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Bioethics Symposium: Cloning, Kashrut and Kilayim

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

"If you are produced from the skin of my finger, are you my child, or are you my twin?" asked Dr. Earl Wheaton, Chair of the Biomedical Ethics Committee at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, NJ. Wheaton was speaking as a panelist at the "Symposium on the Ethical Issues of Biogenetic Research" held at the Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey GBDS), Oakland, NJ.

The symposium included a panel of five experts presenting their views on the topics of "Human Cloning" and "Genetically Modified Foods" to an audience of approximately 100 seventh and eighth grade students, including students from three other Solomon Schechter schools. The 90- minute panel was followed by breakout sessions where small groups of students participated in discussions led by panelists and GBDS faculty members.

The symposium was organized by Kathy Saltz, GBDS science teacher. I was on the panel, which included Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein of Temple B'nai Israel in Fair Lawn, NJ; Rabbi Noam Marans of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood, NJ; Dr. Robert Miner, Director of the Dental Ethics Program and a Professor at Columbia University; and Valley Hospital's Wheaton.

The science of biogenetics , said Saltz to the students, "is going to have immense impact on future generations," stated Saltz, directing her comments to the students at the symposium. "I wanted to do more to help you to stop and consider and reflect on the moral and ethical considerations and ramifications of all of these new things that are happening. So that's why we decided to do this symposium. I want you guys to do the reflecting, the questioning, the discussing... When decisions are made [in the future], you are the people who will be out there doing it."

As moderator, I opened the panel discussion, declaring, "They're two very exciting areas, and they're two areas which I guarantee are going to affect you and touch your lives in many different ways. In fact, they've touched your lives already because most of us have already been consuming genetically modified foods without even knowing about it."

In presenting the issue of human cloning, Wheaton pointed out that there are risks and benefits which must be considered. He suggested possible applications of cloning, including "to produce some stem cells that might be given to people with different diseases so they could help turn around the aging and destructive processes that all of us are subject to. Nerve tissue, in particular, does not divide when it's in an adult form, so the idea is maybe we can get these [stem] cells into somebody with Parkinson's Disease, like Michael J. Fox. It might turn the disease around."

He explained that there is some concern about family relationships. "The egg can come from anybody. The genetic material can also come from anybody. It doesn't have to be a male. There's no reason for males anymore. The whole world can be taken over by females."

"In the Jewish tradition, there's nothing that Judaism does not have an opinion about," remarked Temple Israel's Marans. "We have an opinion on everything from how to tie your shoelaces in the morning, to what to do when somebody is on a ventilator and he's brain dead, and everything in between. The challenge to us in terms of cloning is that the Jewish tradition is not specific about this topic. We have to deduce it from the values that we have."

"What's the first mitzvah in the Torah?" asked Marans. "Pru urvu umilu et haaretz... be fruitful and multiply... and this is the first benefit of the human cloning issue and also the first risk of the human cloning issue."

"There are people who are not able to conceive through normal means... as a result they turn to science for help." Marans said. "What are the risks in this area? ... there's a possibility that there would be a lot of mistakes made.... What do we do with the mistakes? What if the mistakes are born? What if they have deformities? What if there are issues of abortion in this context? Are you allowed to experiment and abort as you go along, with a higher goal of reproducing - for people to have children?"

Marans also brought up the Jewish obligation to heal. "V'rappo yirappe, the rabbis understood this as the obligation to be involved in curing diseases," he said. "[Cloning] enables us to cure diseases that we couldn't in the past. ... This would enable us to create replacement parts for human beings. The benefit is obvious."

"Jewish medical ethics is one area of Jewish law where we tend to have strong interdenominationalism, where Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secular Jews, all tend to agree in general," continued Marans. "On the issue of cloning, it seems to be that one cannot prohibit that which is not explicitly prohibited by Jewish law, but one must prevent those side effects, those risks that come out of something that is technically legal from the Jewish perspective. So what we have to do is say ... 'Under what circumstances?' and how are we going to deal from a Jewish perspective with the side effects of cloning, such as 200, 300, 500, 700 botched experiments that may be human beings with problems."

The second issue to be tackled by the group was the issue of genetically modified (GM) foods. "There are some strange things going on in laboratories all over the world," I said. "People are taking genes from one organism and putting them into another. One of the first experiments of that nature involved taking a gene from a firefly... and putting that gene into a tobacco plant. This produced a plant that glows in the dark. The idea of that experiment was not to produce a cigarette that lights itself ... It was to use the firefly gene as an indicator, [to show] that the experiment worked."

Now plants are being produced which carry genes for frost-resistance, genes for pesticides (to reduce insect damage), and genes for herbicide resistance (so that weed killers used in the vicinity do not kill the crop plants). There are already many products being sold which are made from genetically modified vegetables and fruits. Since labeling of GM products is not required, we are already consuming some of these products without our knowledge.

"Where should we draw the line?" I asked the audience. "Should we be using this technique to make foods that are more nutritious?... Should we use it to make products that are easier to market, or grow better, or should we be more wary about the risks involved, some of which we still don't know about?"

Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein addressed some of these questions, using the agricultural company Monsanto's potato as an example. "Monsanto came up with a new leaf russet potato," he reported. "The issue with this potato was that it contains a natural bacterial [gene] that... [makes] a pesticide, that's used in organic farming.... The potato didn't need to have any outside pesticide, and would be a hardier potato that would grow without problems."

However, he challenged, "What happens if you want to create a potato that's a little bit bigger, and you put a pig gene in the potato? ...What if they're taking something from a nonkosher animal and putting it into a kosher fruit. Does that make the fruit nonkosher? ... Can we eat it?"

Finkelstein approached that question by citing the Arukh HaShulhan, a commentary written by Rabbi Yechiel Epstein over 100 years ago. "Rabbi ... Epstein defines eating as having not only to do with taste, but having to do with oral stimulation. It can't just be organisms that are part of the water or the air, otherwise we wouldn't be able to breathe the air or drink the water, unless it was distilled pure water.... Eating means something that you can actually chew and feel and that has a particular part in that organism. So for instance, we know that we can use a porcine, a pig valve, in a heart replacement, because that's not eating."

"Based on this and based on some other subsequent research," continued Finkelstein, "it's clear that according to kashrut, you're allowed to eat that potato, even if it had part of a pig gene in it. ... For if Jewish law allows us to eat these microscopic substances in food, then certainly on a genetic level, these [genetically modified] traits do not and should not render the food unkosher."

Another issue raised by Finkelstein was the Jewish prohibition on Kilayim - the production of mixtures of animal or plant species. He noted that in Leviticus it is written "you're not allowed to make mixtures of two types of animals, such as a mule which is a mixture of a donkey and a horse. And you're not allowed to grow or plant things together ... like a pomello. It wasn't created by God in the first six days, so we're not allowed to make those things. But what about eating them? Most of the rabbinic sources from the Middle Ages on... [state that] even if we're not allowed to do it, we're allowed to use the offspring. So for instance while I can't make a mule on my own, I'm allowed to use someone else's. While I'm not allowed to make a pomello, I'm allowed to eat the pomello, once it's in the supermarket."

"So according to rabbinic opinion, clearly this doesn't violate kilayim to use this, and we can eat that funny Monsanto potato, if we want to. The question remains, would we want to?" reflected Finkelstein. "The benefit is, this allows us to grow foods in areas that food couldn't be grown, and to feed more people, and to allow more people to live. The risk is, that we don't know what the risk is. Are we somehow creating a better beetle as we create this potato? Through evolution, we know that if we introduce something into an environment that kills beetles, eventually beetles that are resistant to this will propagate and will create a stronger beetle. What is that going to do to our ecosystem, to our environment?"

"So can we eat genetically modified foods, or GM foods? Sure we can," Finkelstein concluded. "And they can be a great boon to society, and they can be of great help for feeding people who otherwise would starve. But we need to be conscious of the ramifications of this activity."

The students had mixed reactions to the prospect of human cloning. Eighth grader Naomi, commented on what she had just learned about cloning in the symposium. "I think that it's very interesting, but it should be treated with a lot of caution, because there could be a lot of things that go wrong. If cloning becomes a common practice in the future, it should only be used to cure diseases.... I don't think that people should be cloned just for fun, or just to clone a famous person, because it's not going to be the same person."

Sam, age 13, is very much against human cloning. "Personally, I think it's unethical, because I think that it should be in God's hands. To clone other beings just for the sake of body parts, or if you can't have a child, I don't think that should be allowed. I think that technology goes a little too far there."

The youngsters also had mixed reactions to genetically modified foods. Sam, who is against cloning, accepts GM foods. "Unless there's something that's really bad about them and they could hurt you, I think they're fine," he declared. "I think that it's a really cool - an idea of bigger potatoes, bigger food to feed the hungry."

Naomi, who cautiously accepts cloning, is less positive about GM foods: "I don't think that I want to put it into my body," she said. "I'd rather eat stuff that's the way it's supposed to be. It's an interesting advance, but I don't think that it should become a common practice just because it's not natural and it could have a negative effect on the human body. Until there are studies seeing what the effects are, I don't think it should be eaten."

Shira, also in eighth grade, shed light on the world these youngsters are growing up in. "I guess we've been introduced to so many changes...Things change so fast for us." she reflected. "The idea that we can change food, it's not a novel idea. It's not like 'oh my God, we're playing God.' Of course we can. Why wouldn't we?"

© 2001 Miryam Z. Wahrman

 

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