Bioethics and Conservative Responsa
by Eric Fingerhut
Hear the phrase Jewish medical ethics, and issues such as the religion’s view on organ transplants or euthanasia usually come to mind. But Rabbi Elliott Dorff wants to broaden that discussion.
He believes that such matters as most efficiently distributing limited health care resources and ensuring access to health care for all Americans also should be considered through the Jewish ethical framework.
"Secular medical ethics is based on Western liberalism" and has an "individual rights perspective" based on "what does the patient want," said Dorff, rector, professor of philosophy and co-chair of the bioethics department at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles.
"The Jewish tradition ... is not as individualistic" and is "much more communitarian," which is important in a world in which "medical care is no longer just [between] the doctor and patient" and resources are limited.
Should half a million dollars be spent on a heart transplant for a 90-year-old patient, when that money could instead be used to bolster prenatal care for the poor and uninsured? That’s an example of the kind of ethical dilemma Dorff says should be examined from the Jewish ethical perspective, exploring the "degree to which the community makes the decision."
Dorff will be speaking on "Bioethics: A Progressive Jewish Perspective" at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. The program is co-sponsored by the Institute for Science and Judaism. (The Conservative movement leader said that his speaking at a Reconstructionist synagogue is not significant. "I’m a pluralist, and talk to Jews of all sorts," he said.)
Though he’s long been focused on bioethics, Dorff recently has been in the news as co-author of one of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Standards teshuvot, or responsa, on gay and lesbian rabbis and commitment ceremonies. Dorff’s position favored both.
Almost six months after those rulings were issued, Dorff said the fairly muted reaction to the decision ‹ he personally has received just a handful of letters objecting to it from either side ‹ did not surprise him.
"As I suspected, this is not going to split the movement," said Dorff, comparing the ruling to the decision a generation ago to expand women’s roles in the movement.
He believes that the Committee on Law and Standards, which simultaneously approved with the same number of votes a teshuva that did not endorse a policy change, was reflecting where the members of the movement are on the issue.
"Life doesn’t come in black and white," he said, adding that the split ruling requires rabbis and congregations to study the issue carefully on their own and decide what position they want to take in their synagogues.
"It puts the burden on individual rabbis to do their homework," he said.
He noted that the two North American seminaries have decided to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis, while the seminaries in Israel and Argentina have not ‹ and "that’s OK."
As for medical ethics, Dorff, who holds a doctorate in moral theory, points out that discussing Jewish bioethics is a lot different than it used to be.
"We are living in a time when medicine has advanced beyond anyone’s dreams," he said, and thus one can’t simply "open up ... the Shulchan Aruch," code of Jewish law, to a particular chapter and verse and cite direct statements that address matters such as genetic testing or organ transplants.
So Jewish thinkers and ethicists must use "depth theology" and apply the tradition to the new technology, making modern Jewish bioethics "so important and so difficult," Dorff said.
Among the most important bioethical matters in the Jewish community today is infertility and the issues that arise from it, said Dorff.
With Jews getting married later in life, women have a tougher time conceiving children and couples are increasingly turning to donor sperm or eggs.
But when those children become teenagers, and want to find out "who [they] are," they can’t look to their father and mother to see the exact sources, for instance, of their various personality traits.
Thus, he would like to see donor banks collect and make information available for children. He pointed out that there are some facilities already doing this, such as a California sperm bank that tapes interviews of donors talking about themselves and allows children to get information on their biological heritage.