Q. What does Judaism say about genetic engineering as a whole?
A. In theory, science, technology or genetics are neither good nor bad. It depends on their aim, purpose and results. Thus, the possibility of modifying genes to correct a hereditary defect like haemophilia is an exciting positive development. But will genetic engineering be exploited and commercialised for ends that are neither socially desirable nor ethically acceptable? What happens, for instance, if the rich who can afford it get all the advantages, or the wicked who enjoy it manipulate people’s characteristics in order to create a master race?
There is an excellent essay on the subject by Fred Rosner in “Jewish Bioethics”, edited by himself and J. David Bleich (chapter 28). He points out that there are, even in the hands of the most benign ethical scientists, also risks that unexpected or accidental alterations may occur: “One must contemplate the possibility of accidental release into the environment of organisms carrying extraneous genetic material and/or the infection of plant or animal life with these bacteria. Recombinant DNA may be taken up by human cells in such a way as to produce cancer or other diseases.”
There is halachic research being done on this as on so many other major modern issues. An example is the work that is being carried on in the subject of human cloning. But for the moment one must echo the words of Lord Jakobovits, who urges that immediate attention be given by scientists, ethicists and religious teachers to clarifying the complex moral issues involved and establishing firm ethical guidelines to prevent “abuses and excuses” (“Jewish Medical Ethics”, pp.264-6).
One hopes that the twentieth century has taught us how dangerous it is to let science get out of control, and that the world is becoming responsible enough to heed the advice of King Solomon, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but wrongdoing is a disgrace to a people” (Proverbs 14:34).