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Archive for the ‘Life Sciences’ Category

Judaism and Reproductive Science: Be Fruitful and Multiply. But How?

Monday, February 17, 2020 @ 11:02 AM
posted by Roger Price

Guest Essay by Prof. William D. Petok

Assisted Reproductive Technology.
Credit: wikigramas.org

The Bible and Fertility

The Biblical imperative is clear. “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and tame it . . . .” (Gen. 1:28.) And God gives no description of how Adam and Eve are to do this. Again, after the flood, the same message comes from on high: “God then blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.’”(Gen. 9:1.) At least seven more times the commandment is given. This must be important!

Later in the text we are introduced to the problem of infertility. Sarah struggles and suggests that Abraham use the first known surrogate, Hagar, her handmaiden. After Ishmael is born Sarah conceives at the ripe age of 90. Tension between the two women increases and Hagar and Ishmael are cast out.

Infertility skips Isaac and Rebecca but plagues the next generation of the Matriarchs. “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing [children] to Jacob, Rachel came to envy her sister. She said to Jacob, “Let me have children; otherwise I am a dead woman.’” (Gen. 30:1.)

And finally, Elkahnah’s wife is stricken. Unfortunately, Elkhanah misses an opportunity to connect with his wife when he says “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8.) Then, “In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, ‘Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget Your servant, but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life.’” (1 Sam. 1:10-11.) Miraculously, as in earlier texts, she conceives, and a son is born.

Modern Fertility Strategies

Today, we are less likely to rely on divine intervention for fertility problems. Reproductive medicine has developed an array of strategies for both men and women who are unable to create children “the old-fashioned way.” The most complex of these are considered Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) and include In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) in which eggs and sperm join without other manipulation in a petri dish, Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), in which sperm is introduced to the uterus via a catheter, Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), in which a single sperm is injected into a single egg under the microscope, the use of donor sperm or eggs, and the use of a gestational carrier when a woman’s is unable to carry a pregnancy to term for medical reasons. More recently, pre-implantation genetic testing (PGT) allows the determination of genetic problems with an embryo before it is transferred to a uterus. The process involves removing several cells in order to test them. Finally, egg freezing allows a woman to freeze her eggs for later use or donation at a later time.

As an added benefit of these technologies, same sex couples who wish to have children to whom they have a genetic connection can employ one or more of the above methods and build their families.

When Judaism Meets Reproductive Science

What does Judaism, the religion that brought us “Be fruitful and multiply,” have to say about these methods which did not exist when the biblical authors created the texts above? Many religions approach the problem of infertility with some amount of overlap. Judaism says that procreation is a religious duty, that infertility is imposed by God and may be seen as a punishment for wrongdoing. In fact, all the major religions take the view that infertility is a punitive response from the deity. As with most religions, Judaism has denominations ranging from the most orthodox to the most liberal. And the range of opinions on what is acceptable is significant. Generally, the more strictly one adheres to Jewish law, the more restrictive are the options.

Judaism in its most conservative forms is fairly flexible when it comes to ART. IVF is acceptable, particularly when the sperm and egg come from the individuals who will carry to term and raise the infant. IUI is acceptable if the sperm comes from the husband of the woman who will carry the pregnancy.

Egg donation

There are rabbis who will reject the use of donor eggs while others allow it with the husband’s consent. A major concern, if the donor is Jewish, would be the “provenance” of the egg for future marriage of the child. Regardless of faith, it’s a bad idea to marry a half sibling. The genetic consequences could be problematic. In the most religious circles, a gentile donor is preferred, the assumption being that the child will only marry a Jew, thus removing concerns about gene lines and consanguinity. Many authorities would favor a full conversion to insure the Jewish heritage of the child.

Sperm Donation

The use of donor sperm from a Jewish donor is not allowed because it constitutes an adulterous relationship, at least metaphorically, because the donor creates a child with a woman who is not his wife. The child would then be considered a mamzer or bastard.

For men with male factor infertility, this option is removed. A non-Jewish donor, on the other hand, changes the equation. The child can’t unknowingly marry a half-sibling because in “proper” marriage arrangements there is only a Jewish option. If a donor is Jewish, accurate records must be kept to insure that the donor’s subsequent children are not potential marriage mates.

Seed Spilling

The issue of IUI, IVF, and ICSI are complicated by how the sperm and egg “get together.” Since these procedures all take place without intercourse, “spilling of seed,” or masturbation, is required. The original text from Genesis (38:9) and then again in Leviticus presents questions about emission of semen and raises similar questions about ritual purity. Jews who follow a strict interpretation of text will then have a problem with how sperm are obtained for the procedures above. Typically, a man provides a specimen for use by masturbating into a collection cup. But this violates the prohibition of spilling seed. In order to avoid the prohibition, special collection condoms have been created so the couple can have intercourse and the “seed is not spilt.” In the most observant situations, there is a small hole at the top of the condom, so it is “possible” for seed to escape into the vagina and it won’t be “wasted.” From a medical/scientific point of view these machinations are less than desirable, but acceptable.

Surrogacy

Some Jewish denominations allow surrogacy via gestational carrier. This a distinctly different form of surrogacy than the one Abraham employed. Today that would be referred to as “traditional surrogacy” in which the carrier is inseminated with the father’s sperm, carries the child to birth and the turns the infant over to the parents who will raise it. This practice is used far less today than 25 years ago because of advances in IVF which allow creation of a fetus outside the womb and subsequent transfer to a carrier. In the best case, the carrier would be an unmarried woman. However, some Halachic authorities raise the question of maternal identity. Is the carrier, who’s only contribution to the birth is her womb, a mother? It is possible to find Halachic authorities who make the case both for and against gestational surrogacy. Liberal Judaism, which has accepted patrilineal descent, finds gestational surrogacy acceptable.

Most gestational surrogacy arrangements today involve a woman who is done creating her own family. As with any pregnancy, one risk is future infertility due to complications of gestation or birth. Another reason for this guideline is that a woman who has her own children is more likely to turn over a child she has carried for someone else. Many carriers comment that they loved being pregnant and look forward to the process especially because they will be able to sleep through the night after the delivery!

Anonymity

While egg and sperm donors were initially required to be anonymous for reasons that don’t make sense today, there is a strong movement to create donor sibling registries. This allows donor conceived children to find their half-siblings, “diblings” in some circles, and obtain ongoing medical information about their donor which may impact them in the future. When donor sperm and later donor egg procedures became possible, no one could have predicted the impact of technology on reproduction. Today, with genetic testing from organizations such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com, it is almost impossible for a donor to remain anonymous. In the not too distant future, children who are not told about their donor conception could easily discover the “truth” when they take biology in middle school and bring home the DNA swab kit to learn about their own genetic makeup.

Egg Freezing

Egg freezing, a process in which a woman’s ovaries are stimulated in a controlled fashion to produce more eggs than are normal for one cycle, is gaining acceptance in the Orthodox community. The procedure allows eggs to be retrieved by needle aspiration while the woman is sedated. They are subsequently frozen and stored in cryopreservation tanks for later use. For an unmarried woman in her late 30’s, this is a significant development as it allows her to preserve some measure of fertility until she finds a mate. It is also significant for a woman who has a medical condition that requires treatment that can render her infertile, such as some treatments for cancer and other diseases. As striking a development as it sounds, it is an imperfect process. Not all frozen eggs will thaw properly and not all of those that do thaw will fertilize. Finally, not all those that fertilize will develop into embryos that can be transferred.

Genetic Testing

Preimplantation genetic testing (PGT) was developed to diagnose genetically transmittable disorders. The process involves removing a single cell from a day 3 embryo and studying the genetic makeup of that cell. While the process is taking place, the embryo is frozen for later use. At day 3, the eight cells that make up the embryo are undifferentiated. Removing one will not affect the subsequent development of the embryo. The information obtained can prevent the transfer of embryos with Tay-Sachs, Down’s syndrome, and other disorders. It could also be used for sex determination, something that Halachic and non-Halachic authorities consider frivolous.

Additional Resources

This brief overview of Judaism’s approach to ART is by no means exhaustive. The reader who wants a deeper dive into both the Jewish approach and the broader field of ART is referred to several books and websites listed below.

Grazi, Richard V. Overcoming Infertility: A guide for Jewish couples (Toby Press, 2005). An edited collection by an experienced reproductive endocrinologist with contributions from rabbinic and medical experts.

Finkelstein, Baruch and Finkelstein, Michal. (The Third Key: the Jewish couple’s guide to Fertility (Feldheim Publishers, 2005). Contains halachic explanations of ART and what is and is not permissible for the most observant.

Cardin, Nina Beth. Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope. Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999. Written by a Reform rabbi, this book, subtitled “A Jewish Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss,” contains spiritual resources for those coping with infertility and pregnancy loss.

Jewish Fertility Foundation. https://www.jewishfertilityfoundation.org.  Headquartered in Atlanta, this organization provides financial assistance, educational awareness and emotional support to Jewish people who have medical fertility challenges.

Uprooted. https://weareuprooted.org.  A Boston based organization that offers advocacy and ritual creation. Uprooted educates Jewish leaders in assisting families with fertility challenges and provides national communal support to those struggling to grow their families.

Puah. https://www.puahfertility.org. Headquartered in Israel and providing services in the United States, this organization describes itself as “fertility, medicine and halacha.” In addition to information and events, it offers lab supervision to insure rabbinic requirements that Jewish parentage is established.

A Time. https://www.atime.org.  Headquartered in Brooklyn, this organization is focused on religiously observant Jews dealing with infertility and family building challenges.

RESOLVE. https://resolve.org/ The national patient advocacy organization. RESOLVE provides free support groups in more than 200 communities and is the leading patient advocacy voice.

The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology. https://www.sart.org.  SART provides unbiased information and sets standards for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Member clinics provide data on success rates which are validated and available online. The website contains a wealth of patient friendly information in print and video form.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine. https://www.asrm.org.  ASRM is a multidisciplinary organization dedicated to the advancement of the science and practice of reproductive medicine. Its patient information page, https://www.reproductivefacts.org, contains significant information about the medical aspects of infertility and its treatment

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William D. Petok, PhD, is a Clinical Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Thomas Jefferson University/Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Philadelphia, PA.

The views expressed by Prof. Petok are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Prof. Petok for his contribution to this forum.

Rabbi Richard Address Explores “When Judaism Meets Science”

Sunday, October 27, 2019 @ 10:10 AM
posted by Roger Price
Rabbi Richard Address

RABBI RICHARD ADDRESS is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. There he develops and implements the Sacred Aging project which has been responsible for creating awareness and resources for congregations on the implication of the emerging longevity revolution that has begun to impact all aspects of Jewish communal and congregational life.

In winter 2018, Rabbi Address began hosting a weekly podcast, Seekers of Meaning. Rabbi Address’s interview of author Roger Price concerning the latter’s new book, When Judaism Meets Science, covers a wide range of topics, including creation, evolution, bio–ethics, fake news, the anthropic principle, a Jewdroid, and the Greenberg hurdle. Running about forty–five minutes, without commercial interruption, it can be heard here: https://jewishsacredaging.com/som-pod-roger-price-author-of-when-judaism-meets-science/

When Judaism Meets Science can be purchased from various etailers, including Amazon, and also from the publisher, Wipf and Stock.

Biology and Genesis: Are they compatible or irreconcilable?

Friday, February 8, 2019 @ 11:02 AM
posted by David Haymer

Credit: Malka Rappaport

Introduction

Biology is the scientific study of life, and Genesis is the biblical story of life. Both address matters ranging from the origin of life to how we find life today, and both contain lessons that are important for our continued existence. And despite the fact that differences of interpretation of Genesis and the Bible in general have been the source of much discussion about perceived conflicts between religious and scientific ideas, perhaps these perspectives need not be considered so divergent.

Genesis is the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and most Jews accept the idea that it contains metaphors and should not be intended to serve as a substitute or alternative for valid scientific textbooks. However, it is also true that close reading of these stories can reveal perspectives and themes in common with many contemporary issues of scientific interest and importance. For example, the field of biology is now reaching an unprecedented peak of experimental power. We can now change our own biology in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. This is not to say that we should not move ahead, but we need to do so carefully. Because of this unprecedented power, though, all biologists today would be well served to incorporate ethical and moral considerations into their work to consider what should be done, not just what can be done. The stories in Genesis can help here because they directly address many biological issues of current interest, and they may provide valuable philosophical and ethical perspectives. read more

Judaism, Neuroscience and the Free Will Hypothesis (Part 2)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 @ 12:03 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: DARPA

The Jewish assumption of free will is ancient and enduring. But what does modern neuroscience have to say?

The history of neuroscientists’ efforts to explore the free will phenomenon was reviewed in 2016 by philosopher and neuroethicist Andrea Lavazza in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The setting for our current understanding was drawn a half century ago with the discovery by Hans Kornhuber and Luder Deecke of the Readiness Potential (“RP”), a measurement of increased bio-electric activity in the brain. The RP was measured by an electroencephalogram  (“EEG”), a procedure in which electrodes were placed on a subject’s scalp to allow for the recording of bio-electric activity. This activity was seen as an indication of preparation for a volitional act.

One question raised by the discovery of RP was whether an individual was conscious of an intention to act before RP appeared. In the early 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who became a neuroscientist at the University of California-Davis, sought to answer that question. Libet and his team designed a relatively simple test. First, subjects were wired for an EEG. To record muscle contraction, electrodes were also placed on subjects’ fingers. Then the subjects were asked to do two things, spontaneously move their right finger or wrist, and, with the aid of a clock in front of them, report to researchers the time they thought they decided to do so.

What Libet found (Libet et al. 1983) was that conscious awareness of the decision to move a finger preceded the actual movement of the finger by 200 milliseconds (ms), but also that RP was evident 350 ms before such consciousness. While Libet recognized that his observations had “profound implications for the nature of free will, for individual responsibility and guilt,” his report appropriately contained several caveats. First, it noted (at 640) that the “present evidence for the unconscious initiation of a voluntary act of course applies to one very limited form of such acts.” Second (at 641), it allowed for the possibility that there could be a “conscious ‘veto’ that aborts the performance . . . (of) the self-initiated act under study here.” Finally (at 641), it acknowledged that “the possibilities for conscious initiation and control” in situations that were not spontaneous or quickly performed. read more

Judaism, Neuroscience and the Free Will Hypothesis (Part 1)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 @ 05:03 PM
posted by Roger Price

Forget Moses’s impassioned plea to the Israelites concerning their choices among the many blessings and curses that God reportedly set before them as they were about to cross the Jordan river into their promised land. (See Deut.  11:26-28, 30:15, 19.) Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne claims we have no ability to choose freely among alternatives. According to Coyne, “we couldn’t have had that V8, and Robert Frost couldn’t have taken the other road.” Presumably, the Israelites in the story had not much choice either.

Coyne argues that the free will we sense when we make a decision, the feeling that we are choosing among available alternatives, does not exist. In reality, he contends, our conduct is predetermined by physics. This result follows, he says, because our brains and bodies, the “vehicles that make ‘choices,’ are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by (our) genes and (our) environment.” The decisions we think we make are, in his opinion, merely “the result from molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another.” read more

When a Jewdroid Walks into Shul (Part 2)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 @ 01:10 PM
posted by Roger Price

 

That the age of robots is coming, and soon, seems indisputable.  For some, though, achievements to date in mobility, dexterity and intelligence (discussed in a prior post), may be as unsettling as they are amazing.  Surely future developments will be disruptive and challenging in a wide variety of circumstances, many of which cannot even be anticipated.

How will the Jewish community react when an artificial entity is created that not only looks human, but is thoroughly versed in all things Jewish? Will the Jewdroid’s presence be too much to bear or is Judaism’s tent big enough to hold him too? Shall we reject the Jewdroid whose existence is unprecedented or shall we welcome the stranger? What assumptions and values shall inform us? Let’s look at some objections to a proposed Jewdroid.

The first, and most trivial argument, is that based on appearance: the droid does not “look Jewish.” A similar objection was raised against the Bulbas at William Tenn’s imagined interstellar Neo-Zionist convention. Whether coming from Jews or non-Jews, that line assumes that there is such a thing as a Jewish “look.” Whether there ever was a “look” is doubtful, but today any argument based on a presumed Jewish look involving a distinctive set of physical traits shared by all Jews is not only obnoxious, it is contrary to the evidence of the varieties of contemporary Jewry. In the world in which we live, Jews come in many shades, shapes and sizes, each with a wide range of physical features. Why, there are even Ginger Jews! Looks alone cannot compel a conclusion that our Jewdroid either can or cannot be Jewish. Our droid could come in any hue and be a Jew.  read more

Jews, Judaism and Genetically Modified Crops

Sunday, February 28, 2016 @ 10:02 AM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: USDA

Genetically modified (“GM”) crops are plant products which have been genetically altered for certain traits. Such traits include resistance to viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, herbicides and drought, as well as aspects of product quality like improved yield, nutritional value and longer shelf life.  (See here and here.)

The characterization is somewhat of a misnomer. Modification of biological organisms is not a new process. It has been occurring in nature for billions of years. Indeed, the natural selection of some traits over others is the driving force of biological evolution, the process by which a species over time secures a competitive advantage in its environment. Today, though, the label of GM foods is meant to identify those products that have been modified or engineered by human means.

And yet, the intervention of humans in an otherwise natural process is not new either. Humans have been actively engaged in plant breeding for up to ten thousand years. An Assyrian relief, dated to 870 BCE, illustrates pollination of date palms by man.

Similarly, the Torah tells of Jacob manipulating his flocks of goats and lambs so that he would increase his herd with the fittest among them. (See Gen. 30:31-31:13.)That the author ambiguously attributed Jacob’s success to both magical sticks and God’s miraculous power is irrelevant, for present purposes. What is important is that the story is testament to the reality that at least since the text was written some twenty-five centuries ago, humans have recognized the desirability of and have sought to guide the alteration of existing species in ways thought beneficial. This guided intervention has produced a host of useful and now common food products, but it is, or was, slow, unpredictable, unreliable, costly and inefficient. read more

Paleoanthropology in Genesis

Tuesday, December 1, 2015 @ 05:12 PM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

According to the Bible, God commanded Homo Sapiens to “fill up planet Earth” (Gen. 1:28), and as a species we have most certainly done that. But what motivated prehistoric mankind to spread out throughout the entire world, in the evolutionary rapid time of less than 60-80,000 years?  

Homo Erectus originated somewhere in East Africa almost two million years ago, and then slowly spread out to inhabit South Africa, the southern parts of Europe (Spain and Italy), the Caucasus, India, China, and Indonesia over the next million years. Homo Sapiens reached Indonesia and Australia within 40-50,000 years of its exodus from Africa. New research by a paleoanthropologist at the University of York suggests that moral and emotional reasons, especially betrayals of personal and communal trust, are the best way to understanding the rapid spread of our own species around the world.  read more

In the Beginning and In the End

Thursday, October 15, 2015 @ 02:10 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

When the cosmos was about to be created — the fundamental forces of nature being unified in an exceedingly hot, dense point and galaxies, stars, planets, even stable matter itself yet unformed — there was no recognizable space, no measurable time. There was no darkness over the surface of the deep because there was no deep, no surface, no over and no under. No wind hovered over any water, as there was not yet any hydrogen or oxygen, much less any combination of them in the form of water. And there was no wind, either. What there was — all that there was — was chaotic, pulsating Potential.

At some moment, for reasons yet unclear, what was began to change into what is. Gravity separated first from the combined strong nuclear and electroweak forces. Then the strong force emerged and the electroweak force devolved into the electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force. The nascent universe, still small and unbelievably hot and turbulent, was an ever changing soup of energy and sub-atomic particles. It was all good, and about to become better.

Within one second from the mystery of beginning, our mini-universe inflated, and then started to expand. Its temperature dropped from an unfathomably hot state of 100 nonillion degrees Kelvin to only one trillion degrees, but that relative cooling was sufficient for sub-atomic particles to become protons and neutrons and other heavier particles. At the three minute mark, with the temperature now down to a cool billion degrees, particles fused into atomic nuclei, mostly hydrogen nuclei, some helium nuclei and other kinds as well. This, too, was good. read more

Faith in Religion, Confidence in Science

Monday, June 22, 2015 @ 11:06 AM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: Yale

In response to a theoretical physicist’s article regarding developments in cosmology and the then current debate about whether the universe had a finite age or was in a steady state without beginning or end, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, initiated a brief but revealing correspondence. The correspondence was prompted by Schneerson’s deep concern over what he considered to be widespread misconceptions about science and his perceived urgent need to correct those misunderstandings. In this correspondence, Schneerson demonstrated an expected devotion to the text of the Torah and traditions relating to it, but also a certain and perhaps unexpected awareness of technical issues, for instance whether light was an electro-magnetic wave or “corpuscular” or both. More importantly, in the course of the correspondence, he articulated his approach to faith and science and what some asserted was a conflict between them.

Schneerson thought the purported conflict was the result of a misconception of the nature of science. The “sciences,” he said, “are at bottom nothing more than assumptions, work hypotheses and theories which are only ‘probable’ . . . .”  By contrast, he viewed “religious truths” as “definitive and categorical.” Consequently, science could not challenge religion because “science can never speak in terms of absolute truth.”  read more