According to Halacha (Jewish law), Jews are forbidden to mutilate a corpse, derive benefit from it or delay burial. However, preserving human life is more important and overrides all these laws. If an autopsy is going to explain a disease that is not understood by doctors, then it is allowed, as other patients may also benefit from the information acquired. If a patient dies before giving consent to doctors to perform an autopsy, then rabbis may get together after the person has died to decide if an autopsy should take place or not (provided they have the consent of the family).
There are many rules regarding transplantation of organs from a dead person and organ donation from a healthy person. The question is raised as to whether a person should donate an organ (for example, a kidney) to someone else. Rabbis agree that if the person donating the organ is in good health and has given their permission, then the procedure is allowed (but only if the person receiving the organ is at risk of dying if he/she does not receive it). Removing an organ from a dead person raises issues mentioned above with regard to autopsies. Rabbis agree that these considerations may be set aside to save someone’s life.
The decision to have a transplant is dependent on two factors:
First, the success of the surgery is a major concern. If a person is dying and needs a transplant, then chance should be taken to attempt to save that person’s life.
Second, if there is only a 50% chance of that person surviving the surgery, then he/she can make the decision whether or not to have to transplant. However, if the chance of survival is greater than 50%, then the person does not have a choice and surgery must take place.
A person who does not require surgery for medical reasons may have the surgery if it is going to alleviate psychological stress.
Is it allowed to sacrifice the life of a person who is going to die soon in order to save the life of someone who will probably live for a long time?
The answer to this question is absolutely not. A person who is going to die soon (say in the next 12 months or so) is referred to as a treifah whereas a person with normal life expectancy is called a shalem. It is forbidden to sacrifice the life of a treifah to save the life of a shalem.
Rabbis have explored every option available to help couples have children.
According to Jewish law, artificial insemination is strictly forbidden if the parties involved use donor sperm. The reasons given for this are that there is the possibility of incest (which is strictly forbidden), possibility of lack of genealogy and could be problems of inheritance. Some Rabbis even consider insemination with donor sperm to be adultery.
If, however, the sperm used is from the woman’s husband, then that sperm is fine, but there must be a reasonable amount of waiting to see if the woman gets pregnant. Masturbation may also be permitted (although otherwise strictly forbidden) where no other method is available for obtaining sperm.
In vitro fertilisation is still very new. Some Rabbis welcome this idea, whilst others say the procedure needs to be safeguarded.
However, no rabbi consents to one woman’s fertilised ovum being placed in another’s womb. A woman who ‘leases’ her womb may face all sorts of problems. The psychological stresses on both women involved could lead to many negative things such as marriage break-ups. If the woman is using eggs from another woman who is not Jewish, then the child will have to be converted once he/she is born.
According to Jewish law, abortion is more abominable than contraception. Using contraception is going against God’s will that we go forth and multiply. Having an abortion is destroying potential life.
Nevertheless Judaism does not give potential life (the foetus) the same importance as existing life (the mother). So if a pregnancy is threatening the woman’s life, then abortion is acceptable. In the Torah this is called a ‘roidef’.
Abortion is definitely not permitted if the pregnancy is just ‘getting in the way’ of a woman’s career or for any similar reason.