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Is the human embryo sacrosanct? Gamete Donation and Doctrine

12 January 2009
Appeared in BioNews 490
The annual conference of the Progress Educational Trust - 'Is the embryo sacrosanct? Multi-faith perspectives' - took place in November 2008. The third and final session of the day - titled 'Gamete Donation and Doctrine' - is reported here.

The session was chaired by Rabbi Jonathan Romain, Chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK. The panel were: Stuart Lavery, consultant in gynaecology, reproductive medicine and surgery at Hammersmith Hospital; Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, lecturer in Sikh studies at the University of Birmingham; Anil Bhanot, General Secretary of the Hindu Council UK; Mufti Muhammed Zubair Butt, Senior Advisor on Islamic Law at the Institute of Islamic Jurisprudence.

Stuart Lavery began with a brief overview of the history of gamete donation, highlighting the 2000 births resulting from the practice in the UK each year, as well as covering the rudiments of the process itself. He drew attention to the wide range of different religious and ethnic backgrounds treated through sperm and egg donation.

Jagbir Jhutti-Johal gave the Sikh perspective. Sikhism is a relatively young faith (500 years old) and that it has no explicit injunction regarding fertility and assisted conception in either of its two main texts; the Guru Granth Sahib or the code of conduct, she said. Never the less, the Guru Granth Sahib does say that creation of life is the will of God. Since God has given man the intellect and enabled him to use it in this way, it seems possible to view assisted reproductive techniques in a similar vein, she said, provided certain regulations are adhered to. The text also specifies that children should only be conceived within the confines of marriage, which some Sikhs use to draw parallels between the use of donor sperm and adultery. Since Sikhism itself is seen as hereditary, the religious background of the donor could also be an issue, she said.

Whilst stressing that there is no definitive stance on assisted reproduction, and that most Sikh's therefore make their own personal choice on such matters, she maintained that Sikhism does not approve of any procedure which destroys or meddles with embryos.

Anil Bhanot spoke next to explain the Hindu perspective. Like Ms Jutti-Johal, Mr Bhanot also thought that medical breakthroughs such as assisted reproduction techniques could be viewed as God's will. Science might be viewed as helping us to create life so that humanity can share in the joy of that life, in which case Hinduism could not stand in the way of assisted reproduction, he said. Like Sikhs, some Hindus might prefer to have a Hindu donor, he added.

The final speaker was Mufti Muhammed Zubair Butt who presented the Sunni Islam perspective. Mr Butt explained that one of the prime purposes of Islamic law is to protect the lineage, which is why adoption (but not fostering), adultery, and conception outside of marriage are not permitted within Islam. He felt that Islam would permit IVF if the following four conditions could be satisfied: The wife must be able to conceive normally, because to conceive via assisted reproduction she would have to reveal intimate parts of her body to the doctor. The treatment should only be in the context of marriage and not after the husband's death. There should be absolute certainty that the sperm and egg were from the husband and wife and that there could be no possibility of a mix-up. Donor egg and sperm would not be permitted because this would raise lineage questions.

Mr Butt explained that some muslims have equated donor gametes and surrogacy to adultery, or at least a precursor of adultery.

This concluded the presentations from the speakers, after which the session was opened to the floor for questions.

The first question came from Mr Butt, who asked whether Sikhs viewed IVF as 'culturally' acceptable, to which Ms Jhutti-Johal said that infertility did indeed have a stigma attached and so some Sikhs may choose to keep their treatment secret in their community.

Another audience member asked whether the various faiths viewed embryos as having a religion, with the following responses: In both Islam and Hinduism, a child has a faith only when they are born. In Sikhism and Judaism embryos reportedly have a religion from the point of conception, however, some Sikhs would say that an individual only becomes a true Sikh after baptism. Judaism holds that faith is not only a matter of inheritance, but also of education, and each individual's view of their identity. For Christians, faith is only taken on from baptism so embryos are not viewed as having a faith.

Baroness Haleh Afshar, who chaired the first session, pointed out that there are two concepts in Shia Islam that may circumvent the Islamic objection to IVF: firstly, the concept of more than one wife and secondly, the wet-nurse concept. Iran (under Shia law) reportedly permits surrogacy and gamete donation, she claimed, highlighting that there is no single perspective on assisted reproduction among all Muslims.

One delegate asked the panel to comment on embryo donation for research. Sikhism would not permit this if the outcome is destruction of the embryo. Hindus, by contrast, have no problem with it as long as there is motive and some good comes from it. Islam would take a range of views, but Mr Butt expressed personal unease without wanting to adopt a specific stance.

The next questioner asked how difficult it was for the various faiths represented to find the treatment they want, given the restrictions discussed. Mr Lavery explained that clinics try to be as accommodating as possible and to work within the boundaries that the patients set. He gave examples of a Catholic couple he had worked with, who wanted not to minimise the number of spare embryos created, and of a Jewish couple, who requested a non-Jewish donor to avoid the risk of consanguinity.

One audience member, a Muslim doctor, asked if it would be regarded as committing a sin for her to provide IVF treatment, despite her religion prohibiting it. Mr Butt said that providing IVF was in fact admirable, so long as it was within the confines of marriage.

On commentator suggested that more consideration should be given to the impact of donor conception on the resulting adults, referring to recent news reports detailing a case in which a Canadian woman is trying to sue a clinic for destroying records which could have otherwise revealed her biological father.

The final question addressed whether gamete donation and the donation of embryos to science might be considered a charitable act, thereby appealing to the 'charitable ethic' perhaps running through all religions. The Hindu and Jewish representatives were in agreement with this proposal but Mr Butt felt that for an act to be considered 'charitable' it needed to be ethical in the first place.

In summing up, Rabbi Romain said that it was clear from the discussion that medical advances 'both thrill us with possibility and also worry us'. He felt that much common ground had been uncovered between faiths and thanked all the eminent speakers for their attendance.

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15 December 2008 - by Angeliki Kerasidou 
The Progress Educational Trust's conference in London titled 'Is the Human Embryo Sacrosanct? Multi-faith perspectives' on the 19th of November 2008 was an excellent event. It brought thinkers from most major religions and an atheist together, and asked them to address the question 'Is the human embryos sacrosanct?' The purpose...
1 December 2008 - by Katy Sinclair 
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16 November 2008 - by Professor David Jones 
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10 November 2008 - by Dr Farouk Mahmoud 
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