Religious beliefs shape our thinking on cloning, stem cells and gene editing

By David Warmflash, MD | 27 November 2019
Genetic Literacy Project

(Photo by Luca Baggio on Unsplash)

It is difficult to examine society’s acceptance or rejection of key biotech developments without considering the role played by the world’s major religions and their belief structures.

Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam react to new technologies and concepts in their own way – though there is rarely universal consensus on every issue within those religions. Not surprisingly, the basis for modern day beliefs is often found in scripture and related lore.

To better understand, for example,  how religions view the use of human embryonic tissue for research and treatment, consider the ancient Jewish tales of golemim — super beings created by humans for protection and tasks.

Whereas Christian tradition for many centuries had a prohibition against this kind of “playing God,” Judaism offers many tales of people doing just that. Stories and parables about people creating synthetic life are mentioned in Jewish texts — notably the Talmud and the Zohar. These texts took form from late antiquity through the Middle Ages and into early modern times. They offer insights into how modern Jewish perspectives on biotechnology differ substantially from those of Christianity, whose scholars tend to put more weight on biblical passages.

One interesting tale from the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 65b) involves two rabbis who got together just before the Sabbath to use their powers to create from nothing a 3-year-old calf, which they then sacrificed to make a Sabbath veal dinner. Another Talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 38b) describes the mythical Adam of biblical Genesis being created first as a golem. Later he is enhanced with consciousness.

Use of the word enhanced is intentional here. It’s not to imply that any Medieval Jewish commentary has any scientific relevance vis-a-vis transhumanism, or other applications of biotechnology, but because modern Jewish scholars see them as a kind of foreshadowing of current times in terms of ethical implications and potential dilemmas.

One interesting element of the golem tales is that they often go out of control and wreak havoc. This underlies a perspective in Jewish thinking that one should be cautious in applying biotechnology. But it also may suggest there is nothing prohibiting one from engaging in research and development in the first place — whether we’re talking about GM crops, cloning, chimeric organs, or genome editing, so long as policy makers and regulators take care to assure that the technology is put to beneficial use with appropriate safeguards.

While Islam doesn’t have a formalized collection of commentaries akin to the Talmud, practically speaking, Muslim perspective closely mirrors Jewish perspective. Hinduism takes a similar approach in that there are no particular principles that could be seen as a basis for prohibiting biotech development.

Christianity is a different story. The concept of “playing God” still bothers certain groups. Christian opinion on GMOs is split. However, when it comes to therapeutic cloning via somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to create embryonic stem cells, or use of embryos that have been created by in vitro fertilization (IVF) in fertility clinics, Christian views tend to be more prohibitive compared with other religions.

This is not to say there’s no crossover in opinion between Christians and non-Christians. An old saying goes that if you have two Jews, you have three opinions (and the same probably applies to Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians too). This became apparent as a fascinating discussion played out at Harvard University when representatives from Islam, Judaism and two sects of Protestant Christianity got together to discuss human embryonic stem cell research in 2007.

Assigned to present the Jewish view on embryology relevant to stem cell research, Eric Cohen, director of the Bioethics and American Democracy program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., started out doing just that. But over the course of the discussion, it became apparent that his own personal view aligned closer to that of a Christian — he assigned high moral value to human embryos and failed to distinguish an embryo from a blastocyst, a very early developmental stage that is really where human embryonic stem cell research is focused. In contrast to Cohen, Professor Omar Sultan Haque, of Harvard Medical School, sounded like he was in line with the mainstream Jewish view, even though he was presenting the Islamic perspective. But as we’ll see a little later, the Jewish and Muslim perspectives on life prior to birth — as well as an emphasis on doing good for the public and health — are very similar.

Comparison of religious perspectives on GM food

Hinduism and Islam generally have no inherent problem with GM crops.

“Apart [from] a few key factors, concepts like karma and rebirth, most of the people we call Hindu would probably not agree on many of the issues,” said Hindu scholar Vasudha Narayanan in an interview with VICE News. The basic approach to technology in Hinduism is to accept it based on its practical value, but when it comes to specific religious rituals, that’s when Hindus may take issue. “They may have it in the regular food, but they may not do it in offerings of food to the deity in a temple,” Narayanan added. “There would be ritual contexts in which GMOs might not be used.”

The question of Islamic feelings on the subject was addressed in the same Vice article by Ebrahim Moosa, a University of Notre Dame Islamic Studies professor: “I have seen people who have adopted a position of caution and said one has to watch this issue. It’s not a question of permissible or impermissible, but what is good for our society.”

Mainline Protestant sects of Christianity tend to have no particular objection to GM crops, though the Roman Catholic Church has some concerns according to a 2015 letter from Pope Francis.  Excerpts only are quoted here for the sake of brevity. In recent years, smaller bits of it have been cherry-picked by anti-GMO activist groups to support claims that the Pope “slammed GMOs”, but it really presents a Vatican that is struggling to understand both the science and the broader issues:

It is difficult to make a general judgement about genetic modification (GM)…Genetic mutations, in fact, have often been, and continue to be, caused by nature itself…In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to “the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production”. The most vulnerable of these become temporary labourers, and many rural workers end up moving to poverty-stricken urban areas…Certainly, these issues require constant attention and a concern for their ethical implications. A broad, responsible scientific and social debate needs to take place, one capable of considering all the available information and of calling things by their name….This is a complex environmental issue; it calls for a comprehensive approach which would require, at the very least, greater efforts to finance various lines of independent, interdisciplinary research capable of shedding new light on the problem.

Judaism has no problem with scientists fiddling around with plant genetics. It’s possible to find naysayer rabbis here and there who buy into the same activist concerns that seem to have influenced the Pope, but the general perspective from Judaism is that crops that improve human health and the food supply are beneficial, regardless of how they are made. Thus, when you ask Jewish scholars about GM food, they usually just want to make sure that you’re not talking about transferring genes from a pig, shellfish, or other non-kosher animal into a plant. Thus far, no such transgenic pig plant has come onto the market, and so for religious Jews, GMOs are not likely to become a major concern.

On the contrary, when considering GMOs developed for humanitarian goals — Golden Rice, for example — precedent upon precedent in Jewish law and scholarship weighs heavily in favor of the technology. This has to do with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam — repairing the world.

Conflicting views on when an embryo becomes a person

Embryo-based therapies include use of embryonic stem cells to grow new tissue to replace degenerated tissue, such as in neurodegenerative diseases. Embryos can come from donating parents, or they can be created by cloning the patient who is to receive the new tissue. The latter is called therapeutic cloning and it must be distinguished from reproductive cloning in which one creates a baby with her own genetic make up.

Therapeutic cloning has the potential to treat a range of conditions, from type 1 diabetes, to degenerative conditions like Parkinson disease and various blood disorders. There are disagreements within the various religions over the use of this technology. But the major objection to anything involving human tissue comes from Christianity — because of the belief that life begins at conception. The position was expressed in the 2015 letter of Pope Francis but also reflects views of various Eastern Orthodox and Protestant denominations.

Concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo? There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos.

Certainly there are some liberal Protestant denominations that disagree. And there are those who believe other considerations — finding cures for horrible diseases, for example — come into play.

Hinduism is not fond of abortion, but India permits termination of pregnancy up to 20 weeks of gestation based on a rationale of freedom of choice similar to that underlying the approach in the United States (characterized by complete freedom of choice for the mother during the first two thirds of pregnancy, but increasing restrictions during weeks when the fetus is viable).

Both Judaism and Islam see human ontogeny (development from gametes through personhood) as a kind of graded progression. The Babylonian Talmud considers the early products of conception (what science now calls the zygote, morula, blastocyst, and early embryonic stages) k’mayim, meaning like water until 40 days into pregnancy (tractate Yevamot 69b). At 40 days gestation, many embryos demonstrate the beginnings of brainwave activity (although obviously Talmudic period rabbis didn’t know this). At this point, there also has been a heartbeat for about 3 weeks seen easily on ultrasound — a fact that anti-abortion Christians use frequently in efforts to dissuade potential mothers from ending their pregnancies. But, being like water, a conceptus has no legal or moral status in Talmudic thinking.

From 40 days through the rest of pregnancy, the embryo/fetus has a status as a kind of property in Jewish law. Thus, somebody who harms a pregnant woman in a way that triggers a spontaneous abortion can be charged for damages. But it is not considered murder, nor even killing, until the next stage, which begins when the fetal head crowns through the vaginal opening. And by the way, that’s not the final stage. In terms of religious ritual surrounding mourning, Judaism does not even see a newborn as completely alive until 31 days after birth. This illustrates a view that personhood develops gradually, and in stages, with development occurring both in utero and after birth. Similarly, in Islam there is a threshold during pregnancy, which the majority of people who think about this say is 120 days (roughly 17 weeks gestation), after which a fetus is considered enough like a person such that a physician who follows Islam would not want to terminate a pregnancy. Even beyond the threshold, however, for many Muslims (as with many Christians at any point in pregnancy), the need to save a mother’s life can supersede fetal needs.

The mothers’ life notwithstanding, the graded views of ontogeny put Jewish and Islamic thinking in line with US laws drafted to conform with the watershed 1973 Supreme Court case Roe versus Wade, establishing fetal viability. Legally, that’s 26 weeks gestation, but medically it has been pushed back somewhere around 23 weeks gestation in a minority of fetuses, but this could change (especially with a new technology called the artificial placenta now on deck to enter clinical trials). The way neonatology is going, along with genetic engineering and other technologies, within decades an artificial womb (to which the artificial placenta is a stepping stone) could become reality. This could turn the tables on abortion policy by altering the paradigm of pro-life versus pro-choice, since a woman’s choice to terminate pregnancy could be satisfied without actually killing the embryo or fetus. Rather, it could simply be transferred into an external life-support environment and developed to term.

Buddhism is the perhaps hardest to categorize when it comes to cloning and related biotechnology. Technically, Buddhism considers a blastocyst a human life, but it also considers the well-being of non-human animals equal to that of humans. Buddhists tend to vary in their opinions on abortion unrelated to their religion, and many are fervently pro-choice. Overall, Buddhism is accepting of human embryonic stem cell research. Northwestern University Medical ethics and religious studies professor, Laurie Zoloth, points out that cloning could even support Buddhist beliefs:

“Buddhism can take account the pluripotential nature of the cells, their genomic and genetic possibilities, and understands a kind of reincarnation,” she said in commentaries appearing in ABC Science Online in 2004. “To me it’s a good example of the possibility for even deeply held religious beliefs to achieve change from their own resources, texts, and traditions.”

Professor Yong Moon of Seoul National University in South Korea, said almost the same thing, even more bluntly: “Cloning is a different way of thinking about the recycling of life. It’s a Buddhist way of thinking.”

Artificial wombs, viability thresholds, and reincarnation of cell notwithstanding, therapeutic cloning and human embryonic stem cell research really involves just the blastocyst stage of development. At this stage, for all intents and purposes, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and essentially all major religions are in agreement and in direct opposition to Christianity. Effectively, this makes the starting point for non-Christian religions essentially the same as the starting point for discussions on human embryonic stem cells in the secular world. So, there really are just two paradigms defining the territory for opinions on embryonic stem cells and things related.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist and science writer. He received his M.D. from Tel Aviv University Sackler School of Medicine, and has done post doctoral work at Brandeis University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the NASA Johnson Space Center, where he was part of the NASA’s first cohort of astrobiology training fellows. Dr. Warmflash has written numerous articles covering a range of science topics, from the search for extraterrestrial life and space exploration to the origins of life, genetics, neuroscience, biotechnology, and the history of science. His articles have appeared in various publications, including Wired UK, Discover, Scientific American, Genetic Literacy Project, and Cricket Media. Throughout 2018, he did a blog post series on the emergence of ancient science for Vision Learning, covering thinkers from history. Many of these ancient pioneers of science also make an appearance in his book, “Moon: An Illustrated History: From Ancient Myths to the Colonies of Tomorrow”. Follow him on Twitter @CosmicEvolution.

The Moon and Human History – David Warmflash

Ethics of Gene Editing

The Pro-Life Reply to: “A Fetus is NOT a Person”

Attack on Life and the Catholic Church – Stem Cell Research

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