Several religious bodies have teachings in place regarding the moral status of human embryos, but they have not formally applied them to early embryos at approximately five days after fertilization. Since the question of whether to allow the destruction of early embryos in stem cell research is a major bone of contention among religious bodies, many consider it necessary to develop and present their positions regarding the moral legitimacy of this research in the public square.1
1.1 Religious bodies who disapprove hES cell research
The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Southern Baptist, hold that from conception onward the embryo should be treated as a living human being. They rule out embryonic stem cell research as they believe that the early embryo has the moral status of a human being. In his statement to the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), Roman Catholic layman Edmund Pellegrino explains:
"In the Roman Catholic view, human life is a continuum from the one-cell stage to death. At every stage, human life has dignity and merits protection. Upon conception, the biological and ontological individuality of a human being is established."2
1.2 Religious bodies who believe in limited-day use of human embryos
The Anglican-Episcopal tradition has developed the view that the early embryo does not have the capacity to become a distinct individual with the potential to develop into a human being until the fourteenth-day point when the primitive streak, the precursor of the spinal cord, develops and the embryo can no longer split into several individuals.3
Within the Jewish tradition, the generally accepted belief is that the embryo is owed protection after 40 days of gestation. In his testimony before NBAC, Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler states that
"There are two prerequisites for the moral status of the embryo as a human being: implantation and 40 days of gestational development. The proposition that humanhood begins at zygote formation, even in vitro, is without basis in biblical moral theology."4
Whereas for many Islamic scholars, they maintain that human embryos take on human life at 120 days after conception. As Abdulaziz Sachedina testifies,
"It is correct to suggest that a majority of the Sunni and Shi'ite jurists will have little problem in endorsing ethically regulated research on the stem cells that promises potential therapeutic value."5
1.3 Religious bodies who accept hES cell research
In a resolution of the 213th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of 2001, it states:
"We believe, as do most authorities that have addressed the issue, that human embryos do have the potential of personhood, and as such they deserve respect. That respect must be shown by requiring that the interests or goals to be accomplished by using human embryos be compelling and unreachable by other means….Prohibition of the derivation of stem cells from embryos would elevate the showing of respect to human embryos above that of helping persons whose pain and suffering might be alleviated. Embryos resulting from infertility treatment to be used for such research must be limited to those embryos that do not have a chance of growing into personhood because the woman has decided to discontinue further treatments and they are not available for donation to another woman for personal or medical reasons, or because a donor is not available."6
Other than the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which accepts human embryonic stem research provided the embryos are surplus from the infertility treatment, the United Methodist Church subscribes to similar view. In his address to the UN Mission Ambassadors on the cloning concerns, Jim Winkler, an official of the United Methodist Church, states that
"The Church supports embryonic stem cell research using embryos leftover from In-vitro fertilization procedures, but NOT that research including cloning."7
1.4 Non-religious bodies who echo religious sentiments
Other individuals who are deeply committed to a religious tradition have also elected not to present the specific beliefs of their tradition in their public testimony. Instead they have appealed to generally held values. Gilbert Meilaender, whose roots are in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, did not seek to convince his audience by presenting specific scriptural or theological grounds for his position against embryonic stem cell research in his statement before NBAC. Instead, he sought to discuss the issue in terms that resonate with both Protestant and secular thought, such as the need to protect the weakest members of the community, what it means to be a person with a history, and the dangers of making ourselves the objects of our own technological manipulations. 8
1.5 Summary of religious views
In short, religious bodies, their representatives, and individuals who adhere to specific religious traditions have various responses to human embryonic stem (hES) cell research. Some have set forth the distinctive resources of their faith, such as their sacred writings and theological teachings. Others have elected not only to explain how their religious writings and teachings have affected their beliefs about the morality of embryonic stem cell research, but also to introduce other considerations. Still others have referred exclusively to secular justifications that coincide with their religious visions and that resonate with those who do not share their religious convictions.9 Generally, the views among the Christian religious bodies can be broadly categorized into three sections: (i) those who are opposed to hES cells research; (ii) those who limit the use of embryos up to fourteenth-day; (iii) those who accept the use of surplus embryos from infertility treatment.
1. Cynthia B. Cohen, "Religion, Public Reason, and Embryonic Stem Cell Research," in Handbook of Bioethics and Religion, ed. David E. Guinn (Madison Avenue, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 131.
2. Edmund D. Pellegrino, "Testimony," in Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research, Vol. 3. Religious Perspectives (Rockville, Md.: National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 2000), F3-5
3. Cynthia B. Cohen, "The Moral Status of Early Embryos and New Genetic Interventions," in A Christian Response to the New Genetics, ed. David H. Smith and Cynthia B. Cohen (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 105-30; Report of a Working Party on Human Fertilisation and Embryology of the Board of Social Responsibility, Church of England, Personal Origins, 2nd rev. ed. (London: Church House Publishing, 1996), 32-45.
4. Moshe Dovid Tendler, "Stem Cell Research and Therapy: A Judeo-Biblical Perspective," in Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research, Vol. 3, Religious Perspectives (Rockville, Md.: National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 2000), H3-4.
5. Abdulaziz Sachedina, "Islamic Perspectives on Research with Human Embryonic Stem Cells," in Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research, Vol. 3, Religious Perspectives (Rockville, Md.: National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 2000), G3-6.
6. General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA), "Overture 01-50. On Adopting a Resolution Enunciating Ethical Guidelines for Fetal Tissue and Stem Cell Research—From the Presbytery of Baltimore," at http://www.pcusa.org/ga213/business/OVT0150.htm (accessed December 08, 2007).
7. Jim Winkler, "Winkler addresses Cloning concerns to UN Mission Ambassadors," November 19, 2004, at http://www.umc-gbcs.org (accessed December 08, 2007).
8. Cohen, "Religion, Public Reason, and Embryonic Stem Cell Research," 133.
9. Ibid., 134-5.
Cohen, Cynthia B. "Religion, Public Reason, and Embryonic Stem Cell Research." In Handbook of Bioethics and Religion, edited by David E. Guinn, 129-142. Madison Avenue, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006.