Ever wondered what it would be like to have your marriage arranged by a “matchmaker.” Sounds like something from centuries past or a song from a well-known Broadway play. But, I’m informed, the practice of using a traditional matchmaker is alive and well today. A school colleague from Israel spent the better part of an hour’s conversation telling me how, Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community have used science to bring matchmaking into the 21st century.
Because of genetic diseases, this Jewish community has a self-imposed selection system for choosing a spouse. As my friend explained, young people in their late teens to early twenties are voluntarily tested for recessive genes that can lead to bearing children with devastating hereditary conditions such as Tay-Sachs disease or cystic fibrosis. Each individual tested is given a number that is also tied to the day (but not the year) of their birth. The results of the genetic testing is kept confidential and even the people tested are not given the results; they are just assigned their number.
Here’s where the traditional matchmaker comes in. The matchmaker does what she does best – match! With input from the person(s) to be married and from the family, the matchmaker determines which couples are a good fit for one another. Then the matchmaker takes the couple’s identifying numbers from the genetic test and runs them through the data base. The matchmaker then is told whether the couple would be a good genetic match – meaning, are either of them carriers for the specific recessive genes that when combined together would create problems for their future children. From that information the matchmaker continues on with “the match” or goes back and starts over. The matchmaker is told nothing about the specific genetic markers; she is simply told whether or not the couple is genetically compatible – if it is a safe match.
The matchmaking component aside, there are ethical questions regarding the genetic testing itself. How much should an individual be told about his/her genetic profile? As a recent Wall Street Journal article points out:
How much to reveal to people remains a contentious issue in the gene-testing field. Some geneticists argue that scientists still have no grasp of most gene mutations’ relevance, and that sharing information whose meaning is uncertain is potentially harmful. In some cases, people might endlessly worry or alter their lives because of a mutation for which there is no effective treatment or that turns out to be benign; others may ignore medical advice because genes show they aren’t predisposed to a particular condition, even though screening can’t rule out the possibility a disease will develop.
In this supposed modern time, we see the acceptance of an ancient practice of deciding marriages combined with some challenging ethical questions surrounding genetic testing. It is a fascinating merger. As I think about it, many use dating websites and on-line dating services to provide criteria for compatibility and to narrow the field for potential marriage partners – a digital matchmaker. Perhaps the next step will be to add a genetic analysis to the program. Brave new world anyone?
To read more on this topic, go here.