Both the Jewish and Christian (Catholic) faiths and cultures look to the Bible for guidance in nearly all walks of life. In addition, they incorporate ideas of natural law that make the case for beliefs that are both from God’s Word and rational thinking. Beliefs specifically regarding reproduction will be discussed here. Even with religious texts and cultural leaders, there are still different groups with their own interpretations and adaptations of religious and cultural ideals. Tools like ethnographies highlight some of the differences in interpretations.
The bible, or parts of it, provides the foundation for many beliefs in Catholicism and Judaism. Texts important to understanding reproduction can be found as early as the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. The first two chapters of the book of Genesis are texts often looked to for examples of kinship and God’s guidance on reproduction. Chapter 1 verse 27 describes mankind’s creation, specifically of two genders: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Even in this one verse, there is a lot to unpack and opportunity for many interpretations. In the catholic faith, the description of the two genders—male and female—not only speaks to a clear set of gender identities, but also contains information about reproduction. More specifically, they use the idea of a single man and single woman being brought together to suggest that only one man and one woman should be involved in creating a child. This claim directly links with their belief that a child should only be produced out of the sperm and egg of the two future parents. They would argue that use of a sperm or egg donor, surrogate mother, or any other involvement of a third person’s body goes against God’s clear will for marriage and childbirth: “Every human being is always to be accepted as a gift and blessing of God. However, from the moral point of view a truly responsible procreation vis-a-vis the unborn child must be the fruit of marriage” (Instruction on Respect for Human Life 157). Furthermore, they make this claim in terms of the inherent rights of a child: “the child’s right to be conceived and brought into the world in marriage and from marriage” (159). In fact, much of the religious language on this subject incorporates western ideas of individual rights, including the American constitutional principle of “inalienable rights.” (143). The Catholic church further supports the connection of God’s design and natural law with human rights, and ones that are widely accepted even outside of Catholic faith.
Much of the Jewish community is more lenient on the use of reproductive technologies. This largely stems from the emphasis on children and their importance to culture over the necessity of marriage before and during conception. Even among Rabbis, discussions of reproduction are “intimately linked” with discussions of culture and production of culture (Kahn 2000: 88). There is a well-established connection between children and continuation of culture, even more than between marriage and culture. For many in the culture, especially women, it is “much worse to be a childless woman than to be an unmarried mother” (16). These two principles are only part of the complex and evolving Jewish cultural ideas of kinship with children and between parents. As Kahn notes, there is an increasing injection of Euro-American principles (159-160), some of which are related to Old-Testament teachings, and the culture and ideas of kinship are adapting accordingly. As Jewish heritage is preserved through the maternal bloodline, it of less importance how the baby is conceived or born so long as the mother is involved. But regardless of how the child is conceived or born, “it is accepted… the child is still considered legitimate” (17). Given these cultural principles and adaptation of some liberal, western thought, as well as different interpretations of acts of adultery (96-97), there is room for several reproductive technologies in many Jewish groups. With this in mind, it is clear that there is a massive difference in views of the legitimacy of conception methods between the Jewish and Catholic cultures and religions.
Despite the drastic differences, there are many common threads between Jewish and Catholic-Christian views of birth and children as well. Both groups emphasize the importance of the children and their rights. One specific area is the protection of fetuses. The Catholic faith states that there is no room for abortion of fetuses: “The human being must be respected-as a person-from the very first instant of his existence.” (Instruction on Respect 147). In addition, fetuses must not be used for any reason other than for the birth of a child to one man and one woman. Any scientific research that requires creation or destruction of a zygote or fetus, regardless of its maturity, is strictly prohibited (148). Treating a child or fetus otherwise is not only unbiblical but against moral law: “It is therefore not in conformity with the moral law deliberately to expose to death human embryos obtained “in vitro”” (154). There is also strong emphasis on the child being a “supreme” gift from God, and therefore it must be respected as God intended it to be (168). Jewish law is strongly against abortion as well, except in specific cases such as rape, incest, or maternal risk (Kahn 197). Children are similarly a gift to be respected, and as already was discussed are to be a part of the society no matter how they were conceived.
Even with several official religious and cultural writings and laws available, individual experiences are largely left out of the picture. Ethnography plays a key role in understanding different interpretations of natural law, religion, and cultural norms. While official religious texts are often available and easily accessible, the actual way that teachings and obligations are followed is often different for different individuals or subcultures. Ethnographies can help to illuminate some of these discrepancies. It is also possible to understand why a culture, or more specifically a small subgroup of individuals, hold the values they do given their experiences. Kahn understood the changing concepts of kinship and values in childbirth of many Israeli-Jewish individuals, and other cultures and their views can similarly be understood more deeply through ethnographic work.
Instructions on Respect for Human Life. Congregation for Doctrine of Faith, (1987):141-175.
Kahn, Susan Martha. Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.