Steinberg.jpgWorld’s leading expert on Jewish medical ethics, Professor Avraham Steinberg, speaks at Oxford Chabad Society


Oxford Chabad Society collaborated this week with the Ethox Centre, a bioethics research centre in the University of Oxford’s Department of Public Health, to host a high profile lecture by the world’s leading expert on Jewish medical ethics, Professor Avraham Steinberg, at the David Slager Jewish student centre.


Professor Steinberg, an Israel Prize Laureate and author of the acclaimed Encyclopaedia of Jewish Medical Ethics, spoke to about 50 people on the Jewish perspectives regarding some of the most cutting edge scientific implementations in the field of medicine today, including stem cell research, pre-implantation genetic diagnoses (PGD), gender selection and human enhancement.


In a lecture outlining the scientific process of Stem Cell research, he explained that some of the most controversial issues in medical ethics today hinge on the debate on the definition of beginning of life. He explained that birth is the ultimate and universally accepted definition of the beginning of life. However, there could be numerous possible stages in the development of the fetus when one can define the beginning of life, starting with conception. If life begins at conception, as some religions believe, then the mixing of the sperm with the egg creating a blastocyst (early embryo) constitutes a life and may therefore not be destroyed even in order to save a life.


He pointed out, however, the Jewish view is there is not a single point during fetal development when life begins but rather it progresses gradually in a process that endows the embryo with more and more rights until birth when it becomes a full human being. Prof. Steinberg maintains that, based on an interesting dialogue in the Talmud, ensoulment per se is also not a relevant issue in Judaism regarding ethics.


He thus explained that the Jewish view on stem cell research is generally permissive, since an embryo in such an early stage of development (4-5 days post conception) does not represent a human being, and therefore does not constitute the killing of one life to save another, which would be categorically prohibited in Judaism. Moreover, Judaism distinguishes between an embryo who is in the womb of a woman vs an embryo in a lab dish outside a womb. The latter certainly is not defined as a human being since he requires an additional act (transplantation into a womb) before even having the potential chance to develop into a human being.

Currently there are millions of frozen fertilised eggs world-wide who no one is claiming, and which have no chance whatsoever to ever become a human being.


Explaining the important of Jewish medical ethics today, Professor Steinberg made it clear that, in his view, despite his scientific background, the definition of life is not a scientific issue and therefore science can not solve this problem. It is primarily a moral and religious issue that depends on the cultural or religious background one comes from. Judaism therefore has a profound voice in this debate.


Regarding, the terminology ‘playing G‑d’, he refuted it as an issue in Jewish medical ethics. The term ‘playing G‑d’ only refers to an action ex-nihilo, bringing something into existence from nothing. This is something humans are unable to do and is indeed relegated to G‑d. What human beings can do is to take something that exists and change its form or enhance it. When man builds a table, for example, this is what one is doing, taking wood and forming a table. Or when treating pneumonia with antibiotics or transplanting a new organ to a patient – these are permissible human acts, using the intelligence that G‑d gave human beings to improve the well-being of Man.


The same thing is, from a Jewish point of view, when taking existing sperm and egg from a couple who exist and create an embryo through IVF treatment. It is human beings acting in their remit, as long as it is done for the betterment of humankind.


Prof. Steinberg, who serves as senior paediatric neurologist at Shaare Tzedek Hospital, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said proudly that his department has assisted the birth of over a hundred healthy children through IVF and PGD to families with very serious genetic diseases.


Furthermore, he revealed, his department allowed for the formation of an embryo through IVF allowing for the birth of a child in order to provide a bone marrow transplant to save the life of a sibling.


He indicated that this might be viewed as controversial because not much research has been done on the impact on such a child who was born only in order to save someone else’s life.


Prof. Stenberg, however, justified this procedure by suggesting that he hoped that not only would the child not be loved less than an ordinary child, but much more since he had been an essential medium that saved the life of their other child.


Prof. Steinberg pointed out some ethical dilemmas that have emerged due the availability of the PGD technology: Sex selection, late-onset diseases, choosing physical and behavioural characters and others.


The event was chaired by Rabbi Eli Brackman, director of the Oxford Chabad Society, who has been pioneering the study of Jewish medical ethics with students at the University of Oxford over the last few years, as part of the Oxford Chabad Society programme of lectures in Oxford. Rabbi Brackman mentioned that Judaism has an important contribution to make to the rapidly developing area of medical ethics and hopes this event will pave the way for further integrating Jewish medical ethics at institutions like Oxford and around the UK.


Introductions were given by an impressive line-up of academics and experts on practical ethics at the University of Oxford. The first introduction was given by Charles Foster, Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford and Research Associate at the Ethox Centre, University of Oxford. Mr. Foster, who was instrumental in the collaboration of the Chabad Society with the Ethox Centre for this event, is a barrister who practices almost exclusively in medical law and has held research positions in anaesthesia and comparative anatomy. He was also a fellow at the Faculty of Law, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and research assistant to Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel.


He acknowledged the contribution of Jewish medical ethics to his own thinking and writing, noting that modern academic progress often involves or consists of disinterring ancient and forgotten truths. 'For me,' he said, 'Jewish philosophy has often been the key that has opened the door to rooms full of great intellectual treasures.' He commented that one of the many important bequests of Jewish medical ethics has been to expose the folly of medical atomism - treating the patient as an entity unconnected to the nexus of relationships in which he exists. 'Modern medicine increasingly recognises that proper diagnosis is diagnosis of the relational ills that afflict the patient, and that proper treatment is treatment not just of the patient but of the entire context in which the patient exists. These things are heralded as revolutionary, yet halacha has known them for millennia.'


An introduction was also given by Prof. Julian Savulescu, a recognised world leader in practical ethics, who holds the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics within the Faculty of Philosophy.


Closing remarks were delivered by Dr. Guy Kahane, deputy director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics within the Faculty of Philosophy. Dr. Kahane said that he appreciated how the teachings of Judaism of thousands of years can be used for offering clarity and views pertaining to ethical issues regarding cutting edge scientific technology in today’s society.