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Could belief in the moral value of human life unite religions?

15 December 2008
By Angeliki Kerasidou
DPhil Candidate in Bioethics, Oxford University
Appeared in BioNews 488
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 of the conference, it seemed to me, was not to bring these views into confrontation with each other or force them into a theological debate regarding the accuracy of their religious doctrines and divinely revealed truths. To the contrary, the aim of the conference was to inform people from different religious backgrounds about: i) what each religion believes and holds regarding the moral status of the human embryo, and ii) how justified this belief is within their own religious denomination. None of the speakers was asked to defend or offer an apologetic for their own religion; rather, just to present their religion's main position.

It is true, to some extent, that knowledge and insight can be gained through constructive argumentation and confrontational debate. This is when ideas and beliefs are tested against each other, allowing for reconsideration and change of view where necessary, or consolidation and conviction. However, argumentation and debate can be much more helpful and constructive when the conflicting sides participating know and understand each other's position. Therefore, the first step in any debate should be introductory and informative. Although the bioethical debate regarding the moral status of the human embryo has been going on for at least a decade now, this conference showed that, actually, the opposing sides do not always have their facts right.

We learned from David Jones that the moment of 'ensoulment' is not a key point for the Christian Catholic tradition and that there is no official doctrine about when the soul enters the human body. Anil Bhanot told us that although the Hindu tradition believes that human life denotes the achievement of the 'highest value within the process of reincarnation that could lead to unity with God', nevertheless Hinduism is prepared to accept the 'sacrifice' of a few for the greater good of the many. Peter Harvey informed us that in Buddhist tradition human life starts 'at conception, when the stream of consciousness from a previously deceased being enlivens an egg in the process of being fertilized and that 'the question of when the developing embryos become a person is not really an issue.' Mufti Muhammed Zubair Butt who represented the Islamic tradition said that according to Islam the viability of life begins at the moment of implantation. And Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain pointed out that although Judaism holds that the embryo does not have the same status as a human that is outside the womb, nevertheless the embryo as containing life in potential should be treated with the utmost care and respect.

Regardless of how much value each religion places on the human embryo and how absolute or not this value seems to be, all religions seems to converge on one major point: that is, the importance of recognising and protecting the sanctity of human life.

In a multicultural society where religions appear to be in conflict with each other, such an acknowledgment can be very useful. One of the main objectives in the area of bioethics at the moment is the establishment of a basic moral and legal code that would be accepted by the majority in society. One possibility as a promising and encouraging starting point could be belief in the value of human life, since, as this conference has indicated, this is common to major religions. Till now, most interfaith discussions/debates regarding the moral status of the human embryo have concentrated on the differences between the various religions. Yet, it might prove more fruitful if, instead of trying to bridge the gap between the different interpretations of what constitutes a morally permissible way of treating human embryos, one starts from the point on which all religions seem to agree.

All religions support the view that human life is valuable. Taking this as a starting point, one can analyse the philosophical anthropological theory (that is the way each religion understands and describes the human factor) each religion offers. By critically investigating the points of conversion and diversion one could perhaps more readily construct a moral theory regarding the moral status of the human embryo that would reflect a common anthropological view.

12 April 2010 - by Sarah Norcross 
First as a reviewer of this book I have a declaration of interest (or lack thereof): I have no faith....
12 January 2009 - by Lorna Stewart 
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...
5 January 2009 - by MacKenna Roberts 
In 1989, scientists first used preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) - a technique that merges IVF with genetic testing, enabling couples with increased risk of passing a genetic disorder onto their children to screen and select only unaffected embryos for implantation. PGD involves the removal of a single cell from three-day-old IVF...
1 December 2008 - by Katy Sinclair 
The annual conference of the Progress Educational Trust - '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...
24 November 2008 - by Peter Harvey 
Buddhism is a non-theistic religion which does not see the world or human life as created by a deity. It does, however, have a strong emphasis on ethics and non-violence, on the intention not to harm and compassion. Buddhism sees a human life as coming after past rebirths in which...
16 November 2008 - by Professor David Jones 
I think the title of Progress Educational Trust's forthcoming conference ('Is the embryo sacrosanct? Multi-faith perspectives.' - see Recommends for details) has been very well chosen. It connects with other kinds of questions - legal, scientific, theological - but in itself it is a specifically moral or ethical question. 'Is the human embryo...
10 November 2008 - by Dr Farouk Mahmoud 
The desperation of the infertile, the scientific zeal of the physician and scriptural restrictions posed by Shari'ah appear to have different pathways.' Muslims constitute over a fifth of the global population, ninety per cent being Sunnis and the rest Shi'a. Of the 50-80 million infertile world-wide, more than half...
9 November 2008 - by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain 
The title of this article is deliberately modest in its claims - 'a Jewish view' - for there is no such thing as 'the Jewish view'. As with Christianity or Islam, there are a wide range of different traditions, ranging from the ultra-conservative to the most liberal, and it is possible to...
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