At what point in conception does “personhood” begin? Is it ethical for parents to conceive “savior siblings?” Should aborted fetuses be used for stem cell research? Can a business be legally forced to do things that are counter to the religious beliefs of the owners? What are the ethical implications of medical discoveries that allow parents to choose the gender, eye color, height or intelligence of future babies?
The scientific and ethical aspects of these and other trending questions were explored by Rabbi Levi Langer, an expert on Jewish medical ethics and the rosh kollel and dean of Torah studies at the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, on Sept. 18 at the organization’s Women’s Health Expo.
Langer’s talk, “Designer Babies, Genetic Engineering and Halacha,” was one of several presentations. The others included “DNA — Genetic Cancer Risk Assessment and Screening” by Dr. Chaya Mindel Massart and “The Mitzvah of Eating Chocolate, a Torah Perspective on Health” by Rabbi Avroham Rodkin.
In addition to the main speakers, the Expo offered two sets of breakout sessions presented by Jewish women professionals: two medical doctors, a naturopathic counselor, a clinical social worker and a massage therapist. The Expo, which included breakfast and lunch, a raffle and vendors’ tables, was held at the Squirrel Hill Center for Rehabilitation and Healing on Wightman Street.
Langer spoke about the latest advances in genetic engineering, the big question — when does life begin? — and the different views of Christianity and Judaism on the subject, and the ethical implications of new technologies. He also analyzed the recent Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case.
One of Langer’s topics focused on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). He first referenced the medical situations which might call for PGD, such as to head off a medical disorder in vitro or to select a gender. He then reviewed the halachic opinions relevant to the different situations.
He posited a theoretical question at another point in his talk, supposing that a child is born with a serious medical condition that could be resolved by having a genetic match to replace a liver or a kidney. Is it ethical for the parents to conceive other children specifically to be used as donors for the sick child, the so-called “savior siblings?”
Massart, an associate professor of family medicine at UPMC Matilda Theisis Health Center, presented a guide to laymen on the Ashkenazi Jewish genetic mutations known as BRCA. Her step-by-step presentation went from explaining what those mutations are, how prevalent they are in the Jewish community (one in 40 is a carrier) compared to the community at large (one in 500), how and what cancers they relate to, how to detect them, and what to do about the results of genetic testing. She pointed out that men as well as women can be carriers or can be affected by the mutation. She talked about the different testing methods that are available today for genetic cancer risk assessment and screening, and emphasized that just being an Ashkenazi Jew presents a higher risk.
Rodkin, education director at the Kollel JLC, gave a light-hearted and humorous talk. His message was that there is a positive commandment to purchase and enjoy the things that bring you pleasure when you use that joy to thank God and appreciate God’s world. If eating chocolate brings you joy, and helps you feel thankful, it’s a mitzvah. He noted that according to the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Hillel, the mitzvah of doing kindness includes kindness you do to your own soul in your body.
Naama Lazar, one of the attendees, was enthusiastic about the breakout session she attended on women and body image. Lazar explained how the presenter, Heidi Leibovich, LCSW, explored the messages women and girls get from society and how those messages affect their self-esteem. For Lazar, the high points of the Expo were being with other like-minded women, learning from other people’s knowledge and experiences and having the opportunity to ask questions. She would “absolutely” recommend it to other women and plans to attend if the Kollel JLC has another Expo next year.
According to Stacie Stufflebeam, Kollel JLC’s director of development, the goals of the Expo were to broaden women’s programming offerings and to meld the spiritual and the physical. She said the plan was a success, based on the feedback she has gotten from attendees.
The Kollel Jewish Learning Center is already planning the next Women’s Health Expo, set for fall 2017.
Simone Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.