Bioethics is the branch of ethics that arises from issues relating to life and death. The response of Jewish adherents to issues such as IVF, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research and suicide expresses the teachings of Judaism on bioethics. For adherents of Judaism, the most significant principle driving bioethical decisions is to follow the will of God. This demands a great reverence for human life. With close reference to Euthanasia and Abortion in the context of variant responses, we will be able to witness how the bioethical teachings of Judaism are expressed.
The basic guideline to follow the will of God will guide bioethical decisions made by the Jewish adherent. They will make a decision that they believe is protective of human life and maintains the covenant with God. All variants agree that life belongs to God and is a sacred gift, created in God’s image. This equal value for every individual life drives a responsibility to protect life and heal the sick. Such claims are supported theologically, in the Decalogue; the 6th commandment “thou shalt not kill” suggests the protection of human life. In every bioethical issue, Jews seek to preserve the dignity of life and maintain their covenant with God.
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However, actual Bioethical teachings may differ based on each variant’s source of ethical guidance. Varying responses stem from levels of reliance/adherence to the Torah (first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible), the Halakhah (oral law that interprets Torah and its ethical teachings) and the Rabbinic Responsa Literature (Commentary on arising cultural/ethical issues by Rabbis. Orthodox Jews view the Torah & Talmud as God’s direct revelation to Moses and strict adherence to their doctrine influences bioethical decisions. Reform Jews Consider view the Torah & Talmud as ethical guidelines but emphasize a much greater role for the conscience. Conservative Jews have modernistic and liberal beliefs like Reform, yet tend to be conservative in practice.
After viewing the ethical sources from which bioethical teachings are derived, we can analyze how these principles translate into modern life by looking at the responses to Euthanasia & Abortion.
Abortion is the deliberate termination of a foetus. The circumstance around which it is acceptable depends on the variant and revolves around the life of the unborn baby being equal to the life of the mother. While in some cases Abortion is accepted, Judaism does not condone the act, and merely acts in the best way to fulfill God’s will.
Orthodox Judaism accepts termination if the life of the mother is endangered. As the unborn baby is considered a “rodef” (pursuer of mother’s life), the life of the fetus has less value than the mother’s life until the head is delivered at birth. In cases of disability, rape or incest, Orthodox Jews seek to continue the pregnancy. Regardless of the situation, Orthodox Judaism values the life of the unborn child and wishes to preserve it.
Reform Judaism also values the life of the child but the conditions to which it can be terminated are more flexible than those of Orthodoxy. While the decision is not a light one, Reform Judaism accepts abortion in cases of severe disability, rape or incest. Rabbinic Authorities justify abortion when the mother’s physical and mental health is at risk.
Conservative Judaism has a similar stance to Reform in that it justifies abortion if pregnancy might cause the mother physical or psychological harm. Conservative Judaism does suggest that the woman should consult the biological father.
Euthanasia is the intentional ending of a person’s life. Even with developments in medicine and technology, the Jewish bioethical teaching on Euthanasia has remained constant. All variants of Judaism condemn Euthanasia because they believe only God has the right to take a life. Even in extreme desperation and suffering, Jews are instructed to preserve the dignity of life.
This pro-life stance by adherents reflects the teaching that humans are made in God’s image (Gen 1:27) and all life is equal. Rabbi Apple of the Great Synagogue in Sydney described the prolonging of life as an unnecessary impediment on the natural process of death and God’s will. Also, Halachic literature states that a Gosses does not require any means to prolong their life. The equality of life and its nature as being created in God’s likeness encourages them to take an anti-euthanasia stance.
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