Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the Office of the Chief Rabbi

  1.  The Office of the Chief Rabbi welcomes the opportunity to submit comments to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law.

  2.  The Office of the Chief Rabbi is the religious authority of the United Synagogue, and various other communities a round the country. In total, it is responsible for over 140 synagogue communities in the UK. The United Synagogue alone is the largest synagogual membership body in the UK, comprising over 30,000 households. The Chief Rabbi also heads a Court ("Beth Din"), which makes rulings and decisions on Jewish legal matters, and provides guidance on moral issues within the framework of Jewish law.

  3.  There are four separate questions raised in the Press Notice. In the Committee's consideration of all these questions, we hope that they will continue to be mindful of the need to respect Judaic traditions, and to make provision wherever necessary and appropriate for Jews to fulfil their religious obligations.

  4.  It is worthwhile reiterating some of the general comments that have been made in previous submissions to Parliament. Judaism affirms that human life is sacred, and must be protected and respected; that human life is a gift of God —we do not own it, rather we are its trustees; and that, as part of the covenant between God and humanity, we are responsible for the legacy we leave to future generations. We believe, too, that we are God's partners in the work of creation, both as innovators and as protectors, and that this partnership obliges us to be guided by ethical principles.

  5.  Against this background our general views on issues such as the balance between legislation and regulation, about the role of Parliament, about the role of the European Union, and about the relationship between the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990) and other areas of medical practice, are unchanged. Our impression is that the current regulatory framework has been successful overall, but that it should continue to leave space for conscientious objection on the part of physician or patient.

  6.  Many of the questions that are being raised in this area have increasingly become supranational issues, requiring close international co-operation. Finally, Government, in consultation with advisory experts in the medical profession, have an obligation to act with responsibility: this includes the responsibility to review recent advances in biomedical knowledge, and to adapt accordingly.

  7. It is such advances that have led your Committee to ask us to address the more specific issues that are raised in question 3, pertaining to the Jewish viewpoint on various new areas of research. Within the confines of a brief response it is difficult to give a Jewish legal ruling on each of these topics, all of which could be the subject of a treatise. The principles, however, remain clear. The embryo is not a person, but must be treated with the respect due to a form of human life. Once in vitro fertilisation has been used, then research can be carried out on any additional embryos. This research may be either into improved reproductive technology, or with the aim of curing illness. For example, it follows from this that therapeutic objectives provide a justification in Jewish law for studies on embryonic stem cells and their derivatives.

  8.  Conversely, creation of embryos purely for research objectives is unnecessary and unjustified. In our earlier submission we made clear that, while one cannot say explicitly that Jewish law forbids reproductive cloning, there are broader moral reasons why this should not be permitted. The dangers of regarding persons as means rather than ends, and of commoditisation of human life, are significant. We must have reverence in the face of what we do not understand, coupled with a sense of responsibility for future generations, and the restraint not to do everything that technology allows us to do: "ought" presupposes "can", but "can" entails neither "ought" nor "may".

  9.  Since the previous submission, the possibilities for cell nuclear transfer and therapeutic cloning have increased. As indicated in that submission with respect to embryonic stem cells, the community favours a regulatory mechanism for these activities, either the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority or some similar body. Ovarian and testicular transplantation raise complex questions about parenthood in Jewish law, and the motivation for such procedures would need to be evaluated carefully on a case-by-case basis, but there would not be a principled systemic objection. We believe that selection of genetic characteristics is already happening within in vitro fertilisation programmes, and it would make sense for this too to be within the remit of the regulatory body.

  10.  With respect to screening embryos prior to implantation, there is a distinction in kind between screening for genetic disease, including some forms of cancer, and screening for eugenic considerations, including sex selection. While we would agree with the former, we would strongly oppose the latter.

  11.  This brief summary does not, of course, do full justice to many of the issues that will be discussed by the Committee. Should you require a more detailed exposition of the Jewish law relating to any question, and in particular to any one of the specific topics raised in question 3, we hope that the Committee will be in contact with us as soon as possible so that we can prepare the necessary documentation.

November 2004

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