Key Facts – Introduction
Why religion, ethics and law are relevant to day-to-day medical practice
Every decision and action we take can be viewed from a religious and ethical standpoint as well as from a biological or social perspective. In medical practice our decisions can have legal and life-changing consequences. For most patients, interactions with doctors and the accompanying emotional situations are a rarity, for doctors it is day-to-day reality. As such, it is beneficial for clinicians to be able to understand the religious and ethical perspectives of their patients and be able to provide advice based on experience, insight and an understanding of the relevant ethical, religious and legal issues. This website is a learning resource to help explore these areas with respect to the human embryo.
Aims of this website
A knowledge of major philosophical, religious and legal positions as regards the human embryo should make a clinician more confident in dealing with situations which can be highly emotional for all involved. This website is a learning resource for all interested in the moral, religious and legal status of the human embryo. There is a lot of excellent and thoughtful work in the area. The aim of this website, rather than add anything new, is to bring some of this work together in an accessible and relevant manner allowing those interested to get a good basic understanding and directing them to further resources if sought.
Moral or ethical codes are standards of behaviour and action as judged from certain principles. Whether one is conscious of them or not, all of us seem to have principles or limits of action that we live by. If we could travel back in time to ancient Egypt and asked a farmer, for example, if he thought organ donation was acceptable or not it is easy to imaging that even though he would have no knowledge of how it worked and no experience remotely similar to draw on, he would have an instinctive feeling as to his answer. Where these instincts come from and what influences them, our upbringing, religion, genetics, society, is a matter of fascinating debate. Certain areas of human endeavour induce particularly passionate views, and the human embryo is certainly one such area.
Our moral principles come from many places, religion, philosophy, day-to-day experience, family, society. It is desirable for us as individuals that other individuals in our society live by such principles so that we can function above and beyond pure survival. Indeed, morality in this way is a fundamental part of society. The need for codes of behaviour in groups has led to the development of law and legal systems. Other ‘codes of conduct’ come from religion and philosophy.
The status of the embryo is the underpinning factor in almost all discussions of embryo research and treatment. When does a person become a person? Conception? Implantation? Neural development? Birth? Adulthood? Most arguements seem to flow from one or other idea of personhood or ensoulment.
In the religion section the status of the embryo in the major faiths is explored. In most faiths there is no definitive position and a numerous shades of belief and although all share a high degree of respect for the human embryo there are important differences.
In the law section various aspects of English law as regards the embryo are set out, research, assisted reproduction, parentage, surrogacy, PDG, stem cells, etc.
In 1978 Louise Brown is born at Oldham General hospital as a result of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment provided by Drs Steptoe and Edwards, heralding the start of the age of the “test tube” baby.
By 1999 it had been estimated that 300,000 children had been born worldwide as a result of IVF, bringing huge happiness to the families who previously would have had no hope of conceiving children of their own. Nevertheless, 30 years following Louise Brown’s birth, controversy remains surrounding the use of the technology.
Due to the ability of stem cells to develop in to any possible cell line, the list of their potential areas of use is ever increasing. However their use still generates debate in many areas. The science and major issues arising from the use of stem cells are explored here.
Eugenics describes the concept of the improvement of man through “better breeding“. Eugenic campaigns were seen around the world in the early 20th century including in countries such as the USA, UK and Germany. Much of the debate surrounding present reproductive technologies such as PGD +/- HLA-typing surrounds the perceived risk of it enabling the creation of ‘designer babies and a subsequent resurgence of eugenic ideals and practices.
The ‘slippery slope’ argument surrounding such debate states that progressive relaxation of the medical model of present selection for serious genetic conditions would enable increased procreative autonomy and beneficence, until we would have no reason for rejecting the designer model and enabling a resurgence in eugenic beliefs.