is no Federal law allowing designer babies. Whether it should be permissible in US and state laws is being debated. It stands to reason then that no Jew would be allowed to perform this act in America as Dina DMalchusa Dina (the law of the land is the law) applies here.
Design babies are just the beginning. There are many offshoot branches of design babies I have not even discussed, such as genetic splicing. We need to be careful we don’t have science advancing past ethics. Religious Jews need to know what Gd thinks as well. May we merit always to use our science responsibly.
We have discussed whether IVF is permissible and showed different opinions. For those that say it’s permissible, we discussed whether designer babies are permissible. There will be less of a problem if IVF is already necessary for infertility. If it’s being done, PGD doesn’t seem to be a problem. Gene therapy is a bit trickier, but probably still allowed. To eliminate diseases, all couples would be allowed and encouraged to do so. Once they are doing so though, they may have the option to change other things. Changing the sex of the baby may be allowed as well. R’ Tendler was quoted as saying it’s encouraged for diseases, but not trivial things. However, I think once disease is being eliminated; other trivial genes may be altered as well. Also, almost everything is completely forbidden now as US law has not issued permissibility on it anyway.
Nothing in this article should be taken authoritatively. For any practical questions, consult your physician and rabbi.
-Eli Neiman is a guest blogger for this website. If you would like to be a guest blogger, please submit your blog to this website by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.