Embryo and Fetus: IV. Religious Perspectives

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Even for those who are not actively religious, nascent human life evokes awe and a sense of being in the presence of primal powers of creation. In the procreation of all species, from plants to domestic pets, religious consciousness often senses the divine at play in the natural. In human procreation in particular, human beings not only observe but also participate in that power, and by conceiving and giving birth humans play a small but profoundly personal role in creation.

There is little wonder, then, that for millennia, religious texts have spoken of human procreation with tones of wonder. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 139 reads in part:

For thou didst form my inward parts,
thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful.
Wonderful are thy works!
Thou knowest me right well;
my frame was not hidden from thee,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.
Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance … (Psalms 139:13–16a)

In ancient Hebrew thought, procreation is the realm of divine prerogative. The protracted struggle for monotheism is in part a rejection of the idea, probably widespread in the ancient world, that fertility is itself divine. Hebrew mono-theism could not tolerate lesser gods, such as fertility. In the name of one God, the prophets insisted that though mysterious, fertility is one of many processes of nature entirely under God's control. Various forms of polytheism in the ancient world saw these processes as deities in themselves, often female, and the success of monotheism is in some respects a desacralization and a defeminization of these processes. But such a desacralization goes only so far. For the ancient Hebrew monotheist, the one supreme God is intimately and personally present in these processes, making them anything but merely natural.

From Creation to Procreation

As an arena of divine presence, nascent life must be held in respect, for if it is God's work, its development must not be thwarted nor its condition questioned. According to the prophet Isaiah, God declares:

Woe to you who strive with your Maker,
earthen vessels with the potter!
Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, "What are you making"?
or "Your work has no handles"?
Woe to anyone who says to a father, "What are you begetting?"
Or to a woman, "With what are you in labor?" (Isa. 45:9–10)

Because procreation is the work of God, it is unseemly to question how or when it occurs, much less speculate about God's competence in making humankind.

Ancient biblical culture is also characterized by the command to propagate (Genesis 1:28) and thus by a strongly reinforced desire for children. In addition to any innate yearning or social pressure for offspring, the infertile in biblical culture no doubt feared being seen as disobedient, and several biblical stories contain impassioned pleas for children. The most notably such plea is that of postmenopausal Sarah, the wife of Abraham, who according to the story subsequently gives birth to Isaac from whom all Israel descends. That God can cause this to happen against nature is taken as evidence of God's supremacy over nature.

In view of the involvement of God in procreation and of the command to populate the earth, it is somewhat surprising that Hebrew Scripture says little or nothing about the moral status of human life in utero. Exodus, chapter 21, discusses the legal consequences that follow from an accidental miscarriage: "When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life …" (Exod. 21: 22–23).

While the text leaves much unsaid, it does prescribe different penalties for causing a miscarriage (a fine) and for causing the women's death (a capital offense), suggesting that these are offenses of a substantially different magnitude. Strictly speaking the scope here is limited to miscarriage or unintentional abortion, so its applicability to an intended abortion is subject to debate.

Early Judaism

In Judaism at the beginning of the common era, this text was interpreted in various ways. In most interpretations, developing life was not generally regarded as possessing the legal status of a person, but abortion was nonetheless opposed, in part because of its interference with creation, in part because it violated the command to reproduce, and in part because it deprived the family (in particular the father) of something of value in the birth of another child. Generally speaking, Judaism objected to the widespread acceptance of abortion (and even of infanticide) in the ancient world, even if it did not see abortion as a highly serious offense.

In the translation of this Hebrew text into Greek, a significant mistranslation occurred. Where the original says "no harm," the translators substituted "no form," thereby introducing into religious debate the distinction between the unformed and the formed fetus. The widely influential Jewish scholar Philo (c. 20 b.c.e.–c. 50 c.e.), for instance, distinguished between formed and unformed fetus, and early Christianity picked up this distinction.

Christian Origins

The New Testament itself takes no position on abortion or on the status of embryonic or fetal life, although some scholars feel that negative references to pharmakeia in several passages specifically refer to abortifacient drugs and not to medicine generally. As in Judaism, the core Scriptures of Christianity ignore the moral questions of fetal life and of abortion. But to say that because the New Testament does not address abortion, it says nothing theological about fetal life, is wrong. Two of the four Gospels (Matthew and Luke) devote substantial attention to the miraculous conception not just of Jesus but also of his forerunner, John the Baptist. According to the story, John's mother Elizabeth is too old to conceive, but in keeping with a tradition that goes back to Sarah, she conceives because of God's involvement and for the sake of God's purposes. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is Elizabeth's cousin, and in the story of the "virgin birth" (or more precisely the "virginal conception") the tradition of miraculous conceptions reaches its culmination. God is so immediately involved in the details of this human conception that a human sperm is replaced by a miracle. The virgin birth is often the subject of theological puzzlement by scholars but is widely, if only sentimentally, affirmed by many ordinary Christians to this day. One must not under-estimate the significance of this tradition in forming Christian attitudes toward embryonic and fetal life.

Not unexpectedly, therefore, as Christianity developed and distinguished itself from Judaism, it opposed abortion more strongly than Judaism or than the teachings of the New Testament itself. In some early post–New Testament writings, abortion is equated with murder. For instance, an early writing known as the Didache comments on abortion by listing it among the commandments: "You shall not commit murder … you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born" (2:2). This text not only prohibits abortion, but, by identifying it with murder, also implies that fetal life is fully human or personal. Another early text, the Letter of Barnabas, uses essentially the same terms: "Thou shalt not kill the fetus by an abortion or commit infanticide" (19:5). These texts, critically important in shaping the early Christian conscience, expressed agreement in considering abortion as murder and as elevating its prohibition to the status of commandment. Furthermore, the claim that God is fully present in the human life of Jesus, even in utero, at once divided Christian from Jew and drove the Christian to a new consciousness of the value of nascent life.

Form and Soul

Even so, early Christian writers often retained the distinction between the formed and unformed fetus, implying that the unformed fetus possesses a lesser status than one that is fully formed. One of the first Latin Christian theologians, Tertullian, who lived around 200 c.e., opposed abortion but implied in his writings that there is a distinction of significance between the formed and unformed embryo. In chapter 37 of his treatise On the Soul, Tertullian wrote: "The embryo therefore becomes a human being in the womb from the moment that its form is completed."

One way to defend the distinction between formed and unformed is to hold that the human soul is added to the developing fetus when it attains a recognizably human shape. The metaphysics of the fourth century b.c.e. Greek philosopher Aristotle, which links soul and form, was often used here for support. Thus, what begins as an empirical question—does the fetus have a human shape?—becomes entwined with a religious and metaphysical question of whether the fetus has a soul, and at what stage this is so. The joining of the soul to the developing organism, a process called ensoulment, thus became a subject of intense religious debate among Christian theologians.

This debate was never resolved and in fact quickly became entangled in conflicting Christian views of the human soul, its origin, and the nature of its relationship to the human body, all set against the backdrop of competing philosophical options. In this regard Tertullian held a view peculiar among Christians that the soul is not a spiritual but a material substance and is transmitted sexually rather than created by God. Most other theologians of the early church saw the soul as a spiritual substance. In contrast, however, to philosophical views that accepted a dualism of soul and body, Christian theologians generally agreed that body and soul, though metaphysically distinct, are functionally inseparable. In death, the soul is not freed from the body, as the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428–c. 347 b.c.e.) contended, but awaits the resurrection of the body in order that both soul and body might be transformed together into a glorified mode of immortal existence. Speculation about ensoulment, therefore, was always grounded on this insistence on the unity of soul with body.

Unity of Soul and Body

The widely influential Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 394), for instance, held so strongly to the unity of soul and body that he could not imagine the body developing at all without the soul being present. In a work called On the Making of Man, Gregory wrote: "As man is one, the being consisting of soul and body, we are to suppose that the beginning of his existence is one, common to both parts so that it is not true to say either that the soul exists before the body, or that the body exists without the soul, but that there is one beginning of both" (chap. 29). According to Gregory, at every stage of human development, from inception to resurrection, body and soul function as one.

In the same work, Gregory elaborates on the development of the soul with the body:

For as the body proceeds from a very small original to the perfect state, so also the operation of the soul, growing in correspondence with the subject, gains and increases with it. For at its first formation there comes first of all its power of growth and nutriment alone, as though it were some root buried in the ground; for the limited nature of the recipient does not admit of more; then, as the plant comes forth to the light and shows its shoot to the sun, the gift of sensibility blossoms in addition, but when at last it is ripened and has grown up to its proper height, the power of reason begins to shine forth like a fruit, not appearing in its whole vigour all at once, but by care increasing with the perfection of the instrument, bearing always as much fruit as the powers of the subject allow. (chap. 29)

In Gregory's view, there is no moment or process of ensoulment subsequent to conception. Existence and ensoulment are one.

Augustine's Options

As Gregory of Nyssa profoundly influenced the development of Greek Christianity and thus of the subsequent Orthodox Churches, so Augustine (354–430) deeply shaped Western or Latin Christianity, which at the Reformation (beginning about 1520) became Catholicism and Protestantism. Augustine, whose influence can scarcely be exaggerated, accepted the distinction between the formed and unformed fetus. In addition he tended to be more dualistic in his thinking, and he therefore accepted greater discontinuity between soul and body than did Gregory or other Eastern theologians.

Although Augustine was not generally indecisive on theological and moral matters, he remained undecided throughout his life on the question of the origin of the human soul and the way it is joined with the human body. One possibility (called creationism) is that God creates the soul at around the time of conception or somewhat later and joins it to the developing body. By allowing separate origins for the soul and the body, this view makes possible the idea that for a time, the body develops without a human soul being present, something Gregory flatly rejected. The other possibility that Augustine considered (called traducianism) is that soul and body come into existence together, that is to say, at conception, when both are transmitted together from one generation to the next. Tertullian accepted traducianism, and perhaps for that reason, other Western theologians see it as degrading the soul by making it material rather than spiritual in substance.

Both Augustine's indecision and his speculations remain influential in Western Christianity. Concerning the pastoral question of whether the results of miscarriage or abortion will share in the general human destiny of immortality, Augustine wrote in the Enchiridion:

… with respect to the resurrection of the body … comes the question about abortive fetuses, which are indeed "born" in the mother's womb, but are never so that they could be "reborn." For, if we say that there is a resurrection for them, then we can agree that at least as much is true of fetuses that are fully formed. But, with regard to undeveloped fetuses, who would not more readily think that they perish, like seeds that did not germinate? (23:84–85)

Here Augustine accepts the distinction between formed and unformed and uses it in the ultimate theological context—the question of what is human in the resurrection. He also uses it to clarify his opposition to abortion. For him, destroying the formed fetus is murder, whereas destroying the unformed fetus is a lesser offense.

When it comes to the deeper theoretical question of the beginning of human life, Augustine admits his uncertainty in the Enchiridion:

On this score, a corollary question may be most carefully discussed by the most learned men, and still I do not know that any man can answer it, namely: When does a human being begin to live in the womb? Is there some form of hidden life, not yet apparent in the motions of a living thing? To deny, for example, that those fetuses ever lived at all which are cut away limb by limb and cast out of the wombs of pregnant women, lest the mothers die also if the fetuses were left there dead, would seem much too rash. (23:86)

The Development of Catholic Thought

In time creationism, with its dualistic tendencies, became the majority view in the Western or Latin church, and it was often combined with the idea that the soul was not joined to the body until formation. The reintroduction of Aristotle into Western thought brought new subtleties to the discussion. Thomas Aquinas, whose integration of Aristotle into Christian theology in the thirteenth century was at first controversial but was subsequently seen as authoritative for Catholics, combined creationism with the view that the soul undergoes transition. At its beginning, the embryo does not have a human soul, merely the kind of soul common to all forms of life and responsible for growth and development. Only when fetal development advances to a stage that resembles human form is it possible for the human soul to be present. The human or intellectual soul is immaterial and must be created by God, who joins it to the developing fetus. At that moment of ensoulment, the fetus becomes human or attains hominization, and its moral claim to life is absolute.

Thomas's position is dependent upon an empirical observation of Aristotle, who concluded that the human soul is present at forty days after conception for males and ninety for females. Because the soul was thought to animate the body, "quickening," or the feeling of fetal movement, was taken as a sign that ensoulment had occurred. Until 1869, the Catholic Church recognized a distinction between the ensouled and the unensouled fetus, insisting on a higher penalty for the destruction of the former.

Into the Modern Era

Protestantism, which in its various forms became separate from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, tended to take a more strict view against abortion than the Catholics, opposite to the modern situation. This is perhaps because of the Protestant return to early church standards and its rejection of much of the previous thousand years of church tradition, particularly in philosophical theology. Early followers of Martin Luther and John Calvin (leaders of the Reformation) held views that resembled those of Gregory of Nyssa more than those of Thomas Aquinas. In time, however, theological and philosophical considerations reentered Protestant discussion, along with both an encounter with new scientific discoveries in biology and embryology and a general tendency in Protestantism to accommodate contemporary culture whenever reasonably possible. As a result, by the twentieth century, Protestantism was largely tolerant of abortion even while discouraging its members from obtaining one for less than urgent reasons.

During this same period, Catholic teaching moved in the opposite direction. Scientific discoveries (and in some cases, misinterpretation of data, such as the view that the earliest embryo is fully shaped like a tiny human being) led Catholic theologians to challenge their own previous view of delayed hominization and to propose in its place a new theory of immediate hominization. This idea gained popularity after 1700, until, in 1869, Catholic canon law removed the distinction between the ensouled and the unensouled fetus, thereby implying but not asserting that immediate hominization is the correct view. The key point, however, is that the abortion of an unformed fetus is to be regarded as the moral equivalent of the abortion of a formed fetus, and therefore abortion is murder at any stage. With this development, Catholic moral teaching became absolute, whereas Catholic theology remained somewhat open to various perspectives on the metaphysical status of the embryo. As a result, Catholic morals and theology developed somewhat independently, based in part on the claim that moral certainty does not require doctrinal clarity.

Current Catholic Teaching

In 1987 the Catholic Church provided guidance on reproductive medicine and embryo research in Donum vitae (Respect for human life). Donum vitae poses and then answers a key question: "how could a human individual not be a human person? The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987, part I, no. 1). In other words, immediate hominization is not affirmed doctrinally but its implications are fully asserted morally, not just for abortion some weeks into a pregnancy but in regard to the embryo at the earliest moment. Donum vitae insists:

The human being must be respected—as a person—from the very first instant of his existence.… Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987, part I, no. 1)

Again asserting moral certainty while avoiding doctrinal conclusiveness, the Catholic Church in 1974 issued its Declaration on Procured Abortion, which states: "This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused. There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement" (Sacred Congregation, p. 13). This statement almost invites debate on dogma while shutting the door to reconsideration of moral teaching.

Dogma and Debate

The discussion of the theology of nascent human life has been vigorous among Catholic scholars and some Protestants. Recent scientific discoveries in genetics and embryology have been considered in the debate, particularly relating to whether the human embryo prior to about fourteen days can be said to be an individual. There is general agreement, according to a 1984 article by Carol A. Tauer, that "the stage of individual has been seen as a morally relevant marker because it appears that only individuals can be wrongfully killed or otherwise injured" (p. 5).

While genetics and embryology support the idea that the newly conceived embryo is a genetically unique human life, three other biological considerations have been raised to argue against the idea that the early embryo is an individual: The embryo might divide into two (twinning); an embryo might join with another genetically unique embryo to form a chimera, which then continues to develop as one human individual; and as many as 75 percent of all human conceptions fail to survive. In a 1990 article, Thomas A. Shannon and Allan B. Wolter argued that "something human and individual is not a human person until he or she is a human individual, that is, not until after the process of individual is completed. Neither the zygote nor the blastocyst is an ontological individual, even though it is genetically unique and distinct from the parents" (p. 613).

A related question is whether the embryo, which lacks most human qualities, nonetheless typically anticipates their development and thus must be said to possess them potentially, or to have potentiality. If so, does that potentiality confer a status to the embryo as one who must be regarded morally as already possessing what is only its potential? Furthermore, if the embryo is out of the body (and thus unable to actualize its potential), does it possess a lower status? Or if the embryo is somehow biologically incapable of developing, either because of a natural or technologically induced impairment, does it likewise lack whatever value potentiality confers? These questions remain open.

Given that Catholic theologians hold various views on the individuation or personhood of the embryo, how can Catholic moral certainty be possible? Much depends, of course, on the conclusion one draws from the variety of views. One might conclude that when various views are held, one should err on the side of caution, give the embryo the benefit of any doubt, and treat it as if it were a human person. Others conclude that in light of the evidence, it cannot be a human person and that therefore, aside from the authority of the church, there is no obligation to treat it as such.

Protestant Perspectives

Protestants, in the late-twentieth century, were generally supportive of the right of women to choose an abortion, even though they adopted a cautious approach of limiting to the most serious reasons the circumstances under which this right could be exercised. For instance, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in a 2000 publication, outlined a position similar to that of other traditional denominations:

The considered decision of a woman to terminate a pregnancy can be a morally acceptable, though certainly not the only or required, decision. Possible justifying circumstances would include medical indications of severe physical or mental deformity, conception as a result of rape or incest, or conditions under which the physical or mental health of either woman or child would be gravely threatened. (p. 431)

This is not to suggest that the members of these denominations are in strong agreement with the official position, and in fact there is some reason to believe that support for these positions is eroding. In addition, the character of Protestantism has been changing in the United States, with the rapid growth of evangelical, independent, and charismatic churches that often criticize traditional denominations for being too accommodating to secular culture on matters such as abortion. As a result, even those who fully support the right of women to choose an abortion as a matter of public policy are recognizing that at the same time, they must acknowledge the moral value of what is lost. Furthermore, some African-American Christians are suspicious of abortion for the additional reason that it appears to them to be a way to limit their numbers.

Prominent Protestants have also stood in opposition to abortion. Karl Barth, often seen as the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, objected to abortion, while Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps the most influential Protestant theologian in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, is also critical of abortion along with other accommodations to modern culture.

Whether tolerating abortion under limited circumstances or condemning it in almost all cases, contemporary Protestants tend to agree among themselves that questions of ensoulment are too dualistic for Christian faith, at least in its Biblical roots. They see human life, as a whole and from beginning to end, as a gift of God that we dare not refuse lest we reject our own humanity. In some respects the views of recent Protestants have more in common with those of Gregory of Nyssa than with recent Catholic debate, and thus Protestants agree with Orthodox theologian John Breck's assessment that Orthodoxy would "take issue with the Catholic Church's doctrine of ensoulment, at least as it has been expressed in Aristotelian and Thomistic terms … [as] dualistic to Orthodox ears" (p. 140). While Orthodoxy has no doubt about when the unitary gift of human life begins (that is, at conception), Protestants by virtue of their institutional structure and communal ethos will surely continue to disagree, some siding with Orthodoxy and practically with Catholicism, others siding with Judaism and Islam.

Special notice should be paid to the perspective of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons. While dependent in many ways upon the views of Christianity and Judaism, and sharing scriptures with these traditions, Mormonism develops a somewhat distinct view. Mormons have tended to be restrictive if not prohibitive on abortion, although not necessarily seeing it as murder. Furthermore, as Lester E. Bush observes, Mormonism does not hold to a dogma on the embryo or the fetus, but tends to see each human person or soul as the dynamic interplay between the biological and the spiritual. Somewhere in the process of fetal development, usually at quickening or at birth but not at conception, spirit is present and thus the developing life is a person deserving absolute protection. Given the size of the Latter Day Saints, these views have considerable political significance in the United States.

Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism

Judaism is generally tolerant of the public policy of choice in abortion but teaches that abortion should be chosen only for compelling reasons. It does not regard abortion as murder, however, and it is open to the prospect of using human embryos in research and therapy because it regards the embryo outside the body as having no legal standing. In fact, even in the body, the embryo's status for the first forty days, according to the Talmud, is "as if it were simply water" (Dorff, 2002). As a result, Judaism is supportive not just of in vitro fertilization but of more recent developments such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis.

Islam bases its understanding of developing human life on the section in the Koran (23:12–16) that describes human creation as beginning with a tiny drop from which the larger and more complex structure of the fetus is fashioned by God the creator, who breathes life into what is formed. Islam thus sees each human life as created by God through a developmental process. Islamic scholars sometimes distinguish between the ensouled and the unensouled fetus, often arriving at the end of the fourth month as the point in fetal development when abortion is no longer permissible for any reason.

Other Islamic scholars argue that recent scientific discoveries demonstrate that the embryo is alive from the earliest moment and thus deserves full protection, but the more common and traditional view is to accord legal status as a person only after the form is recognizable and movement is voluntary. When it comes to the use of genetic or reproductive technology, Islam is guided primarily by the general context in which the technology is applied rather than by the technology considered abstractly. If reproductive technology serves the goal of health within the context of marriage, it is permitted; if not, it is rejected.

Detailed theological and moral discussion of topics such as abortion, the beginning of life, and embryo research is far more characteristic of the Western monotheisms (particularly Christianity) than of the other great religions. In Buddhism, however, rich conceptual and practical traditions have made it possible for some countries such as Japan to address abortion without the divisiveness characteristic of the West. The first of the Five Precepts of Buddhism is the prohibition against taking life, including embryonic life. While there is some traditional debate in Buddhism about when reincarnate life is present in the developing fetus, for the most part Buddhists agree that abortion is always wrong. At the same time, what is wrong is also sometimes necessary, but that does not make the act less wrong or the loss less tragic. On the one hand, there is the moral teaching, quoted by James Hughes as follows: "It is the woman carrying the fetus, and no one else, who must in the end make this most difficult decision and live with it for the rest of her life. As Buddhists, we can only encourage her to make a decision that is both thoughtful and compassionate" (Hughes, p.191). But on the other hand, in Japan in particular, fetal loss of any sort is mourned and observed with ritual and remembrance (mizuko) far more than in the Christian West. Similar traditions are found in Thailand and Vietnam. Far from legitimizing abortion through religious sanction, these rituals help to maintain the Buddhist prohibition against taking even fetal life even in a social context that occasionally requires just this act.

New Technologies

Religious ideas about nascent human life were developed long before modern science opened up the fields of genetics or embryology and prior to technology making the embryo an object of manipulation. These new developments bear on religious understandings, and religious perspectives are likewise brought to bear in assessing the legitimacy of various technological options, such as in vitro fertilization, prenatal genetic testing, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, cloning, and embryonic stem cells.

The responses of various religious traditions to these developments are largely outgrowths of classic positions and thus predictable. Catholic teaching objects to any attempt to move procreation outside its natural context and thus opposes in vitro fertilization. Because of its uncompromising objection to abortion, Donum vitae objects to prenatal genetic diagnosis unless limited to healing the individual: "But this diagnosis is gravely opposed to the moral law when it is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion" (part I, no. 2). Judaism, Islam, and Protestantism generally permit in vitro procedures and also allow, with practical reservations, prenatal genetic diagnosis.

Preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which involves in vitro fertilization followed by a genetic test of the embryos to determine the most healthy for implantation, is likewise rejected by Catholic teaching but accepted by others, although the cost factor raises religious concerns for social justice.

Cloned Embryos

Reproductive cloning is widely condemned by religious institutions and by nearly all religious scholars, but use of the cloning technique (somatic cell nuclear transfer) to create embryos for research purposes is permitted under some religious grounds while being strongly condemned under others. Catholic teaching clearly forbids any form of embryo research that destroys the embryo, cloned or otherwise. According to the Pontifical Academy for Life, "The ablation of the inner cell mass (ICM) of the blastocyst, which critically and irremediably damages the human embryo, curtailing its development, is a gravely immoral act and consequently is gravely illicit."

In similar terms, the conservative Protestant Southern Baptist Convention, at its national meeting in 1999, stated: "[we] reaffirm our vigorous opposition to the destruction of innocent human life, including the destruction of human embryos." The opposite position, however, is taken by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which declared in 2001: "With careful regulation, we affirm the use of human stem cell tissue for research that may result in the restoring of health to those suffering from serious illness. We affirm our support for stem cell research, recognizing that this research moves to a new and challenging frontier."

On this, the Presbyterian position (shared by some other similar denominations) is substantially indistinguishable from that of Judaism. An example of the latter is found in a joint statement offered by the heads of the various branches of Judaism in the United States. This statement begins by stressing the God-given human role in mending the creation: "The Torah commands us to treat and cure the ill and to defeat disease wherever possible; to do this is to be the Creator's partner in safeguarding the created" (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the Rabbinical Council of America, 2002). To this end, humans are permitted to use human embryos in research, for "our tradition states that an embryo in vitro does not enjoy the full status of human-hood and its attendant protections. Thus, if cloning technology research advances our ability to heal humans with greater success, it ought to be pursued since it does not require or encourage the destruction of life in the process" (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the Rabbinical Council of America, 2002). Reproductive cloning, however, is opposed, and therefore careful oversight of research must be in place.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it appears possible to create human embryos by nuclear transfer, embryo splitting, or by a process usually called partheno-genesis by which researchers induce an egg to start dividing like an embryo without fertilization. In each of these processes, something like an embryo comes into existence without fertilization or conception in the usual sense. If an embryo strictly speaking is the result of conception, then these entities are not embryos. One cannot imagine, however, that those who hold passionately to the slogan that "life begins at conception" will not modify their rhetoric to say that life begins at conception or anything that replaces conception.

A deeper issue is whether these entities, even if implanted, have the biological potential to develop into a human life. In some cases, probably most, it will turn out that they lack this potential. If so, will they be seen as embryo-like but as sub-embryos, morally speaking? Surely, some out of religious conviction will defend their status as "one of us" or as fully human. In time, however, technology may find even more ways to create entities that function in some ways like embryos but in other ways fail as their biological equivalent, and so religious, moral, and policy distinctions are inevitable.


Far from being relics of a prescientific era, the religions today, even in their disagreements, serve to focus both our awe at the mysteries of our humanity and our anxieties about our future. Religious traditions, which are anything but changeless, will probably continue to adapt to our changing knowledge of ourselves and our growing powers to modify our nature. In so doing, through doctrinal argument and moral warning, they will perhaps shed some light on our biological origins and on our technological destiny.

ronald cole-turner

SEE ALSO: African Religions; Bioethics, African-American Perspectives; Buddhism, Bioethics in; Christianity, Bioethics in; Daoism, Bioethics in; Eugenics and Religious Law; Islam, Bioethics in; Jainism, Bioethics in; Judaism, Bioethics in; Medical Ethics, History of Europe; Mormonism, Bioethics in; Native American Religions, Bioethics in; Reproductive Technologies; Sikhism, Bioethics in;Transhumanism and Posthumanism; and other Embryo and Fetus subentries


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Augustine. 1955. Enchiridion. In "Confessions and Enchiridion," tr. and ed. Albert C. Outler. Library of Christian Classics, vol. 7. Chap. 23: 84–85. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Breck, John. 2000. The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Bush, Lester E. 1985. "Ethical Issues in Reproductive Medicine: A Mormon Perspective," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18(2): 41ff.

Cahill, Lisa Sowle. 1993. "The Embryo and the Fetus: New Moral Contexts." Theological Studies 54(1): 124–142.

Cole-Turner, Ronald, and Waters, Brent, ed. 2003. God and the Embryo: Religious Voices on Stems and Cells and Cloning. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 1974. Declaration on Procured Abortion. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference.

Dorff, Elliot N. 1998. Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

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Embryo and Fetus: IV. Religious Perspectives

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