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Stunning new fertility treatments are being developed. Would rabbis approve?

In-vitro gametogenesis turns skin cells into eggs. The Jewish take on reproductive tech can be surprisingly complicated

Researchers around the world are working on new reproductive technologies that are straight out of science fiction. But a leading bioethicist believes the question of whether Jews should make use of them is complicated. 

A recent New Yorker article explored shocking developments being made in fertility science, including successful experiments in mice in which researchers converted skin cells into stem cells. The stem cells were, in turn, turned into eggs that could be fertilized.

The process, known as in-vitro gametogenesis, could revolutionize human fertility. The number and quality of eggs inside a woman’s ovaries decline as she ages, but these treatments could hypothetically expand the age limits of healthy fertility well beyond what is currently possible. Since the eggs are being created from skin cells, it could also lead to a future where two men share biological paternity of a single child. In the most extreme example, there is a possible future where children will have only a single biological parent.

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Jewish ethical thought on fertility goes all the way back to the Torah. In a 2013 paper published in the journal Gynecological Endocrinology, Israeli doctor Joseph Schenker gave an overview of Jewish thought on issues such as when life begins, in-vitro fertilization, artificial insemination and surrogate pregnancies. He noted that while the Torah rarely tackles issues of fertility and reproduction head on, particularly when it comes to issues raised by modern science, answers can still be found by close readings of the text and through tracts such as the Mishnah, Talmud and guidance issued by rabbis philosophizing across the centuries. 

Ira Bedzow, a doctor and rabbi who teaches bioethics at the Emory University School of Law, said his first response upon reading the New Yorker article was, “It’s amazing what human creativity and ingenuity to accomplish.”

Just because we can do it, should we?

However, his second response was a thought expressed in Jurassic Park: Scientists can sometimes get so preoccupied with whether they can do something that they don’t stop to consider whether they should. To Bedzow, one of the first things to consider when it comes to in-vitro gametogenesis is whether it best suits the purpose for what it is trying to accomplish or is the best use of resources. As The New Yorker article points out, few advances have been made in researching the cause of female infertility; in fact, many conditions that predominantly affect women have historically been underfunded. 

“We’re going to spend all this time, energy and resources on gametogenesis, but should we be spending that time, energy and resources on looking at female infertility?” said Bedzow.

Jewish considerations

But should these techniques, which are likely years, if not decades away from being widely available, become reality, Jewish thought on whether they’d be appropriate to pursue is nuanced. Bedzow notes to begin with, having children is “inherently seen as a good thing,” but the ethics of how conception may be achieved is multi-faceted. For instance, Jewish thought on artificial insemination is that it’s permissible, with caveats: If it’s necessary to use donated sperm, then it’s preferred to use a non-Jewish donor to avoid any possibility of incest, for instance. 

So when it comes to in-vitro gametogenesis, all sorts of considerations could come into play. “What are the risks or harm to you?” Bedzow said.  “What’s the benefit to you? Have you ever tried to undergo this procedure successfuly or not before? Do you already have children or not? Stuff like that.”

In-vitro gametogenesis, like in-vitro fertilization before it, is a tool that could be a “very good thing for people who suffer from infertility,” Bedzow said, and that includes for families that many Orthodox rabbis might not consider halachically correct, such as a gay couple or a single parent. Since in-vitro gametogenesis takes the act of sex out of the procreation equation, you are left with a loving couple (or individual) where the consideration becomes: “Does a man have an obligation to procreate outside of marriage or not? Or is marriage just one means to fulfill the mitzvah?”

‘Yuck factor’ may subside over time

And if the thought of a person, in essence, mating with themselves, makes you queasy, Bedzow points out that many widely accepted technologies, including IVF, originally seemed controversial and came with “a yuck factor” that faded with time. 

“What we really need to do is not think about it like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s like sci-fi, I can never imagine it,’ but break it down to ‘OK, there’s a value appropriation which is procreation for the sake of creating a family or just a human.’ What would that mean in terms of, would this child grow up with loving support?”

Bedzow stressed that there can often be multiple strains of thought or positions on a single issue, including fertility, within Jewish teachings.

“There are some Jewish groups where it is not seen as proper for a single woman who wants to have a child but who can’t find a husband to undergo IVF,” he said. “There are other communities which would say to that, ‘No, that doesn’t seem right to us. There are normal, single parent families such that this woman’s desire to have a child still speaks from Jewish values, and it would be permissible for her to go through IVF.’”

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