The scientific and political communities aren’t the only ones weighing in on stem cell issues. Followers of the world’s major religions also have a take, which can in turn influence the scientists and the politicians. The following chronicles central beliefs of Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam concerning the issue of stem cell research. It doesn’t take into account polar sects or variations of each religion.
The Jewish law regarding stem cell research can appear to be somewhat complicated. In the Jewish tradition, an unborn child has what is called “potential human life” until the majority of its body has been delivered from its mother. However, Yoel Jakobovits, a staffer at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, wrote in an article for www.torah.org that, according to Jewish law, an early fetus is only water for the first 40 days of gestation. While it is considered mere water, if it has been implanted into the uterine wall it may not be aborted for retrieving stem cell tissue, even if that reason is to save another life. On the other hand, writes Jakobovits, embryos that have not reached the uterine wall, meaning embryos in a petri dish or those left aside during in vitro fertilization cannot develop into viable fetuses. “Consequently,” he writes, “there would be no Jewish legal opposition to disposing of them, conducting research with them, or deriving stem cell tissue from them.”
For Hindus, life begins at conception, and therefore a fetus is a person. Objections to the research have much to do with where groups stand on abortion. For many Hindus, abortion is an unspeakable act. “Any abortion brings with it a karmic force of destruction that will come back on the mother and father who set it in motion,” according to www.hinduismtoday.com.
There are exceptions for saving the life of the mother, but in general Hindus are opposed to the act.
Where does this position on abortion leave Hindus on the subject of stem cell research? Dr. Valavandan Manickavel of www.hinduismtoday.com says that this is one of the major ethical questions Hindus have to ask when considering the issue. Hindus follow other major religions of the world in encouraging the saving of lives, but the extent to which people should go to save those lives is difficult to judge.
The Catholic Church has been the most vocal Christian group opposed to stem cell research in Missouri and around the country. Like Hindus, Catholics believe that life begins at conception. We were all human embryos at one point, they say, and creating one in order to destroy it is no different. This is the main objection for the Missouri Catholic Conference, which has been heavily involved in countering the amendment that the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures is seeking to put on the November ballot.
“It is critical that we as Catholics, true to the teaching of the natural moral law, oppose the initiative because it seeks to make legal the taking of human life,” wrote Archbishop Raymond Burke of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Catholics are not the only Christian group opposed to the ballot initiative. The United Methodist Church, a 10-million member denomination, voted in May 2004 to say that the creation of embryos purely for research purposes is wrong.
The Buddhist stance on stem cell research is somewhat unclear. According to Roland Peters of Diamond Way Buddhist Center in Austin, Texas, Buddhists hold that the life begins at conception. As such, having an abortion to get embryos is not advisable. But, Peters says, an embryo does not have a “mind” until it has been implanted into the uterus. An embryo in a petri dish does not have a mind and “therefore, if a mind hasn’t attached itself to the embryo, then Buddhists could agree to (embryonic stem cell research).” Peters cautions, however, that Buddhist thought on this issue is still very much unresolved and that only someone like the Dalai Lama could answer the question definitively.
The debate over stem cell research in Muslim circles is a bit different than it is for Christians or other groups. The argument has little to do with the taking of human life. According to Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom Institute and islam-online.net, life does not necessarily begin at conception. The Quran says that the process by which a fetus receives its soul, or ensoulment, occurs during the fourth month of pregnancy. As such, using embryonic stem cells for research does not violate any Islamic law. Ahmad does concede, however, that Muslims are still weighing the ethical implications of creating embryos to create stem cells.