I know that several politically conservative Jews have suggested that there is a natural moral and religious alliance between Jews and Catholics, between Jews and the Religious Right on “the right to life” issues such as abortions, yet the recent statement of the Vatican on the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Dr. Robert Edwards should cause them to rethink their position.
Edwards did the pioneering work in in-vitro fertilization. Judaism, even in its most Orthodox forms, has no problem with in-vitro fertilization per se. There are religious concerns about how the sperm is obtained from the father and that the father and mother be married to one another. In fact, a Baltimore hospital specializing in this procedure offers a masgiach to oversee the process, to ensure that everything is done according to law.
Roman Catholicism considers the embryo a human being, not so Judaism. In fact, in Roman Catholicism the embryo even outside of the womb is “innocent life,” not yet tainted by original sin.
It should be noted that Jewish medical ethics even among the most pious has welcomed in-vitro fertilization as assisting the couple to fulfill the first of all human commandments: “be fruitful and multiply.” And Judaism regards the physician as God’s helper in the process of healing; in this case in the process of conceiving.
The second area of divergence because of these theological differences is stem cell research, which Judaism would most vigorously advocate because of its potential to save lives; Pikuach Nefesh, the saving of human life, takes precedence even over the Sabbath. For Jews stem cell research is essential and moral precisely because it saves life and the status of the embryo outside of the womb does not present any moral or religious problems for believing and practicing Jews.
Thus, Jews can rejoice in the work of Dr. Edwards who has enabled many, many families the blessing, the privilege and the responsibility of bearing and raising children. For us, his work has been a celebration of life and of the heroic role of the physician in enhancing life.