Israeli President Shimon Peres invited Emory Law Professor Michael J. Broyde to address biotechnology and ethics at the "Facing Tomorrow" conference held in conjunction with Israel's 60th birthday in Jerusalem earlier this month. Broyde, a senior fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) at Emory, is ordained as a rabbi by Yeshiva University and is a member (dayan) of the Beth Din of America, the largest Jewish law court in America. Here Broyde shares his thoughts on bioethics.
Q: As a law professor and rabbi, what got you interested in bioethics?
A: One of the most fascinating topics to me is how legal principles address new technological changes. Some fields of law essentially don't change - they are fixed on a set of problems that are constant, and how to understand these problems hasn't changed in a thousand years.
Sometimes the reality changes so much that historical legal principles don't mean anything anymore. Dealing with an idea, such as genetic engineering, is unprecedented. You have to figure out how to take historical principles, determine if they work, and apply them to drastically different situations.
Q: Can you offer an example from today's reality?
A: A problem that has intrigued me for 20 years is the simple question of who is the mother in cases of surrogate motherhood. You take one woman's egg, fertilize it in a Petri dish with a man's sperm, and then implant it in a second woman's uterus. So we have an unprecedented question because the historical definition of motherhood was easy: The mother was the woman who did the whole thing, and we couldn't separate the egg provider from the woman carrying the child to term because the two were one. Now we've been asked a much more precise question: what is our core definition of maternity?
Q: Is there a Jewish legal tradition viewpoint on bioethics and this issue in particular?
A: The starting point with Jewish law is that the world God created is imperfect and our mission is to perfect it. Jewish law and Judaism are comfortable recognizing that part of our mission is to make the world a better place, and our job is to examine technological changes to make sure they do this. Most religious traditions are hostile to these changes because they are unnatural. Jewish tradition has comfortably examined changes in technology to determine whether they are doing good, and it doesn't pre-suppose that anything that isn't natural is inherently bad.
The Jewish tradition looks at biotech and asks how is this making the world a better place. If we look at genetically engineered corn, which is much easier than genetically engineered people, we would say it is part of the process of alleviating food shortages and could be a very good thing -- making the human condition better by increasing the amount of food and reducing starvation and hunger is a positive thing.
Q: What about chimerism (combining animal and human DNA), the topic you addressed at the "Facing Tomorrow" conference?
A: It becomes much harder because you have to always ask yourself about the rule of unintended consequences. When you start talking about genetically engineering people, human-animal chirmerisms, you have to discount every possible good by the possibility of a bad. You always have to proceed with caution, but you have to be open to the possibility that what we've got here is a spectacular world in which progress is very possible in alleviating the human condition.
Q: How are different parts of the world proceeding in this ethically challenging territory?
A: In general, it goes as follows: Europe is, at its core, hostile to technological innovation in the area of genetic engineering and they've restricted access to all sorts of positive modifications. The United States is conservative in the sense that it requires very heavy testing but ultimately is prepared to allow safe technologies in. Eastern Europe, Israel and the Asian countries (except Japan) that are high tech are a "Wild West." There's not enough governmental regulation. Everybody opens their own lab and does their own experimentation.
Q: What do you foresee in terms of the people and nations that continue to be against these advancements because they're unnatural?
A: This is a fight. There's going to be a structural realignment. Eventually advancements will spread, and some places will remain resistant in perpetuity. But we're on the forefront of a real change.
Q: Any final remarks about the tension between biotechnology and ethics?
A: There's a natural sense that everything we want to do we ought to do, which needs to be somehow tempered by the notion that maybe there are things that we can do that we shouldn't do.
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