Monday, December 13, 2004


Religion and science: Studies of faith

from news@nature: Religion and Science

"Much of the theological debate about stem-cell research centres on the question of when life begins. Some traditions, including most sects of Judaism and Islam, aren't troubled by this because they don't consider the early embryo fully human. Most Jewish Talmudic scholars, for example, argue that 'ensoulment' takes place 40 days or more into pregnancy, once the human form is roughly established. Before that, the embryo is described as 'water'. Israel accepts embryonic stem-cell research, and the Israeli Academy of Sciences and the Jewish Rabbinical Assembly, headquartered in the United States, have both come out in favour. Likewise, researchers at the Royan Institute in Tehran have developed stem-cell lines with the full blessing of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

According to Hinduism, life begins at conception. But this does not make for easy decisions on the ethics of stem-cell research. Destruction of an embryo could still be justified if it is considered to be an "extraordinary, unavoidable circumstance" and an act "done for greater good", says Swami Tyagananda, Hindu chaplain at the MIT Religious Activities Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Based on these criteria, many traditional Hindu priests are unwilling to condone the work, but it has not provoked much opposition in India, for instance, where embryonic stem-cell research is allowed.

The strongest objections come from Christian sects that regard the sacrifice of an embryo — even an undifferentiated clump of cells in a three-day-old blastocyst — as totally unacceptable. Embryos cannot be killed, they say, any more than Death Row prisoners can be used in lethal experiments, even if the goal is to relieve suffering in others.

Evangelical Christianity relies on a specific interpretation of scripture for its advice on this matter. Psalm 139: 13, for example, says: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb." In Jeremiah 1: 5 God tells the prophet, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you," implying that Jeremiah had 'personhood' in God's eyes even before he was an embryo.

This roughly matches current Vatican thinking. The Catholic Church holds that human life is sacred from the moment of fertilization. But some Catholic theologians point out that the Church's view on the moral status of the embryo has changed over time, and may change again. In fact, scientific breakthroughs — the discovery of the mammalian ovum in 1827 and the first microscopic views of developing embryos — helped to shape the Vatican's thinking. The findings informed Pope Pius IX's decision in 1869 to abandon the Church's moral distinction between early- and late-term abortions and to call instead for full protection of life from the moment of conception."

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