Bioethical Questions in the Perspective of Comparative Theology: The Example of the “Ensoulment” of the Human Embryo

In: Beyond Binaries
Karsten Lehmkühler
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Konkrete bioethische Fragen eignen sich hervorragend für Studien in der Perspektive der komparativen Theologie. Auf diese Weise werden die Argumente der einzelnen religiösen Traditionen im Dialog erhellt und zugleich die Möglichkeit ihrer „Übersetzung“ in die säkulare Sprache gegenwärtiger Debatten geprüft. Die traditionelle Frage nach der „Beseelung“ der menschlichen Embryos spielt eine wichtige Rolle in der Geschichte jüdischer, christlicher und islamischer Ethik. Während in den Ethiken des Judentums und des Islams eine zeitliche Bestimmung der Beseelung (Animation) des Embryos bis heute die moralische Bewertung von Schwangerschaftsabbruch und Embryonenforschung bestimmt, hat die christliche, insbesondere die römisch-katholische Ethik dieses Modell aufgegeben zugunsten eines umfassenden Schutzes des menschlichen Embryos in allen Phasen seiner Entwicklung. Die Analyse dieser Entwicklungen gibt wichtige Impulse auch für die gesellschaftliche Diskussion bezüglich des moralischen Status des werdenden menschlichen Lebens.

1. Introduction: Bioethics and Modern Societies

1.1 Actual Bioethical Debates in National Parliaments

Without a doubt, bioethical questions play a central role in our Western societies. The enormous scientific progress in the fields of embryo research, genetic screening and reproductive medicine on the one hand (questions of the beginning of human life), and, on the other hand, the possibilities of palliative care, palliative sedation, assisted suicide and euthanasia (end of life questions) are present in numerous societal debates. They are often discussed in our parliaments where new laws are drafted and debated to provide a legal framework for these technologies and practices. In this field, religious ethics often play a key role.

Two pertinent examples can be seen in my own German-French context: In 2011, the German parliament discussed the question of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD; in German: Präimplantationsdiagnostik, PID). After a long and very dense period of ethical debates about embryo selection and about the destruction of human embryos, the Bundestag allowed PGD for couples with a known risk of serious hereditary disease. During this important vote concerning a question of conscience, the parliamentarians were not subject to party discipline. Representatives of Catholic and Protestant Churches criticized this vote, referring to human dignity, while the central council of Muslims (Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland, ZMD) agreed with the decision, underlining the openness of Islam for scientific innovations.1

In France, the previous President François Hollande had promised, in his election campaign in 2012, to make a new law concerning end-of-life-questions, in order to give to all people the possibility to “terminate their life in dignity”. This promise led to an important societal discussion on this topic, and the main religions played a pivotal role in this debate. Some people hoped that the government would allow euthanasia or assisted suicide, but finally the French parliament passed a law which formulated a “right to ask for a profound and continued sedation”. This decision was welcomed by Protestants and, with some reserves, by Catholics.2 In the discussion process prior to this vote, five representatives of monotheistic religions – the Archbishop of Lyon, the President of the Protestant Federation in France, the Orthodox Metropolitan of France, the Chief Rabbi of France and the President of the union of French mosques – published a statement in “Le Monde”, arguing that it is vital to respect every human life, especially when it is fragile and vulnerable. In particular, they warned against the possibility to use “profound sedation” as a kind of hidden euthanasia.3 This was a very strong sign of common ethical concern of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the French society.

It would be easy to add other examples of bioethical debates in European societies and in national parliaments, and also on the EU level, for example on the financing of bioethical research on embryonic stem cells,4 or the national debate on bioethics in France where President Macron invited representatives of the major religions in the country in order to exchange their points of view concerning the main bioethical problems which were discussed in France in 2018.5 This socio-political situation illustrates why bioethical questions are a very interesting field for research, not only in public policy, but also in comparative theology.

1.2 Studies in Religious Bioethics

Given the expansive field of research in this area, I want to distinguish two work areas: On the one hand, there are books and research projects on specific religious bioethics, in other words, research on bioethics of one specific religion. We find an important amount of books on bioethics in a Christian, in a Catholic, in an Orthodox or in a Protestant perspective.6 But there are also a lot of publications concerning Jewish or Muslim bioethics. Examples include the Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics7 or the research of Thomas Eich, professor at Hamburg University and specialist of bioethics in the Islam; he published, in 2005, an important introduction to Islam and bioethics.8

On the other hand, there are some investigations concerning the role of religious bioethics in the public debate. Here the focus is not on specific bioethical positions of one religion, but on the general function of religious arguments in societal and political debates. For example, the protestant faculty of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München organized, from 2006 to 2011, a research project on “religions in bioethical discourses”. In 2010, a volume with the conference proceedings was published.9

In these two research fields, some work has been done – but, as I see, the comparative perspective is still nascent.10 It would be very interesting to bring together some of the best European specialist in Christian, Jewish and Muslim bioethics, in order to discuss the two following questions: first, what are the main religious positions and arguments in the field of the beginning and the end of human life; and second, how can we describe the hermeneutics of religious reference texts and the use of religious arguments in public debates.

Such a common research project of the three monotheistic religions could offer two benefits: First, the common work on bioethical questions would contribute to a better mutual knowledge and comprehension between these religions. They would be able to identify and to propose common values in order to take part in the public debate; and they also may better understand and handle differences in their ethical positions. Second, a common publication and discussion of religious main texts would provide – for decision makers (members of the European institutions, European and national parliamentarians, members of ethics committees etc.) and for all interested citizens – the necessary information about religious arguments in bioethical debates. This would be helpful to understand these arguments and to make them translatable and – perhaps – compatible in the secular debate on this topic.

1.3 To Start With “Micro-Studies”

In his introduction to Comparative theology, Klaus von Stosch underlines the “micro-logical approach” (mikrologische Vorgehensweise) and the “turning towards particular cases” (Hinwendung zum Einzelfall), and he says: “Comparative theology is therefore recognizable by its concentration on the interreligious (…) comparison of exactly specified theological, literary or confessional texts, concrete rituals, clearly delimited items of faith, specific theological concepts in limited contexts and exactly delimited historical periods”.11

I think this inductive method testifies a kind of “new modesty” in the field of theology of religions, and I expect that this approach would be helpful in the mentioned bioethical project. Micro-studies are like “the narrow door” or the “eye of the needle”: the entry is narrow, but the person who passes will find a large field of connected concepts and arguments. For this contribution, I choose such a micro-logical question: I will deal with the problem of the “animation”, or “ensoulment”, of the human embryo in the three monotheistic religions. This may be an example of what one could do in a broader comparative bioethical project.

As I consider here exclusively the concept of the “ensoulment” of the embryo in religious ethics, I will be focusing, concerning Christianity, on Catholic views, given that Orthodox and Protestant positions, although they share some overlapping concerns, are different and less focused on the ensoulment question.12

2. The “Ensoulment” or “Animation” of the Human Embryo in Christian Theology

2.1 The Concept and Its Origins in Aristotle

What does the “ensoulment” or “animation” of the human embryo mean? The theological debate on the beginning of human life is predicated on understanding the nature and the ethical status of the human embryo and the human fetus.13 Is the human embryo a human being? If so, it has to be protected and it possesses human dignity. But perhaps there are some distinctions to make, particularly with regard to the different phases of the embryonic development? This is a longstanding philosophical and theological question. Ancient philosophy and theology put this question in another form and asked: when does the embryo receive the human soul? As soon as the embryo receives a human soul, it will be a complete human being and has to be protected like any other human being. Under this position, birth does not constitute the beginning of life but the ensoulment of an embryo does. For example, the ethical assessment of abortion will depend, in this perspective, on the arrival of the human soul in the body of the human embryo: after this ensoulment, abortion will be a grave moral offence.

The question of “ensoulment” is an old one, but the modern possibilities in medically assisted reproduction and in research on embryonic stem cells lead us to reconsider our philosophical and theological definitions of the early prenatal life. Is a human embryo a thing, a person or something between both? Can we use so called “supernumerary” or “surplus human embryos” for research? It is not surprising, in this context, that the old question concerning the soul of the human embryo regains interest.14

The Christian theological reflection about this question was profoundly influenced by the affirmations of Aristotle. Aristotle argues that a human embryo goes through different stages of development: first, it has a vegetal or “nutritive” soul (allowing nutrition), than it gets an animal soul, including sensation, and finally, it receives the human intellectual soul. In his book “On the Generation of Animals”, he mentions embryos which have already a nutritive soul:

As they develop they also acquire the sensitive soul in virtue of which an animal is an animal. For e.g. an animal does not become at the same time an animal and a man or a horse or any other particular animal. For the end is developed last, and the peculiar character of the species is the end of the generation in each individual.15

Concerning the last soul, the human intellectual soul, Aristotle thinks that it comes from outside (thurathen), as a divine gift.16 In this text, Aristotle does not specify the moment when this happens. But in another book, titled “The History of Animals”, he speaks about the first movements of the fetus in the womb and specifies:

In the case of male children the first movement usually occurs on the right-hand side of the womb and about the fortieth day, but if the child be a female then on the left-hand side and about the ninetieth day. However, we must by no means assume this to be an accurate statement of fact …17

Although Aristotle doesn’t speak here about the arrival of the human soul, the numbers 40 and 90 will play a key role in further reflection about animation of the human embryo. It is also important to know that Aristotle already claims that the moral nature of an abortion is depending on the actual development of the embryo:

… when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation.18

These arguments, based on the idea of different stages of the embryonic development, would allow aborting an embryo in an early phase of pregnancy. And indeed, for a long time, the Christian church made a major difference between an “animated” and a “not animated” human embryo.

2.2 The “Animation” of the Embryo as Ethical Criterion in Early and Medieval Church19

There are different opinions about the animation of the human embryo among the church fathers. Some hold that animation is immediate, in other words simultaneous with the conception.20 For others it takes place 40 or 90 days after conception, according to the doctrine of Aristotle. This second opinion will be the most important in church history, and Aquinas will accept it, as he confirms in the Commentary of the sentences (livre 3, dist. 3 q 5 a 2 corp) and in the Summa theologica (I q 118 corp): the nutritive and the sensitive soul are given by generation, but the intellectual soul is created and given by God, and this process is achieved, for a boy, on the 40th day, and for a girl, on the 90th day after conception.

We may observe here that this theory risks devaluing the bodily existence of the human being, because the most important value seems to be the intellectual soul.21 Whatever, this theory has profoundly influenced penitential practice and the canonical law in the Roman Catholic Church.22 The confession books of the early medieval period (7th to 11th century) make sometimes a difference between an abortion before or after 40 days: the former is a less important mistake whereas the latter is a grave sin. The Decretum Gratiani (1140) requires the excommunication only for abortions after 40 days. Only in 1867, Pope Pius IX clarifies the question, in his papal bull “Apostolicae Sedis” where he orders the total protection of every human embryo.

2.3 Modern Position

Obviously, modern medical research leads the Catholic Church to a more restrictive position: if science says that the development of the embryo is a continuum without sudden changes, the Church has to re-examine its ethical judgments. Indeed, modern texts of the Catholic Magisterium underline this aspect. So the famous “Donum vitae” (1987) affirms (quoting an earlier declaration):

From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. To this perpetual evidence … modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that, from the first instant, the programme is fixed as to what this living being will be: a man, this individual-man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life, and each of its great capacities requires time … to find its place and to be in a position to act.23

This is an interesting phenomenon: In today’s Catholic theology, the question of the “animation” of the embryo is abandoned in favor of a general protection of human life in its beginnings, and it seems that modern scientific knowledge played an important role in this paradigm shift. The modern Catholic debate focuses on the question of the dignity of the human embryo. For the Catholic Church, this dignity is present since the beginning of the existence of the embryo. This means that for the Catholic position, every research using and destroying human embryos has to be forbidden.

3. The “Animation” of the Human Embryo in Islam

Islamic ethics arises by the discussions of the fuqaha’, the Islamic legal scholars and specialists of the Shari’a, commonly described as the Islamic law, including ethical and theological reflections.24 The term “fiqh” designates the human understanding and interpretation of the Shari’a.

Concerning bioethics, these discussions take place in the assemblies of great organizations, especially the Islamic Organization of Medical Sciences (IOMS, Kuwait), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and two Islamic Fiqh Academies (IFA), one at Jeddah and the other at Mecca. Results, recommendations, and summaries of these conferences are published both in press, and to some extent on the internet.

Sometimes, the elaborated ethical statements are in contradiction. Thomas Eich underlines that “… until today, there is no consensus between the legal scholars, on central questions about the ethical and juridical evaluation of genetic technologies”.25 But nevertheless, all positions are based on some important main texts about the development of the embryo in the Islamic discussion and legislation. One of the most important Qur’anic texts is surah 23,12–14:

And certainly did We create man from an extract of clay. Then We placed him as a sperm-drop in a firm lodging. Then We made the sperm-drop into a clinging clot, and We made the clot into a lump [of flesh], and We made [from] the lump, bones, and We covered the bones with flesh; then We developed him into another creation. So blessed is Allah, the best of creators.26

As Thomas Eich underlines,27 the Arabian text differentiates clearly between three stages of embryonic development: nutfa ([sperm]-drop), alaqa (clinging [blood] clot) and mudhgha (lump of flesh). At the end of this process, “another creation” is accomplished. For some Islamic legal scholars, this new creation signifies the gift of the human soul. The Qur’an affirms the gift of the human soul in surah 32,7–9,28 but the text does not specify the moment of ensoulment. To go further, Islamic legal scholars quote another text, a traditional Hadith:

Each one of you [was] collected in the womb of his mother for forty days, and then turns into a clot for an equal period (of forty days) and turns into a piece of flesh for a similar period (of forty days) and then Allah sends an angel and orders him to write four things, i.e., his provision, his age, and whether he will be of the wretched or the blessed (in the Hereafter). Then the soul is breathed into him.29

The Hadith seems to indicate three periods of 40 days in the development of the embryo. This would indicate that the soul is given after 120 days since the conception. But the exact translation of the text is discussed controversially. To make things more complicate, there is another Hadith which speaks about 42 nights after the nufta-period: an angel will come and create the senses, the flesh and the bones.30 So there is a discussion between modern Islamic legal scholars: some hold that the ensoulment takes place 40 (or 42) days after conception, whereas others affirm that the soul is given 120 days after conception. This second opinion is the most important; Eich calls it the “classical model”.31

There is another important concept in Islamic bioethics, concerning the prenatal life and connected with the 120-days-model. The medieval legal scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350 CE) introduced the difference between a phase of involuntary existence and a phase of voluntary life of the fetus. Before the 120th day, the movements of the fetus are not voluntary; they are like the movements of plants. This distinction made some commentators say that before 120 days, the fetus lives only on the vegetal level, like a plant.32

In contemporary Islamic ethics, we can finally distinguish three different positions about the protection of human embryos: Some hold that the embryo has to be protected since conception; others request this protection from the moment of implantation (nidation) in the uterus, referring to the qur’anic expression “as a sperm-drop in a firm lodging”. A third group underlines that the full protections is needed only after the gift of the soul, so from the 40th or (mostly) from the 120th day on. Thus, only the third group refers to the ancient 120-days rule, whereas the two other positions use modern biological ideas: the embryo is individual human life since the conception (first group), or, for the second group, nidation is conceived as a necessary condition for the development of a human being.

The discussions on abortion and on embryonic research depend on these different positions. In 1983, the Islamic Organization of Medical Sciences (IOMS) held a juristic and medical seminary on “Reproduction Under the light of Islam”, the text is still online. Here we can read about abortion:

The seminar reviewed the opinions of early Islamic jurisprudents and found that they had all been agreed on prohibiting abortion after the soul is breathed into the foetus, i.e. after four months. As for abortion before that, there was a difference of opinion. Some said it was absolutely prohibited; others said it was undesirable. A group of those early jurisprudents held that abortion is definitely prohibited after 40 days of conception but allowed before that, though they differed about the circumstances necessitating it.

Leaning upon contemporary scientific facts provided by modern research and medical technology, the seminar concluded that the foetus is alive since the beginning of conception, that this life should be respected in all its stages especially after a soul is breathed into the developing foetus; hence we may not wrong it by abortion unless it is proven absolutely necessary for medical reasons. Some participants, however, argued differently allowing abortion during the first 40 days of conception especially if there is a good reason for doing it.33

This text is interesting because its main arguments are very close to some debates in ancient and modern Catholic ethics: there is a discussion about a time limit in order to respect the ensoulment of the fetus, but there is also a reflection about modern biological science and its applications in the theological reflection, especially the recognition that the biological life begins with conception.

The question of the ethical status of surplus and frozen embryos was discussed on another IOMS seminary in 1985, dealing with “The Islamic Concept on Human Life, Its Beginning and Its End”. It wasn’t possible to give a clear position, but the recommendations say:

The moment a woman conceives and the conceptions said to be stable in the uterus, the life shining in this uterus has full respect and is protected by established Islamic law provisions.

If the foetus reaches the stage when a soul is breathed into it (some say after 120 days, others after 40 days), its sanctity becomes greater as agreed upon, and this results into certain provisions of the Islamic law.34

The IOMS conference in 1987 reached a clearer conclusion. The legal scholars recommended, first, that one should avoid the creation of surplus embryos, and second, that in case of the existence of surplus embryos, they do not receive specific protection. The reason for this is that the fixation in the uterus was held for the very beginning of the need of protection, in accordance with the Qur’an speaking of “a sperm-drop in a firm lodging” (surah 23,13). Two years later, at another IOMS conference, a majority argued for the possibility of research on extracorporeal embryos; the argument was, once more, the importance of the moment of nidation.35 Others argued on the basis of the ensoulment argument: The scholar Muhammad Na’im Yasin for example underlined that before the animation the embryo is a “useful being” and has only the potentiality to become a human being. Its destruction is not murder (because there is no human soul), but is allowed only if there is an important reason (consideration of legal interests).

In the field of surplus embryo research these recommendations mean that an eventual usage of the embryo for “consuming embryonic research” can be accepted. In case of embryos which cannot be implanted (for medical or for Shari’a reasons), the embryo has no chance to become a human being, and thus research will not represent any damage to it.36

It is finally important to notice that in case of abortion with medical reasons, especially in case of important malformations of the fetus, the 120-days-rule is still important. On an IFA conference in 1990, a decision was adopted which allows the abortion before the 120th day in case of major handicap of the embryo. Here, the difference between involuntary and voluntary movement, connected to the idea of the gift of the human soul, was important.

In conclusion, we see that, unlike in the Catholic debate, the question of the “ensoulment of the embryo” plays still an important role in the current Islamic bioethical debate. One reason for the lasting significance of the 120-days-rule may be that it is grounded in some Qur’anic and Hadith texts, whereas in the Christian context, the ancient theory of the ensoulment was based not on Scripture but on philosophical texts.

Islamic scholars try to combine this rule with modern biological knowledge. Sometimes, a Qur’anic text is interpreted in order to answer to modern questions: thus, for example, the expression “a sperm-drop in a firm lodging” (surah 23,13) is interpreted as the mention of the nidation of the embryo in the uterus. This interpretation enables some ethicists to affirm that embryos before nidation have another moral status than implanted embryos.

The results of this kind of dialogue between sacred texts and modern science are very varied. In general, the abiding importance of the ensoulment theory allows Islamic ethics some flexibility in its positions concerning modern bioethical debates: if the early human embryo has no soul, its usage for research seems acceptable.

4. A Short Regard to Jewish Bioethics

In a very interesting article Shai Lavi, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the Tel Aviv University, speaks about “The Paradox of Jewish Bioethics in Israel”.37 This paradox “concerns the coexistence of strong traditionalist beliefs along with a highly liberal regulation of reproductive technologies”.38 An important example is the attitude towards embryonic stem cells. As we know, Israel has a very liberal legislation on this, allowing “(a)ll forms of stem-cell research (…), with the single exception of research for the aim of reproduction. Thus Israel is (…) an exporter of stem-cell lines to Germany and other countries”.39

How can we explain this? Concerning the human fetus, an important traditional rule should be mentioned. The Talmud says that before the 40th day the fetus is “no more than plain water”.40 This may be understood literally: what we find and see at this stage is more or less simple water, or figuratively, “indicating that the fetus at this early stage is nothing significant”. In either case, the consequences are the same: neither abortion at this stage, nor the utilization of frozen embryos or stem cells “raise any normative difficulties”.41

But again, modern science tells us that the genetic disposition of the embryo is present from the beginning of pregnancy, and that the embryonic development is a continuous process. So we have here a “clash between a traditionalist ‘ontology’ and a modern one (…), the first phenomenological and the second scientific”.42 The author argues that the Jewish authorities reject, at least for this question, the scientific view, in order to maintain the traditional approach.

This approach also concerns the question of the gift of the human soul. “(A)ccording to mainstream traditional Catholic and Jewish views the soul only attaches itself to bodies that have at least a minimal outer resemblance to human form. This is the reason why the Talmud says that an embryo is considered to be mere water prior to the 40th day – it has the phenomenological appearance of a liquid.”43

If we examine other modern publications concerning the Jewish opinions on this subject, we observe that there is not unanimity between Jewish scholars, and it seems that the ensoulment-question is of less importance than in Islamic thought. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics (1998/2003) contains an article “Fetus”; the author, Avraham Steinberg, explains the link between the concepts of “fetus” and “nephesh”:

Somme Rabbis exclude a fetus from the term nefesh, meaning soul or person, other Rabbis call a fetus a safek nefesh, or potential person. Some Rabbis call a fetus a nephesh in regard to destroying it. Yet other Rabbis include a fetus fully in the term nephesh.44

The moment of ensoulment is not clear either. For some rabbis, it takes place at birth, for others at conception. Nevertheless, it does seem that the limit of 40 days, mentioned in the Talmud, is still important. For example, the Rabbi Moshe David Tendler affirmed before the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) in the USA:

(T)here are two prerequisites for the moral status of the embryo as a human being: implantation and 40 days of gestational development. The proposition that humanhood begins at zygote formation, even in vitro, is without basis in biblical moral theology.45

As we have seen, Shai Lavi concludes that this paradox becomes possible partly on the basis of the rejection of modern scientific view of the embryo. Lavi contrast this position with the Roman Catholic approach:

Thus, in the final analysis, it is on the basis of this ‘traditionalist’ interpretation of the fertilized egg as merely water, that Jewish religion adopted its ‘progressive’ approach to stem-cell research. The Jewish, and to a large extent the Israeli position, is in fact based on a traditionalist and pre-modern understanding of the nature of the fetus and embryo. In counter-position, some Christian authorities have incorporated the views of modern science into their religious teachings, seeing the potentiality for life already in the fertilized egg.46

This is indeed a stimulating reflection. According to the author, it is the traditional view what allows a liberal approach of embryonic research, and it is the acceptation of the modern scientific view which hinders the Catholic Church from accepting the destruction of extra corporal embryos for research purposes:

The somewhat paradoxical flip side of the same coin is that the reason for the conflict between modern technology and certain modern theological positions, such as that of the contemporary Catholic Church, is that the two ‘camps’ in fact speak the same language.47

These few remarks concerning the Jewish approach and its comparison with contemporary Catholic positions may suffice here and may lead us to some conclusive reflections.48

5. Conclusion

What may be the “gain” of this kind of investigations, especially in the framework of comparative theology? I think we should think about two different kinds of benefits: benefits for the religious communities themselves and advantages for the debate in a modern secular and pluralistic society.

5.1 The Ethical Dialogue Between Three Monotheistic Religions

Comparative ethical studies may contribute to a better mutual knowledge and comprehension between the three monotheistic religions. They will be able to identify common questions and problems and to propose common moral values in order to take part in the public debate; they also may better understand and handle differences in their ethical positions. The aim of such comparative studies cannot be to create a common and generally acceptable position, but rather to sharpen the comprehension of the problem and especially of one’s own bioethical choices. There is the possibility that the comparative approach might guide the dialogue partners to refine or to modify their specific opinions in light of others, because inter-religious dialogue makes their internal questions appear in a different light.

With regard to the example of the ensoulment question, the comparative approach makes clear, first, that the three traditions, each in its own way, have to develop and to define a hermeneutic of sacred texts and their use in (bio-)ethical debates. From the Christian point of view, the historical methods in the exegesis help us to understand biblical texts, at first, as testimonies of their time of origin. But in theological exegesis, these texts show their ability to become words which give us direction and norms for the present. A comparative perspective has to illuminate and to discuss this tension between historical and normative approach. In particular, it will be fundamental to see that the ancient texts show us questions, perspectives and also values that are of lasting importance and actuality. For example, the debate about the “ensoulment” of the embryo illustrates that a human being, in the religious perspective, is more than corporal-biological life, and that its personal and spiritual development in the prenatal life has to be considered, even if the worldview and scientific perspective of that ancient texts are no longer accepted.

But for these considerations, philosophical positions and modern medical knowledge play an important role. This is why religious bioethics, second, have to clarify the status of such philosophical positions and medical knowledge in their own approach. It is to be hoped that the comparative approach enables each interlocutor to sharpen and perhaps to modify their own reference to philosophical concepts and medical data. So, for example, the remaining importance of the idea of a certain moment of “ensoulment” in Jewish and Islamic ethics reminds Christian ethics that the talk of a “soul” or a “person” of a blastocyst is at least counterintuitive, and that it would perhaps be better to use, for these early stages of human existence, the concept of “mystery”. On the other hand, modern Catholic bioethics rightly asks the crucial question whether the fixing of any kind of temporal thresholds of dignity can really do justice to human life in its continuous evolution. Thus, the Catholic view sensitizes other positions (including protestant) for the risk of reification of the human embryo in its early development.

5.2 Religious Bioethics in Public Debates

Regarding the second question – the benefits for the secular society – a first point concerns simply knowledge acquisition: In our secularized and pluralistic societies religious perspectives still play an important role, even if the views of religious communities are not well known. A comparative study of bioethical reflections provides the necessary information about religious arguments in bioethical debates.

Second, religious arguments can become translatable and – perhaps – compatible for the secular debate on bioethics. Being translated, they may also sensitize to important questions and values that might illuminate the secular debate.

The ensoulment question is a good example here. From what moment a human being is a human being? Does the idea of the “gift of a soul” indicate a problem we have to focus on even at the secular level? Should we speak about the difference between a materialistic or monistic view, arguing that human life is just a specific form of material processes, and a spiritual perspective on human life, underlining that human “spirit”, “person” and “soul” cannot be reduced to material an biological phenomena? Concerning the ancient doctrine of ensoulment, the protestant ethicist Reiner Anselm argues that it helps us to understand elements of human self-awareness: we know that our “soul”, our individual identity is more than biological life, and more than a genetic code. “The soul joins in the nascent life, first as something extern but linked to the respective bodily existence, without however being absorbed by it.”49

Another meaningful example for the possibility of “translation” of religious concepts was given by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, in his acceptance speech of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2001, entitled “Faith and Knowledge”. Habermas underlines that “moral sentiments, which until now could be expressed only in a rather exclusionary way through religious language, might find general resonance as soon as they find a redemptive formulation for what has been almost forgotten, but is still implicitly missed.”50 As an example for this “redemptive” translation, Habermas chooses the bioethical discussion on the use of human embryos and on the programming of our offspring. Quoting the biblical story of Creation and the concept of “image of God”, Habermas argues that “it is not necessary to believe in these theological premises in order to understand their consequences. A completely different, causally reimagined subjection would come into play if the difference inherent in the concept of creation were to disappear and a peer were to take the place of God – if, for instance, somebody were to impose his own preferences on the coincidence of parental chromosomes without being obligated at least counterfactually to assume a consensus with the others affected.”51 Thus, the religious concept of “creation” which implies the categorical difference between Creator and creation, helps to understand the secular idea that a human being should never become the “creator” of another human being.

A common debate among different religious approaches, dealing with the advantages and limits of these “translations”, would be helpful in order to explore the role that religious concepts and arguments may have in actual bioethical debates. In this perspective, I appropriate the words of the protestant bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender who affirmed, before the US- National Bioethics Advisory Commission, concerning the theological language: “It begins epistemologically from a particular place, but it opens up ontologically a vision of the human. You might, therefore, be interested in it not only because it articulates the view of a sizeable number of our fellow citizens but also because it seeks to uncover a vision of life that we share.”52


GEP 2011.


Eglise catholique 2016.


Le Monde 2015.


Cf.: Gesundheitsindustrie BW 2011.


See also his address to the religions at the Elysée, on January 4, 2018: (consulted 2 March, 2018).


For example: Meilaender 2013; Breck 1998; Mieth 2002; Fisher 2011; Anselm & Körtner 2003.


Steinberg 2003.


Eich 2005.


Voigt 2010. – See also: Barry 2012; Eich & Hoffmann 2006.


See, for example, a common presentation of Catholic and Islamic bioethics: Tarabay 2015.


Stosch 2012, 194 (my own translation).


In fact, the debate in Protestant theology isn’t grounded in the Aristotelian theory of the ensoulment of the embryo. In present Protestant theology, we find a wide range of opinions on this subject, from a total protection of the prenatal life to more liberal positions, underlining that the moral status of human embryos depends on the relationships in which the embryo is embedded. In this perspective, some Protestants positions allow research on embryos and argue that, for example, a “surplus embryo” in a test tube does not have the same moral status as an embryo growing in the womb of his mother. – For the variety of the Protestant theological debate in Germany, see the important text: Im Geist der Liebe mit dem Leben umgehen. Argumentationshilfe für aktuelle medizin- und bioethische Fragen, EKD-Text 71, Hannover: Kammer für öffentliche Verantwortung der evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland, 2002.


As widely usual, I use here the expression “embryo” for the first eight weeks of human life, and the expression “fetus” for the rest of the time of pregnancy. I don’t enter here in the discussion about the concept of “pre-embryos”.


In Germany for example, a doctoral thesis, proposing a comparative study about the beginning of human life in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic religion, was published some years ago: Willam 2007. – See also: Caspar 1991, 3–24; 239–255; 400–413.


Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals II,3 (736b–737a).


Ibid., 737a.


Aristotle 1907.


Aristotle (n.d.).


For this subject, see: Pouderon 2007, 55–73; Boudon-Millot & Pouderon 2004/2005.


For example, Maximus the Confessor and Gregory the Great hold this opinion.


This makes Vincent Bourget say: “Soit dit brutalement, la pensée occidentale, en accueillant favorablement les théories de l’animation médiate, montre qu’elle abandonne volontiers le corps humain à la nature et ne le ‘sauve’ que par l’esprit – et nous verrons dans la bioéthique contemporaine cette tendance amplement confirmée.” Bourget 1999, 149.


For details, see: Jones 2004, especially 67–72.


Donum vitae, part I,1.


Cf. Eich 2006, 10.


Eich 2006, 17 (my own translation.).


I use here the Sahih International Translation, see: (consulted 27 February, 2018).


Eich 2006, 26.


“Who perfected everything which He created and began the creation of man from clay. Then He made his posterity out of the extract of a liquid disdained. Then He proportioned him and breathed into him from His [created] soul and made for you hearing and vision and hearts; little are you grateful.” See: (consulted 27 February, 2018).


Divine Will (Al-Qadar), chapter 1, see: (consulted 27 February, 2018). – Eich attributes this Hadith to Ibn Mas’ud, without reference in the text: Eich 2006, 26.


Cf. Eich 2006, 27.


Ibid., 32.


Thomas Eich underlines that this affirmation is actually widely used in the bioethical Islamic discourse.

33 (consulted 27 February, 2018; emphasis added).

34 (consulted 27 February, 2018; emphasis added).


Cf. Eich 2006, 41.


Cf. ibid., 62–67.


Lavi 2010, 81–102.


Ibid., 80.


Ibid., 84.


Ibid., 95. Lavi refer to Tractate Yevamot, 69 B; the expression is « mayim be’alma ».




Ibid., 96.


Ibid., 97.


Steinberg 2003, 417–433, 425.


Tendler 2000, 129–142, 131.


Lavi 2010, 96.


Ibid., 98.


To go further, see for example: Gereboff 1982, 316–324; Mackler 2001, 319–323.


Anselm 2010, 65–80, 77 (my own translation).


Habermas 2001, 5.


Ibid., 6.


Meilaender Jr. 2000, 133.

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