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

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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.

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