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'Faithful judgments' in bioethics

15 May 2012
By Dr Jackie Leach Scully
Co-director, Policy Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre and reader in social ethics and bioethics, Newcastle University
Appeared in BioNews 656
It's a bit of a cliché to point out that the new reproductive and genetic technologies (NRGTs) have a way of presenting us with taxing social and ethical challenges.

That's because these technologies touch on issues of personal identity, fate, family, and the beginning of life: all areas that are of profound individual and social significance. And all of these are also areas that can have a strong religious dimension. It will have escaped no one that some religious bodies have taken up very defined positions on techniques of assisted conception, for example.

But, while there is quite a lot of information available about the official positions of faith groups on NRGTs (especially for technologies that have been in clinical use for some time, and for those faith groups with strongly held views), our knowledge of the actual practices and opinions of faith group members is surprisingly thin.

There have been few UK-based studies looking specifically at the role of religion in lay people's attitudes to the ethics of biomedical innovations. Here, the discipline of bioethics has tended to pay more attention to official policy, while empirical sociological studies have focused more on ethnic or cultural factors associated with membership of a faith group than on matters of faith per se.

As a consequence, we actually know very little about what 'ordinary' lay members of faith groups - those who are not scientists, philosophers or religious leaders - think about the acceptability of various NRGTs, and even less about how they arrive at their opinions.

We don't know, for example, whether the strongly secular discourse of professional bioethics is used by, or useful to, lay people. We don't know if people of faith perceive special ethical or other difficulties in making use of these technologies, or whether they want or feel able to introduce their religion into public consultations and debates on NRGTs. And when members of different faith groups have to decide whether or not to use one of the NRGTs, we don't know where they go for relevant religious guidance – or if they want any guidance at all.

These are striking and important gaps. The social power of religion in British society may have weakened over the last century, but it is still a potent force in the lives of many people. The vigorous and sometimes acrimonious debates about the place of religion in public life, and how individual faith commitment can best be handled in policy and practice, show no sign of going away.

Clearly there is at least some potential for conflict between individual religious commitment and the wider socioethical consensus around health policy, with possible consequences for faith group members' sense of 'belonging' to civil society. The lack of information about lay views and evaluation processes here has significant implications for clinical practice, and also for designing public consultation and engagement processes that include these voices in appropriate ways. 

'Faithful Judgments'

A team of researchers from Newcastle and Durham Universities is currently carrying out research exploring some of these issues. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, 'Faithful Judgments: The Role of Religion in Lay Bioethical Evaluations of NRGTs' is a two-year project working with lay Christians, Muslims and Hindus.

These three faith groups were chosen because their differences span a wide enough range of theological, structural and cultural settings that the findings should be more generally relevant. 'Religion' is of course a complex concept embracing multiple aspects of belief, meaning, ritual, experience, belonging and community. In this project the focus is on individuals, and how they interpret and transform official doctrinal positions in the course of making their own ethical evaluations.

Part of the research involves one-to-one interviews with people who have personal experience of any kind of assisted conception, from straightforward IVF to egg donation, or any kind of genetic testing up to and including PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis). Importantly, we want to include both those who decided for and those who decided against using the technology. We are also interviewing faith group leaders with pastoral responsibilities for their views. Our findings are likely to be of practical value to healthcare professionals, policymakers, and not least patients and prospective users of these technologies.

The Faithful Judgments team is Dr Jackie Leach Scully and Dr Jackie Haq, Newcastle University; Professor Sarah Banks and Dr Robert Song, Durham University.

Would you like to help? If you have had personal experience of any new reproductive or genetic technology, and would like to take part in an interview, the team would very much like to hear from you. Or if you know someone else who might be interested, the group would love you to spread the word. You can contact Dr Jackie Haq at or on +44 (0)191 208 3260.

You can read more about the project here.

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