November 30, 2021

Religions and embryos

From ensoulment to reincarnation

An special feature in the journal Development lists the attitude of various religions towards human embryos. Author William Neaves writes “How religions view the human embryo depends on beliefs about ensoulment and the inception of personhood, and science can neither prove nor refute the teaching of those religions that consider the zygote to be a human person with an immortal soul.”

Catholicism: Having a centralized government and a definitive teaching authority, the Catholic Church holds the most unified and consistent view, despite some contemporary dissidents. It believes that personhood begins with the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm.

Protestantism: “The decentralized nature of Protestant denominations militates against a consistent position on research with human embryos,” Neaves writes. “Some Protestants oppose this research, and their objection centers on the assumption that collecting cells from a blastocyst kills a human being.”

Buddhism. In general, Buddhists believe that “an embryo acquires personhood after implantation in a mother's uterus, and research may be conducted on human embryos in vitro if intended ‘…to help humankind’”

Hinduism. “Most Hindus believe that the beginning of personhood coincides with the occurrence of reincarnation at the moment of conception, and that the earliest human embryo deserves respect. However, Hinduism is intrinsically flexible, and the destruction of a human embryo can be justified under certain circumstances – for example, to save a mother's life.”

Sikhism. Like Hindus, Sikhs believe that “the beginning of personhood coincides with the occurrence of reincarnation at the moment of conception.”

Judaism. “The embryo is considered to be ‘mere water’ until the 40th day when a soul may take up residence in the developing body, but the Babylonian Talmud only attributes full personhood to a fetus when it is birthed. A younger embryo should be treated respectfully but not as a person, with increasing consideration given according to age. The older it is, the more compelling should be the reasons for ending its life.”

Islam. The Qur’an did not settle the time of “ensoulment” and with its multiplicity of traditions, Islam has no definitive view. Some authorities believe that it begins at 40 days after conception; others at 120 days. 

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