Judaism and Genetic Testing: Averting Tragedy

Every human grouping has its own genetic disease risks, as do those with Jewish ancestry. Some genetic diseases cause death with great pain or deformity in infancy or early childhood. After having four of his children die in infancy of Tay Sachs disease, an orthodox rabbi, Josef Ekstein founded anorganization that pre-screens couples before marriage to assess whether their genetic combination could result in a child with a deadly disorder. His organization, Dor Yesharim, “Upright Generation,” uses the power of the rabbi in Rabbi Ekstein’s part of the spectrum of Jewish practice to rule that the couple is ineligible to marry. Grounds for such activism might include an interesting use of the mitzvah of periya u’r’viyah, to be fruitful and multiply. Because such a couple might not be able to produce a healthy child and thus be unnecessarily deterred from fulfilling the mitzvah of reproduction, their marriage is not considered beshert, authorized by heaven or meant to be. The mitzvah to not stand idly by when the life of another is endangered applies here as well. As Maimonides put it: [Hilhot Roze'ach, 11:4] "It is a mitzvah to remove and watch out for any obstacle that could endanger life, and to be extremely careful doing so."

Pro-active genetic testing prevents the potential for tragic suffering by child and family and obviates the need to decide whether a pregnancy will end in abortion. In other parts of the spectrum of Jewish practice a couple might still choose to marry with the knowledge that adoption would be their path to childrearing; some might risk conception with the potential for therapeutic abortion. Often Jewish campus organizations urge students to go for genetic testing so they can advise potential life partners about their status before a relationship progresses toward marriage. Through knowledge, great suffering can be averted. Jewish Family Service agencies in most major cities maintain relationships with medical centers that offer genetic testing and counseling.

Abortion. Sanction for abortion in Judaism is rare but possible under very specific circumstances, and is always considered on a case by case basis that includes the impact of the pregnancy on maternal mental and/or physical health.