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Is the embryo sacrosanct? Multi-faith perspectives

1 September 2008
By Ailsa Stevens
Science Information Officer, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 473
Representatives of different faiths frequently intervene in debates around fertility and assisted reproduction, with religious perspectives cited in recent months both in support of and in opposition to the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill.

Last Easter, the government's proposal to allow research using inter-species human or 'admixed' embryos, perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the Bill, triggered a chorus of disapproval from the Catholic Church, who quickly marshalled MPs prepared to walk out if not offered a free vote on the matter, which they later won. Meanwhile, Anil Bhanot, one of the founding members of Hindu Council UK, showed his support for embryo research, telling delegates at a Wellcome Trust hosted debate that, 'In Hinduism all life is sacred: humans, animals, plants and so on. However to Hindus what matters is not just 'life' but also the different levels of "consciousness". In the case of this embryonic cell one may present a theological argument that at its early stage of life it has little or no level of consciousness and therefore killing it could be no harsher than killing a plant for food. The embryonic cell likewise seems to be used for a similar, if not nobler, reason for the survival of "other" human beings,' (1). A similar perspective was taken by Jewish groups, with Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger speaking out to defend the Bill: 'I believe God gives us our minds in order to further the wellbeing of human beings. It is incumbent on us to try to reduce suffering, and this is part of the way of doing that. I think that's what most Jews will feel,' she said (2). 

Hybrid embryo research was just one of a number of contentious issues surrounding the Bill that proved to be objectionable on religious grounds, with proposed legislation over artificial gametes, embryo selection and so-called 'saviour siblings', where embryos are selected as a tissue match for a sick sibling, prompting further Christian rebellion. Meanwhile, a poll carried out for the Times newspaper at this time found that 50 per cent of respondents were in favour of human hybrid research, while 30 per cent opposed it, though whether or not this reflected religious orientation was not investigated (3).

Religious attitudes towards the human embryo are not always well understood, and can be counterintuitive. This is particularly true when views of the embryo differ not only between the world's major religions, but also according to different denominations and traditions within each religion. The Christian Institute - a UK charity promoting Christianity - refers to a 2006 report by the Church of Scotland which gave the green light to embryo research, stating that: 'While it recognises that for some in the church 'the embryo already has the same human dignity as a person who has been born', the majority of the working group took the view that 'the moral status of the human embryo is not established until some time into its biological development after conception,' (4).

In its essence, the ethics of embryo research boils down to arguments over the moral status of the embryo. Those who believe that being an embryo is as much a part of the lifecycle of a human as an infant, child or adult, and that life starts when sperm meets egg at fertilisation, tend to find embryo research unacceptable. However, many feel that morality is independent from religion, and that there is a moral distinction to be made between the embryo, a small collection of dividing cells; a fetus at 12 weeks of age, when the body shape and major organ systems have formed; and a viable fetus at around 5 months of age, one which could potentially survive to birth.

Despite various challenges to the Bill, expert lobbying from the scientific community, supportive politicians and various patient groups have ensured that the HFE Bill has so far completed its journey through parliament largely intact, undoubtedly carrying with it major implications for individuals of different faiths as it becomes law later this year.

The Progress Educational Trust is organising a conference on 19th November 2008 exploring this impact and examining and contrasting the attitudes of different faiths towards assisted reproduction. The starting point for discussion will be the question of whether the embryo is sacrosanct - that is, whether and in what circumstances the embryo is considered sacred, inviolable or in any way protected by religious sanction. Implications for practice will be examined in relation to two specific areas - PGD and sperm and egg donation.

For more information or to book a place at the conference, please phone: 020 7278 7870 or email:

1) 'A Wellcome Debate', The Guardian, 19/05/2008
|  7 December 2021
2) 'Rabbis back embryo bill as a life-saver', The Jewish Chronicle, 28/03/08,
|  7 December 2021
3) 'Scientists win public support on embryo research', The Times, 10/04/08
|  7 December 2021
4) 'Apologetics: Embryo Experiments', The Christian Institute
|  7 December 2021
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