Wrongful Life Lawsuits in Israel: Better Dead Than Disabled

International   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Nov 14, 2011   |   2:06PM   |   Jerusalem, Israel

In genetics, being Jewish is not a religious preference but an ethnicity.  Clinical genetics labs won’t ask you if you are Christian, Muslim, or Hindu, but they will surely ask you if you are Jewish.

Why?  Because for many reasons including societal pressures and internal preferences, Jews having been intermarrying with other Jews for hundreds of years.  One particular subset of Jews called Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Jews in the Rhine area of Europe.  Ashkenazi Jews are surprisingly genetically homogeneous and now make up 80% of all Jews worldwide.

Unfortunately, Ashkenazi Jews are carriers for some pretty devastating genetic disorders, including Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis, Faconi anemia and even breast and ovarian cancer. Often they do not know they are carriers until they meet someone that carries the same genetic mutation and have children who then have the disease.  There is a movement in the Jewish community to get young people screened before they marry so they can make a more informed choice about their life partner.  In fact some labs, offer a panel of genetic tests just for Ashkenazi Jews.

The other approach to genetic carrier testing is to only test pregnant women.  If the woman is a carrier, then the father is tested.  If he is also a carrier, then the fetus is tested to see if it has the genetic disease. This is the approach prevalent in the United States and in my opinion totally backwards.  If there is already a life growing in the womb, the genetic testing to prevent him or her from inheriting the disease is too late.

But apparently some parents in Israel do not think it is too late.  Wrongful-life suits are becoming more common among Israeli Jews.  What is a wrongful-life suit?  It is a suit brought by the parents, on behalf of the child against medical professionals that argues that if the family had known the child had a genetic disease, he or she would have been aborted.  The family sues for monies to care for the sick child that they insist never should have been born.

The sickness of wrongful life lawsuits is not the illness of the child, it is the audacity of parents to say that if they had known they would have killed their child, even if it is for money to pay for care.  And this is what is happening with more frequency in Israel.  From BioNews:

Increasing numbers of Israeli children with birth defects are suing medical professionals for failing to detect abnormalities and allowing them to be born, says the New Scientist. The magazine reports that such is the Israeli Government’s concern over the rise in ‘wrongful life’ lawsuits it has launched an investigation into the validity of the claims.

High rates of consanguineous marriage in some traditional Jewish communities have resulted in an increased likelihood of birth defects in the resulting children. For example, ultra-orthodox Jewish communities are commonly associated with having high incidents of Tay-Sachs disease. If both parents are carriers of the faulty gene in this recessive disease, any resulting child would have a one in four chance of having the disease. The Israeli state offers ultrasound scans and genetic tests to couples at risk of passing on a genetic condition and private pre-natal screening is also widely available. Screening can detect potential defects and help determine whether an abortion should be considered due to health reasons.

The term ‘wrongful life’ refers to circumstances where the parents of a child allege had they known about a severe genetic problem with the fetus they would have elected to terminate the pregnancy. ‘Wrongful life’ claims are generally brought by the children – or the parents acting on behalf of the children. New Scientist says the Israeli medical profession has estimated there to have been 600 ‘wrongful life’ lawsuits since the first case in 1987.

The ramifications of wrongful life suits are tremendous.  First, these children do not have a genetic disease because of negligent doctors.  The children inherited the disease from the very people bringing the lawsuit, the parents.  If the doctors caused disease or harm to the child, then a lawsuit would be appropriate, but that is not the case with these suits.

This mentality that a doctor could be held accountable for an already existing condition puts them in an awkward and difficult situation where they are more likely to over test and possibly cause healthy children to be aborted:

Concerns have also been raised over the effect of the increasing number and value of claims against the medical profession. ‘Physicians are increasingly practising defensive medicine, and doing a lot of testing’, said Rabbi Steinberg. ‘But more testing means more false positives – and that means more abortions, because geneticists don’t always know if results indicating the possibility of chromosomal abnormalities are meaningful’.

And finally, what about the psyche of the child?  I think hearing that your parents would have preferred you dead would be much more damaging than any genetic disease:

The psychological implications of the lawsuits on the children concerned have been highlighted by several medical ethicists. ‘I find it very difficult to understand how parents can go on the witness stand and tell their children ‘it would have better for you not to have been born. What are the psychological effects on the children?’ said medical ethicist Professor Rabbi Avraham Steinberg of University Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem.

Wrongful life suits are beyond insidious.  They are a product of a world that believes preventing genetic disease means killing those that have it.  Totally backward and totally evil.

LifeNews.com Note: Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years and has been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life. Taylor has a B.S. in Biochemistry from University of San Francisco with a national certification in clinical Molecular Biology MB (ASCP).