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Is the embryo sacrosanct? Multi-faith perspectives

1 December 2008
By Katy Sinclair
BioNews volunteer
Appeared in BioNews 486
The annual conference of the Progress Educational Trust (PET) - 'Is the embryo sacrosanct? Multi-faith perspectives' - was expertly chaired by Baroness Haleh Afshar, Founder and Chair of the Muslim Women's Network and Visiting Professor of Islamic Law at the University of Strasbourg.

The panel comprised Anil Bhanot, General Secretary of the Hindu Council UK; Ivan Binstock, Dayan of the London Beth Din; David Jones, Professor of Bioethics at St Mary's University College; Lee Rayfield, Anglican Bishop of Swindon; Mufti Muhammed Zubair Butt, Senior Advisor on Islamic Law at the Institute of Islamic Jurisprudence; and John Harris, Lord David Alliance Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester.

In the first session, reported here, each member of the panel presented their individual religious perspectives, focusing on the moral status of the embryo, and the permissibility of embryonic stem cell research, PGD, and fertility treatments.

Anil Bhanot emphasised that, from a Hindu perspective, all life was sacred. He shared the Hindu belief that the divine spirit - 'atma' - enteres the body at the seventh month of gestation. He explained that the emphasis of sacredness is put on the level of consciousness, with that of a 14 day old embryo not even being considered equal to that of a plant. 'If we can use that embryonic cell for, not just survival, but to prolong life...then Hinduism can't really stand in the way,' he said. Ivan Binstock expressed the Jewish view that the embryo was special, even holy, but was not considered inviolate, and that there were circumstances where it could be sacrificed for the sake of something more important. Historical Rabbinic teaching indicates that a fetus is not given the same moral status as a person, and that it was not until the head of the fetus had exited the womb that the child's life had equal value to that of the mother, he said.

David Jones proclaimed that the Catholic tradition had remained unequivocal on the subject of the moral status of the embryo: 'yes it is sacrosanct, yes it is inviolable, yes it is a sin to destroy a human embryo'. Although it is not expressly stated in the bible, Catholics believe that the soul is present from conception, and that the embryo should not be treated any differently to the embryonic Christ.

Lee Rayfield expressed the Christian belief that human beings were made in the image of God and that forms the basis for the respect and dignity accorded to them. The 'gradualist perspective', officially held by the Church of England, recognises that it is inappropriate to speak of a 14 day old embryo as a person and that, while it holds a unique and protected status, it is not inviolable, he said. However, while research is permitted on embryos up to 14 days old that would otherwise be destroyed, Christians do not permit embryos to be  created purely for research, because that would disregard the status of the embryo as an end in itself.

Mufti Muhammed Zubair Zubair Butt said that the Islamic view held that the viability of life began with the implantation of the embryo affording the embryo respect from this point. However, Zubair Butt said that this is a contentious issue in Islamic law. Most Muslims believe that ensoulment happens at 120 days, he said, although with the improved understanding of embryological development brought on by modern science, some Islamic leaders have suggested that ensoulment takes place at 40 days.

John Harris took an entirely secular perspective, declaring: 'I do not believe that I have a religious or spiritual cell in my body'. Given that UK law does not afford a right to life to human beings until they had been born, he questioned what value was added to the fetus as it traversed down the birth canal, that it should acquire a changed moral status once it emerged at the other end? Furthermore, the process of natural reproduction results in an embryo loss rate of between 50 and 80%, he said, leading to the conclusion that: 'wilful creation and sacrifice of embryos is an inescapable and inevitable part of reproduction', and not limited to assisted reproduction.

Following the talks, a spirited and wide-ranging discussion followed. Alan Thornhill of the British Fertility Centre initiated the discussion by asking the panel for their views on whether a cloned embryo, created without sperm, would have the same status as an IVF or in vivo embryo? Pointing out that twins were clones, Harris said that it was obvious that a cloned embryo would be the same as any other embryo, but that there was currently no telling what negative implications the method might have if such a pregnancy were allowed to go to term. Rayfield took issue with Harris' assertion that twins were 'clones', drawing a distinction between individuals that share a genetic identity, and the deliberate creation of a being out of someone's DNA.

Marcus Pembury, Chair of the PET, asked the panel what sanctions they would exercise on a member of their community who had transgressed the religion's rules on abortion or assisted reproduction.  Bhanot explained that IVF was not problematic to Hindus, but that the vast majority would like to see the abortion limit reduced to 18 or 20 weeks, because that was when, according to scripture, the soul entered the body. Furthermore, he believed that the legal constitution should be predominantly secular and therefore kept separate from matters of faith. Binstock and Rayfield both emphasised the pastoral element of religion, approaching people with understanding and religious teaching, rather than imposing sanctions. Zubair Butt explained that, in the UK, someone would be advised on their position before God as opposed to applying a sanction, but that in a Muslim country the sanction would be in accordance with that country's law.

Harris then turned the discussion to abortion, questioning whether it was legitimate to base the upper limit of abortion on a fetus' ability to survive outside the womb, when artificial wombs were a real possibility for the future.  In terms of being able to survive independently of the mother, he queried what identifiable element of the fetus it was that conferred value. Jones agreed with Harris, believing that the question was not of viability or implantation, but of what we thought of the developing life.

Nick Goulding, of Bart's London School, asked the panel for their views on whether or not embryos containing animal DNA deserved protection. According to Zubair Butt, the Islamic view was that today's humans were created from the first man, not from animals, and so hybrid embryos were not permitted. Jones said that, rather than thinking of protecting a hybrid embryo, he would prefer that none were created in the first place.  Bhanot did not find the idea of hybrid embryos problematic, but agreed with Harris, stating that, while it was unproblematic to create hybrid embryos for research purposes, it was another matter to contemplate interspecies embryos for the purpose of creating interspecies beings. While Bhanot believed that the morality of such an eventuality would depend on what kind of life such a being would have, Harris took the perhaps more controversial stance that it was a positively desirable move if it would improve the species.

In summing up, Baroness Afshar remarked that, with each religion embracing such a wide range of different views, it was impossible to summarise the moral status of the human embryo from different religious perspectives. She noted that all the religions who had shared their views recognised the value that humanity attaches to what is seen as the human 'soul', but that, in most cases, each religion had a different definition of ensoulment.  'If that soul is the presence of God, it is beyond us, when it arrives and when it leaves', she said.

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