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Jewish and Muslim Frameworks

When Jewish ethicists approach issues arising from genetic research, they most frequently find themselves working from within the medical benefits framework. The Jewish commitment to TikkunOlam - the responsibility to join God in repairing and transforming a broken world - provides theological support for scientific research in general, and medical research in particular. The Jewish interpretation of the Bible includes God’s mandate to the human race to engage in healing, in making this world a better place. Jewish theology presumes that God’s creation is not done yet. It’s still on the way. We look to the future rather than the past to discern God’s will. And God’s will includes creative and redemptive activity yet to come. In short, healing and transforming are godly. The potential for medical benefits will play the decisive role in Jewish ethical thinking.

Jewish ethicist Eliot Dorf writes: “The potential of stem cell research for creating organs for transplantation and cures for diseases is, at least in theory, both awesome and hopeful. Indeed, in light of our divine mandate to seek to maintain life and health, one might even contend that from a Jewish perspective we have a duty to proceed with that research.”Elliott N. Dorff, "Stem Cell Research—A Jewish Perspective," The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate, edited by Suzanne Holland, Karen Lebacqz, and Laurie Zoloth ( Cambridge : MIT Press, 2001) 92....

If we ask questions from within the embryo protection framework, we note that the Jewish tradition does not date morally protectable personhood with conception, as does the Vatican . Rather, the question of personhood and ensoulment does not arise until quickening, thought to be at forty days. Because of this, Jewish ethicists seldom make claims from within the embryo protection framework.

When we turn to Islam, we find that in America Muslims fully support human embryonic stem cell research. They oppose human reproductive cloning. Still, the majority support stem cell research when discarded embryos are used; and nearly half support the creation of embryos for research purposes. We find in Islamic capitals around the world such as Cairo and Tehran scientific institutes springing up to pursue stem cell research.

Muslim ethicists are not likely to raise issues from within the embryo protection framework nor try to block deriving stem cells. Their situation is similar to that of the Jews. In some sections of the Qur’an we find quickening dated at 40 days after conception, elsewhere ensoulment at 120 days. In neither case would this produce an equivalent to the Roman Catholic commitment to ensoulment accompanied by dignity already at conception. The blastocyst is not considered a person; and the use of it for stem cell research does not violate Islamic law. The Islamic Institute in Washington strongly supports transferring excess embryos from freezers into laboratories. “It is a societal obligation to perform research on these extra embryos instead of discarding them.”'Muslim%20Stem%20Cell'.

Now, we turn to a most interesting aspect of Islamic thinking. An additional argument is being raised within Islamic circles to support donation of extra fertilized ova in IVF clinics to stem cell research. Here is why. Inheritance is extremely important in cultures influenced by Islamic tradition. Inheritance is dependent upon blood lines; so genetics is an area of science put to use in determining just who is eligible to inherit family property. Clarity in this regard is paramount.

Muslims who take advantage of reproductive technologies such as IVF worry about the excess fertilized ova in frozen storage. Might a mistake occur? Might one or more of these frozen zygotes accidentally get planted in another woman? Might there be a possibility - even if remote - that one family’s genes might appear in the genome of a stranger? Could that person eventually make a claim on inheritance?

Now, such a worry can be eliminated if all frozen embryos are eliminated. Muslim families frequently offer their excess embryos for laboratory use, because this guarantees that genes with potential inheritance claims will not get out. The result is that laboratories will find a source for research materials among Muslims.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Gaymon Bennett, Karen Lebacqz and Ted Peters

Go to Genetics Topic Index

Jewish and Muslim Frameworks

Stem Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief
The Promise and Science of Stem Cells
Stem Cells and Cloning
Framework #1: Protecting the Early Embryo
Framework #2: Protecting Human Nature from Brave New World
Framework #3: Medical Benefits
More Ethical Questions
What about Other Sources of Stem Cells?
Souls, Humans, and God
What Should We Do?
Further Reading


Gaymon Bennett, Karen Lebacqz and Ted Peters

See also:
Pain and Suffering
Books on Biology, Genetics and Theology
DNA Double-Helix