Ethics of embryonic stem cell research according to Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, and Islamic religions: perspective from Malaysia

Open access


Background: The use of embryos in embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) has elicited ethical controversies as it entails the destruction of 5-day old human embryos to harvest stem cells.

Objective: To explore the ethical positions of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Catholicism concerning the use of (1) left-over embryos from in vitro fertilization (IVF) also known as ‘surplus’ embryos and (2) ‘research embryos’ which are created by scientists to conduct research using embryonic stem cells.

Methods: The opinions of religious leaders of Buddhist, Hindu, and Catholic faiths in Malaysia pertaining to ESCR were examined via in-depth, semi-structured interviews while Islamic responses are collected from local writings related to the derivation of fatwa on this issue. Participants’ responses on the ethics of human stem cell research are presented as a reflection of various scriptural texts of these four religions. These are presented and supported with the help of international bioethics literature and focus on the use of ‘surplus’ embryos and ‘research’ embryos.

Results: Islamic ethics deviate from Hindu and Buddhist teachings regarding saving of research embryos that have been created specifically for research and are considered as human lives only after 120 days fertilization. Hindu and Buddhists also underscore the sanctity of human life, but give priority to the alleviation of suffering in living adult humans. They generally encourage ESCR. Research is a knowledge-seeking endeavor considered noble by Islam. This is also a concept within Hindu and Buddhist philosophy; in particular, when potentially beneficial research goals are the basis. Catholicism also emphasizes sanctity of human life, but stresses also the inviolability of embryos from the moment of conception.

Conclusion: Embryonic stem cell research is permissible and encouraged according to Hindu and Buddhist perspectives in view of the potential benefits of such research to society, with some reservations. This is similar to Islamic views on the ethics of ESCR. However, Catholicism differs from all the other three religions; it appears to discourage research in this field because of the likely violation of a sacred principle in Catholic teachings.

1. Thomson JA, Itskovitz-Eldor J, Shapiro SS. Embryonic stem cell lines derived from human blastocysts. Science. 1998; 282:1145-7.

2. McLaren A. Ethical and social considerations of stem cell research. Nature. 2001; 414:129-31.

3. Braverman A, Steinbock B, Wilder B, Batzer F, Robertson J, Francis L. Donating spare embryos for stem cell research. Fertil Steril. 2009; 91:667-70.

4. MOH. Malaysian guidelines for stem cell research and therapy. 2009; Accessed 13 October 2013.

5. Department of Statistics Malaysia. Chart 12: Percentage distribution of the population by religion, Malaysia, 2010. 2012; Accessed 13 October 2013.

6. Fujiki N, Macer D. Bioethics in Asia. Eubios J. Asian Inter Bio. 2000:66-9.

7. Robson NZMH, Razack AH, Dublin N. Review paper: organ transplants: ethical, social, and religious issues in a multicultural society. Asia Pac J Public Health. 2010; 22:271-8.

8. Tai MC-T. An Asian perspective on organ transplantation. Tzu Chi Med J. 2009; 21:90-3.

9. Roetz H. Cross-cultural issues in bioethics: the example of human cloning. Editions Rodopi; 2006.

10. Campbell C. Religious perspectives on human cloning. Rockville, Maryland: National Bioethics Advisory Commission; 1997.

11. Pfleiderer G, Brahier G, Lindpaintner K. Beyond playing God: critical religious genethics for pluralistic societies. In: Pfleiderer G, Brahier G, Lindpaintner K, editors. GenEthics and religion. Basel: Karger; 2010.

12. Singapore BAC. Ethical, legal and social issues in human stem cell research, reproductive and therapeutic Cloning. 2002. p. 1-11.

13. Manninen BA. Respecting human embryos within stem cell research: seeking harmony. In: Gruen L, Grabel L, Singer P, eds. Stem cell research: the ethical issues: Blackwell Publishing; 2007.

14. Hug K. Sources of human embryos for stem cell research: ethical problems and their possible solutions. Medicina (kaunas). 2005; 41:1002-10.

15. NBAC. Ethical issues in human stem cell research. Rockville, Maryland: National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) Volume I; 1999.

16. DeGrazia D. Must we have full moral status throughout our existence? A reply to Alfonso Gomez-Lobo. Kennedy Inst Ethics J. 2007; 17:297-310.

17. Hug K. Therapeutic perspectives of human embryonic stem cell research versus the moral status of a human embryo-does one have to be compromised for the other? Medicina (kaunas). 2006; 42:107-14.

18. Pardo R, Calvo F. Attitudes toward embryo research, worldviews, and the moral status of the embryo frame. Science Commun. 2008; 30:8-47.

19. Marquis D. The moral principle objection to human embryonic stem cell research. In: Gruen L, Grabel L, Singer P, eds. Stem cell research: the ethical issues: Blackwell Publishing; 2007:51-66.

20. Outka GH. The ethics of human stem cell research. Kennedy Inst Ethics J. 2002; 12:175-213.

21. NBAC. Ethical issues in human stem cell research. Rockville, Maryland: National Bioethics Advisory Commission Volume III; 2000.

22. Sachedina A. Testimony of Abdulaziz Sachedina. Rockville, Maryland: National Bioethics Advisory Commission Volume III; 2000:G1-G6.

23. Farley MA. Testimony of Margaret A. Farley. Rockville, Maryland: National Bioethics Advisory Commission Volume III; 2000:D1-D5.

24. Reichhardt T, Cyranoski D, Schiermeier Q. Religion and science: studies of faith. Nature. 2004; 432:666-9.

25. Knowles LP. Religion and stem cell research. Stem Cell Network; 2009. Accessed 7 November 2013.

26. Keown D. ‘No Harm’ applies to stem cell embryos: one Buddhist’s view. Science and Theology News. 2004; Accessed 7 November 2013.

27. Promta S. Human cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Eubios J Asian Inter Bioethics. 2004; 14: 197-9.

28. Tyagananda S. Stem cell research: a Hindu perspective. Massachusetts: MIT Religious Activities Center; 2002.

29. Foong P. Human embryonic stem cell (HESC) research in Malaysia: multi-faith perspectives. Asian Bioethics Review. 2011; 3:182-206.

30. Patton MQ. Qualitative evaluation and research methods. 2nd ed. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications; 1990.

31. Herald Malaysia. Catholics population hit 1 million mark in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Herald Newsletter; 2012.

32. Fernando JM. The position of Islam in the constitution of Malaysia. J Southeast Asian Studies. 2006; 37: 249-66.

33. Department of Islamic Development Malaysia. Ruling on Therapeutic Cloning and Stem Cell Research. 2005; Accessed 21 November 2013.

34. Jamal RA. Abstract book: Guidelines on stem cell research and therapy in Malaysia: restrictive or permissive? 1st National Stem Cell Congress in Malaysia: Ministry of Health & National University Malaysia Medical Molecular Biology Institute; 29-30 October 2012.

35. Nor SNM. Human genetic technologies and Islamic bioethics. In: Pfleiderer G, Brahier G, Lindpaintner K, editors. Gen Ethics and Religion. Basel: Karger; 2010.

36. Nordin MM. Human genetic and reproductive technologies-an international medico-legal-religious impasse? Bangladesh J Med Science. 2011; 10:1-10.

37. Muhammad Husin A, Mohammad AB, Mohd Nor AH, Laluddin H, Samuri MAA. Abortion in Malaysian Law: a comparative study with Islamic jurisprudence advances in natural and applied sciences. 2013; 7: 39-50.

38. Tengku Zainudin TNA. Abortion and the right of the foetus to live. Malaysian Institute of Islamic Understanding IKIM Law J. 2001; 5:93-146.

39. Siddiqi M. An Islamic Perspective on Stem Cell Research. 2002; Accessed 15 November 2013.

40. Rispler-Chaim V. Between Islamic Law and Science: Contemporary Muftis and Muslim Ethicists on Embryo and Stem Cells Research. Comparative Islamic Studies. 2006; 2:27-50.

41. Sachedina A. Islamic Perspectives on Cloning. n.d.; Accessed 15 November 2013.

42. Eich T. Muslim Voices on Cloning. ISIM [International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World] Newsletter. 2003;12:38-9.

43. Al Hayani FA. Muslim perspectives on stem cell research and cloning. Zygon. 2008; 43:783-95.

44. Aksoy S. Making regulations and drawing up legislation in Islamic countries under conditions of uncertainty, with special reference to embryonic stem cell research. Journal of Medical Ethics. 2005; 31:399.

45. Dhammananda KS. What Buddhists believe. Expanded 4th ed: Ti-Ratana Buddhist Society Malaysia; 2002.

46. Boisvert M. Conception and intrauterine life in the Pali Canon. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses. 2000; 29:301-11.

47. Firth S. End-of-life: a Hindu view. Lancet. 2005; 366:682-6.

48. Lipner JJ. The classical Hindu view on abortion and the moral status of the unborn. Hindu ethics: Purity, Abortion, and Euthanasia. Albany: State University of New York Press; 1989:41-70.

49. John Paul II. Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith Declaration on Procured Abortion 1974. 1974; http:// Accessed 3 November 2013.

50. John Paul II. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation Replies to Certain Questions of the Day (Donum Vitae). 1987; Accessed 5 November 2013.

51. Pontifical Academy for Life. Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells. 2000; Accessed 5 November 2013.

52. John Paul II. Address of the Holy Father John Paul II to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society. 2000; Accessed 6 November 2013.

53. Benedict. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions. 2008; Accessed 3 November 2013.

Journal Information

IMPACT FACTOR 2017: 0.209
5-year IMPACT FACTOR: 0.243

CiteScore 2017: 0.24

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2017: 0.162
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2017: 0.173

Cited By


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 508 508 81
PDF Downloads 228 228 40