Religion, Genetics and the Embryo

By Boukhari, Sophie | UNESCO Courier, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Religion, Genetics and the Embryo


Boukhari, Sophie, UNESCO Courier


Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews bring an array of responses to the bioethical questions posed by genetic technologies.

Once upon a time Christian theologians argued about the sex of angels. Nowadays they argue about the soul of the human embryo in a debate that concerns creatures of flesh and blood and spills way beyond Christianity.

"Although religious practice may be declining," says French geneticist and Member of Parliament Jean-Francois Mattei, "the meta-physical issue is still at the core of the questions raised about genetic engineering, either by tradition, culture or duty."

Should a person have recourse to prenatal screening and consider having an abortion if a serious genetic defect is discovered? Should research on embryos, gene therapy and cloning be allowed?

All the "religions of the Book" (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) believe that the answers to these questions largely depend on the status of the embryo. The frontier between "good" and "bad" genetic engineering depends on whether or not the embryo is considered to be "animate".

An "opposition front"

"If the embryo has a soul, then it is endowed with a human as well as a biological life and any attack on its integrity is seen as a crime," says French geneticist Rene Frydman. "If it is inanimate, the prohibition remains - God-given life should be respected - but the offence is less serious."

The Catholic Church is in many respects a special case. For a start, it has a single "magisterium" or teaching authority, whereas other religions have a more familiar approach, such as discussions with a rabbi (Jews), priest (Orthodox Christians) or master (Buddhists). Other religions also have various branches (reformed and orthodox Jews, many broad streams of Buddhism) or schools of jurisprudence (Malikite, Hanafite, Shafi'ite and Hanbalite among Sunni Muslims, for example). Most important of all, while all the major religions generally believe human life and dignity should be respected, the Church of Rome is the only religion that considers the embryo "as a human being from the moment of conception", and it sticks firmly to this doctrine.

Pope John Paul II has repeated it several times, notably in the encyclicals Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Evangelium Vitae (1995). These have resulted in a number of prohibitions: "no" to prenatal screening if it it is done with the thought of a possible abortion and "no" to most research and therapy on embryos. The Vatican is also against both reproductive and therapeutic cloning on the grounds that it violates the "unified totality" of the human person and the sacred link between sexuality and procreation.

The positions of Orthodox Christians are very close to those of the Vatican. But the "opposition front" to genetic technologies is limited to these two groups. For Islam and Judaism, the important principles are the moment when the embryo acquires a life of its own and respect for descendance. The Koran says in Surat 23: "And certainly We created man of an extract of clay, Then We made him a small seed in a firm resting-place, Then we made the seed a clot, then we made the clot a lump of flesh, then We made (in) the lump of flesh bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, then We caused it to grow into another creation."

But some Muslims believe it is 40 days before the soul (ruh) enters the embryo, while others believe it is 120. At the same time, while prenatal screening is accepted, there is argument over abortion. H'mida Ennaifer, of the Higher Institute of Theology in Tunis, says "Islamic jurists all condemn abortion after the foetus has received the breath of life. Some Malekites condemn it even when the child is less than 40 days old while other schools of thought allow it during the first four months of pregnancy."

Islam also allows gene therapy on the human body, but in general it proscribes the modification of germ-cells and bans anything which denies the notion of divine creation, starting with cloning.

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