About the discipline
Biology studies living organisms, through data, models and theories based on observation. Similarly to many religions, it aims to explain the origin and order of the world, through understanding plant, animal and human life.
Biology and religion are both used to argue positions on issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, animal research and evolution, coming at the origins and definitions of life from different ideologies. Some believe religion and scientific explanations are complementary, others believe they are contradictory. Can or should science and religion work in tandem, will they always be in conflict, are there other alternatives? Debate over the issue of stem-cell research is an example of how religious beliefs can inform ethical beliefs about scientific theories and experimentation. Use of cells from embryos is controversial for many in the religious community on the basis that it could amount to human cloning, an unnatural act of “creation” taken from the hand of God, with an array of ethical ramifications; and that embryos could be — or develop into — human beings with rights to life. Supporters of stem-cell research argue that the potential health benefits to existing humans outweighs concerns over destruction of embryos and that manipulating cells in a laboratory is different from cloning humans. Opponents argue that the work disrespects potential human life, and that even procedures that may not destroy embryos pose serious ethical issues.Religious opinions
A 2005 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that by a nearly 2-1 ratio (57 percent to 30 percent) Americans said it was more important to conduct stem-cell research to find new cures than to not destroy the potential life of embryos involved in the research. Polls show more Americans support embryonic stem cell research now than a year ago. Roughly half (52 percent) of opponents say their religious beliefs are the biggest influence on their thinking.
The Catholic Church has led opposition to human embryonic stem-cell research because of what it calls the “sanctity of life.” Catholic doctrine holds that life begins at conception, so an embryo, even in its earliest stage of development, is regarded as a human life. Destroying an embryo, even for curing disease, is regarded as immoral. The National Catholic Bioethics Center advocates finding ways to harvest stem cells without the use of embryos. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission opposes embryonic stem cell research, as does the evangelical Christian Focus on the Family.
A task force reporting to the Episcopal Church’s 2003 General Convention concluded that “it is in keeping with our call to heal the afflicted” to make use of embryos already held in fertility clinics, but took a “conservative and balanced approach” in stressing that it does not recommend embryos be created for stem-cell research.
Mainstream Jewish doctrine holds that life begins at a later stage of development (than embryonic). It does not grant legal status to an embryo. Traditionally, the Jewish faith holds that life begins at quickening, or the first time a mother feels the movement of a fetus. The Jewish Orthodox Union supports therapeutic cloning from a Jewish theological perspective, arguing that an embryo outside the womb is not a viable life form. Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is lobbying state legislatures for medical research on embryonic stem cells. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism supports embryonic stem cell research within ethical guidelines, citing the Jewish values of “preserving life and promoting health.”
Muslim leaders support embryonic stem cell research within certain limits, especially if the research has potential to cure diseases. Muslim experts say that an embryo not in its natural environment, the womb, is not human. If not placed in the womb it would not survive and become a human being. However, it is important to establish strict rules against the misuse of embryos.
Some opinions on stem-cell research are based on a notion of human dignity — ascribed scripturally through humans being “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God (Psalm 139:13-14) and created by God “in his own image” (Gen. 1:27) – that being human sets people apart from animals and makes their lives sacred because they were created by God. Others argue that, because disease not only affects the body but can rob a person of dignity, stem-cell research has potential to respect human life by restoring dignity to the suffering.
Both biology and religion seek to understand and define the origin and definition of human life, which informs opinions on issues such as stem-cell research and abortion. Many religious and social conservatives believe human personhood is attained at conception, or shortly thereafter when cellular division occurs. Many religious liberals, social liberals and secularists believe personhood happens later, during the embryonic or fetal stage of pregnancy, or even at birth when the fetus becomes independent of its mother. Scientifically, human life could begin when the human egg and sperm nuclei fuse at fertilization. Or when the embryo becomes an individual, 14 days after fertilization, when each embryo can produce only one individual and after cells have developed into specific types. But there is no consensus about when human life becomes a person with fundamental human rights, including the right to life itself.
Other topics that question the origin and value of life include the study of evolution, first presented by Charles Darwin in his 1859 Origin of the Species, describing a scientific explanation for the origin of the array of species on the planet. The theories of evolution and natural selection, deemed blasphemous as the time, contradicted the story of the world’s origin and order described in the biblical account, Genesis. Evolution is the theory is that all living things share a common ancestor, and that the complex life forms we know today evolved from single-celled organisms over millions of years. Today, some religious believers promote the idea of intelligent design, that some aspects of life forms are so complex that they must reflect the design of a conscious, rational intelligence. There is also “theistic evolution,” the belief that God guided evolution, causing both the first life forms to appear as well as the eventual development of higher forms of life. Creationists believe in the literal truth of the Bible’s account of creation in Gen. 1:1-2:4a, where God creates the Earth and all its life forms in six consecutive 24-hour days less than 10,000 years ago. Some believers also take biblical descriptions of humans being “fearfully and wonderfully made” and created by God “in his own image” to dispute theories that humans and animals could share a common ancestor. Scientists, religious believers, educators and others continue to debate the value of teaching scientific and religious beliefs about the origin of life, and how it will be taught to future generations.
The appropriateness of using animals for scientific and medical research is also rooted in belief systems often determined by religion. Using animals in medical research is required by law for pharmaceuticals and many say it is crucial to finding treatments and cures. Researchers also say they have a moral and ethical obligation to consumers to provide safe products, and that sometimes the only way to do that is to test them on animals. A key facet of many religions is living in harmony with other natural life and showing care and respect for animal life.
Those who practice in the field of life sciences face moral and ethical issues in scientific research and medical treatment, as many discoveries in this field require political, public, social and personal responsibility. Practical applications that involve religion include: teaching of biology, evolution, intelligent design in public/private schools; developing curriculum and textbooks; the personal beliefs of scientists and religious believers, and how their interest or belief in a faith informs or inspires their work; whether religious beliefs do or should inform government regulations, and whether such laws are necessary. Knowledge of religion can help researchers understand the beliefs of those who support and oppose research from a religious perspective, possibly inform their own ethical beliefs, aid in creation and challenging of laws and identify sources of funding for public or private research.
On July 19, 2006, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have relaxed restrictions on federal funding of stem cell research. Most states are pursuing their own embryonic stem cell agendas. Some are pushing research, others are restricting research. An amendment to the Missouri state constitution passed in November 2006 allows stem cell research, therapies and cures allowed under federal law to continue to be allowed in Missouri. It also establishes ethical boundaries and oversight guidelines for stem cell research conducted in the state, including a ban on any attempt to clone a human being. Advancement of techniques in this research could resolve conflicts, alter the discussion or open the way to federal funding of research on new embryonic stem cell lines, currently banned by federal law.
Stem cell research
Stem-cell research studies how stem cells can be extracted and used to treat a variety of medical conditions and diseases. There are two basic types of stem cells: adult stem cells and early, or embryonic, stem cells. Adult stem cells are partially specialized cells that can turn into some body cells and tissues. For example, blood-forming adult stem cells in bone marrow can turn into certain types of blood-related cells. Human adult stem cells are used to treat about 10 medical conditions, primarily blood-related diseases, such as certain types of leukemia. Adult-type stem cells are found in body tissues, such as tissues in the bodies of adults and discarded umbilical cords and placentas. Scientists believe they can be useful but potentially not as versatile as early stem cells.
Early stem cells are “pluripotent,” meaning they are unspecialized cells that have potential to turn into and regenerate any type of cell or tissue in the human body. Scientists believe early stem cells could provide cures for many currently incurable or common diseases and injuries, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, sickle cell disease, cancer, heart disease and spinal cord injury. There are currently two sources of early stem cells: leftover fertility clinic embryos that would otherwise be discarded and destroyed, and a laboratory process called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, which provides a way to make early stem cells in a lab dish for medical purposes. Use of these cells from embryos is controversial for many in the religious community on the basis that it could amount to human cloning, an unnatural act of “creation” taken from the hand of God, with an array of ethical ramifications; and that embryos could be — or develop into — human beings with rights to life.
Techniques: Embryos used in stem-cell research are at the stage before they would be implanted in a uterus, usually within one to five days after fertilization. Stem cells are isolated from the embryo, which eliminates its potential to develop into a complete human being. In Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, the nucleus of an unfertilized egg is removed and replaced with the nucleus of a patient’s body cell that contains a full set of genetic information. The patient’s genetic material incorporates into the egg and causes it to develop into a blastocyst (an early-stage embryo with about 100 undifferentiated cells) which almost identically matches the patient’s DNA. This pre-embryo contains a cluster of stem cells. The inner cell mass of the embryo is extracted, leaving the stem cells, and destroying the embryo. This technique is currently the basis for cloning animals, such as Dolly the sheep. SCNT research in humans requires human eggs. The most common source is eggs extracted from women during in vitro fertilization procedures in excess of clinical need. Presently, no human stem cell lines have been derived from SCNT research.
Some researchers are trying to find alternative methods of obtaining embryonic stem cells that don’t involve the death of an embryo. One uses a process similar to “Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis,” a procedure requested by prospective human parents who are aware that they are carriers of an incurable genetically-based disease or disorder and are concerned about passing the problem to their child. Fertility clinics extract a single cell from each embryo produced by the couple and test it for the genetic problem. Embryos found to be free of the disorder are implanted in the woman’s womb; defective embryos are discarded. Scientists used a similar procedure on two-day-old mouse embryos that contained eight cells each. They found that a single cell – called a blastomere – removed from each embryo behaved like embryonic stem cells, while the seven remaining cells continued to develop. Previous research showed that one or even two cells could be removed from an eight-cell embryo without adverse effect. The embryos were implanted in the wombs of mice, and continued to mature into normal baby mice. Researchers ended up with only a single stem cell from each embryo — rather than about 150 stem cells harvested from an entire embryo — but methods exist to produce stem cells from a single cell.
In other research on mouse embryos, researchers used a modified version of Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. They blocked the action of a key gene in the nucleus before inserting the nucleus into the egg, so that the resulting “non-embryonic entity” would not be able to develop into a conventional embryo that could be implanted in a uterus and induce a pregnancy. Scientists argue that if this technique were successful with human embryos, “patient-specific” embryonic stem cells could be produced without destroying potential human life.
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Codes of ethics
- Ethics and policy for National Human Genome Research Institute
- Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Research Program
- International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology – Code of Ethics
- The Society for In Vitro Biology – Code of Ethics
- Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins – Mission Statement
- Association of Zoos and Aquariums – Code of Professional Ethics
- American Society for Microbiology – Code of Ethics
- Zoological Association of America – Mission Statement, Objectives and Ethics
- The Biologos Foundation
- The Biology Wars, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
- Science and Religion: Friends? Enemies? Frenemies? (ReligionLink)
- Darwin at 200: The evolution of a theory
- A guide to beginning-of-life issues (ReligionLink)
- Stem cells & cloning (ReligionLink)
- Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion
Professional associations and faith groups
- Affiliation of Christian Biologists
- American Scientific Affiliation: A Fellowship of Christians in Science
- Association of Professional Jewish Genealogists
- Canadian Science and Christian Affiliation
- Christian Neuroscience Society
- Christians in Science
- European Society for the Study of Science and Theology
- Fellowship of Scientists
- International Muslim Association of Scientists & Engineers
- NeuroScience Christian Fellowship: (405) 271-2334
- Farimani, Mohammad and Zygon Motahari. “Islamic Philosophy and the Challenge of Cloning.” Journal of Religion & Science. 42 no. 1 (2007): 145-51.
- Gutala, Ramana, et al. “A Shared Y-Chromosomal Heritage Between Muslims and Hindus in India.” Human Genetics. 120, no. 4 (2006): 543-551.
- Moore, James. “R. A. Fisher: a Faith Fit for Eugenics.” Studies in History & Philosophy of Biological & Biomedical Sciences. 38 no. 1 (2007): 110-35.