Tag Archives: religion

Theology and bioethics: is posthumous reproduction O.K.?

The full version of a story originally published on Vibewire here.

In matters of life and death, religious doctrine often plays a considerable role in the formation of an individual’s ethical agenda. For example, the Catholic Church maintains a firm position on abortion, rejecting its use as a violation of the fundamental belief that all human life has a right to life, and must be protected from the moment of conception. As dictated by canon law, both woman and all ‘formal conspirators’ would face automatic excommunication from the Church. Most of these ecclesiastical declarations are based on specific recorded examples of or clerical interpretation of the ancient religious texts.

As modern biomedical science has broken through previous technological restrictions in assisted reproductive technologies (ART) such as in vitro fertilisation-embryo transfer (IVF), artificial insemination by donor (AID), it is up to religious authorities to establish an official position as guidance for their adherents.

More recently, posthumous reproduction, which involves in vitro fertilisation of a woman using sperm collected from her deceased husband or partner, has enjoyed debate in the wider religious community.

Each of the three Abrahamic faiths has distinctive attitudes towards ART practices. These should be viewed through a strictly moral (and in many ways primordial) lens in contrast to elsewhere in society, where parallel discussions focus mostly on the health and psychological welfare of the resulting children and more ambiguously, on the parentage and inheritance rights of such children.

First of all, all three religions in discussion here require full marital relations and fidelity as a precondition to procreation. Fertilisation is supposed to fulfill a conjugal act between husband and wife for Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Artificial insemination by donor (AID) is considered adultery and thus out of the question.

Let’s start with Christianity.

The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church resolutely oppose assisted reproduction in the fullest sense of the practice. Thus, while treatment for low sperm count and ovulation problems is fine, artificial insemination is not (even if using the husband’s sperm).

The Donum Vitae, issued in 1987 by Roman Catholic scholars, instructs Catholics on the importance of marital union and the act of sexual intercourse in the procreation of offspring. These two conditions make it necessarily ‘wrong’ and unnatural to seek IVF-embryo transfer, surrogate motherhood and cryopreservation (slow freezing and storage, usually for later use) of embryos.

For Protestants, it is acceptable to use ART given two stringent conditions: both gametes are to be produced from a married couple (ruling out sperm or oocyte donation and surrogacy), and no harm to the pre-embryo is to be done. No Christian denomination has yet to release official positions on the phenomenon of posthumous reproduction.


Islam encourages the treatment of infertility as a duty borne by the couple and society, as the Koran celebrates marriage and family formation. Artificial insemination by husband (AIH) using IVF is thus acceptable.

Like Christianity, Islam also rejects posthumous reproduction. But while the Christian faith defends the dignity and right of the child to his/her conception without medical intervention, Islam forbids it because the act of conception falls outside the marital term. At her husband’s death, the wife loses her reproductive rights in liaison with him.


In the case of Judaism, it gets interesting – and a great deal more liberal.

While Catholics take their judicial beliefs from canon law and Muslims from Sharia law, Jews operate through Jewish law. All three laws can differ significantly from the civil laws of different countries.

While Israeli law is communally accepted and administered to Israeli citizens of all religions and ethnicities; matters of personal status, such as marriage, divorce, paternity, and legitimacy are referred to rabbinical courts and judged by the eye of Halakha, the Jewish law. Halakha looks favourably upon AIH if it is medically testified beyond doubt (given 5-10 years of attempts at natural procreation) that such a procedure is necessary.

God’s first commandment to Adam to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ is a good approximation of modern Israel’s perspectives on reproduction and assisted reproduction. The multi-ethnic make-up of the Israeli population (25% non-Jewish, the growth of which could be a threat to the Jewish state and security), combined with an emphasis on family integrity makes it a national objective to grow the Jewish population.

As such, Israel is one of the leading countries in research and development of reproductive technologies, with the highest number of fertility clinics per capita in the world. Israeli women are also the highest per capita users of the procedure.

Predating artificial insemination technology, partial surrogacy was practiced in biblical times. In Genesis 16, Sarah wife of Abraham was childless and had a maid bear Abraham a son, Ishmael before being miraculously cured of her infertility. Other stories in the Old Testament serve as a guiding example for modern Jewish clergy when advising infertile couples.

As for posthumous reproduction, the discontinued practice of wedding a man to his brother’s widow was the most feasible way of producing a dead man’s heir. Judaism follows the law of matrilineal descent, which means that a child is a Jew only if born to a Jewish mother.

The marriage ideal in religion comes into play as assumptions of a loving relationship are used to condone the bequest of a man’s sperm to his wife after his death in order for her to have his genetic child (even without prior consent). It is not too surprising then that posthumous reproduction today is supported by both Israeli law and Halakha.

It is important to note that while the sperm of a dead man can be used to fertilise his wife, the frozen embryos of a dead woman is forbidden from being used to produce the man’s genetic heir, as this would involve a third party, the surrogate mother.

Even so, in 2011 the parents of a 27 year old dead Israeli man, Ohad Ben-Yaakov applied for legal permission to use his frozen sperm to produce a grand child. The man was not married or in a relationship, and they would have had to find a willing, single mother who would raise their grandchild. Their lawyer Rosenblum said, ‘It’s an idea of continuation. It’s a dream. It’s magic.’ Cases like these take Israel’s pro-life attitudes to the extreme, signaling an ever-progressive national and global debate on the ethics of posthumous reproduction. The ‘dream’ of postmortem parenthood would shift the odds in favour of life away from the finality of death.

God’s directions to Adam ‘to work the garden and to preserve it’ (Genesis 2) are sometimes interpreted as an order to improve upon the human creation and to meet its needs, which justifies Jewish flexibility in regards to reproductive ethics. The needs of a mother to survival therefore supersede the unborn life of a fetus, making abortion permissible in circumstances where bringing the pregnancy to full term would endanger the mother’s life. Indeed, in Halakha the pre-embryo that is younger than forty days old from conception is described as ‘mere water’.

Religious institutions offer an ethical dimension to the assisted reproductive technology debate. These considerations are often forgotten in the judicial maelstrom that busies itself with semantic battles over legitimacy and social security.

Change is happening already. Posthumous reproduction, amongst other new reproductive technologies, looks set to be part of a new medical and social reality. Society must choose its battles wisely. In championing diversity of family structures and new technology, we cannot ignore the many couples and families who hold staunchly to these religious beliefs.

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The sanctity of the criminal confession

The Gillard Government’s move to launch a Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse has been met with overwhelming congratulation. However in the weeks since, the Commission has been clouded by the much battled and loaded question of whether Catholic priests have the right to confessional silence (Julia Gillard has called this a ‘sin of omission’).

While the Royal Commission is not a criminal investigation, in the wider scheme of things it seeks to better enable institutions to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. Of the Commission’s listed objectives, ‘identifying impediments within institutions and organisations to the proper notification, investigation and prevention of child sexual abuse’ has indeed struck a chord with the Catholic Church and its followers. Under this recommendation, confessions of child sexual abuse by the penitent would have to be reported to the police. At present, a priest’s ‘confessional seal’ is unbreakable: the inviolable confidentiality exercised by the priest in the name of God goes hand in hand with the religious absolution granted to ‘sinners’ in the confessional box. This right is guaranteed by freedom of religious belief as promised in the Australian Constitution.

At the heart of this discussion lies a choice that must be made between the conflicting human rights in this situation: the right of the victim to better protection from sexual abuse, and the right of the priest to his fundamental religious beliefs.

Voices in politics and media have been quick to turn the Catholic Church on its head, with Independent Nick Xenophon slamming the confessional seal as ‘a mediaeval law that needs to change in the 21st century’. It’s easy to see how easy it is to condemn a religious practice in a secular, politicised environment, especially when there are factors such as horrific child crime involved – but that’s because religion is one of the biggest dividers known to man. It is almost impossible for the secular to understand the motivations and fears of those who are deeply faithful: breaking the confessional seal means excommunication for priests, that is, complete exclusion and exile from the Catholic Church – the priest’s institutional connection to God. And even if you don’t believe in that kind of stuff, it can be dangerous to forcibly take it away from other people, with unintended consequences.

Sarah Joseph from the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University reminds us that these religious ‘rights cannot be simply dismissed as irrelevant, out-of-date, or irrational. Notions of freedom of religious would have little meaning if they only apply to manifestations of rational beliefs shared by the majority: the very nature of religion is to buy into leaps of faith beyond the objectively provable. The human right to do that is an important one.’

While debating this issue, it’s important to remember that everyone in society wants the prevention of child sexual abuse (except for the perpetrators). It is useless to think that members of the Catholic Church belittle child abuse because they resist these laws. Rather, I imagine that it is because that they believe that for criminals who confess, the availability of religious absolution given by God matters more than penal justice given by men.

But does this amount to one institution selectively isolating itself from common law? Absolutely. The law is written by and for everyone: to challenge its universality is to challenge the legitimacy of the entire judicial system and the original social contract that binds us to it. Prison exists as a deterrent for crime and therefore helps prevent future crimes from being committed. So theoretically, priests should be subjected to the same statutory duties as say, teachers or therapists who hear of crime (but not lawyers or journalists yet, it seems).

But we aren’t working with theories here. We’re here to work with what works. And rational voices emerging out of the cloaked stigma of the confessional box are suggesting that criminal confessions are better than nothing at all. To take a crime to a priest requires a modicum of remorse and conscience. If a priest is able to take advantage of this to persuade the paedophile to take up treatment or turn himself in, then the outcome is better than no criminal confession at all, is it not?

If, on the other hand priests are forced to report all confessions of this nature, and it is unclear whether or not the identity of the paedophile or victim would be known, it will dissuade other paedophiles from confessing in the future, beyond certainty.

Says NSW auxiliary bishop Geoffrey Robinson of a treatment centre run by the Catholic Church, ‘If you ask me whether the number of new offences will be significantly less if 100 offenders receive serious [religious] treatment, then yes, I can give that guarantee.

This is a question that society must face. Do we wish to adopt only a single solution of punishment for all cases of sexual abuse? Or do we wish treatment as another option? If we can have both, so much the better, but on many occasions that is not possible. Sometimes we have to choose between punishment and prevention.

In gaining information on one single client that may or may not have been useful in securing a conviction, the price to be paid would have been that no offenders in the future would receive any treatment.’

Whether or not to grant absolution is up to the religious discretion of the priest, but Bishop Robinson stresses that absolution is conditional on a ‘firm purpose of amendment’ given by the penitent, that is, the intention not to offend again. But how can a priest have the confidence to as such? If every priest can ask for ‘serious and concrete practical steps to ensure that [he] would not offend again’, such as seeking out treatment, this could go a long way in preventing further abuse – albeit in an unconventional way that circumvents the legal system in place. But as I said, it’s better than nothing.

Satellite issues that have been raised such as the albatross of Catholic paedophile priests (5-7 percent of priests in Victoria are estimated to have sexually abused children) are irrelevant in discussing the sanctity of the confessional. Paedophile priests simply not go to confession. Bishop Robinson puts this down to the ‘distorted thinking’ of these priests, in that ‘they have convinced themselves that what they are doing is not wrong.’ Another disincentive to confess is the fear of a harsh absolution if identified as a priest.

All things considered, there simply seems to be disagreement on how prevention of child sexual abuse ought to be achieved. This is a moral challenge that we must talk about and address openly and honestly.

Forcing priests to break the confessional seal for the sake of extracting tenuously useful investigative information will dismantle the religious faith of the Catholic institution, and avoids the problem of preventing child sexual abuse in the first place. This is us scrambling for, but failing to focus on the right enemy.

Further reading:

The Age Full Coverage

PM Media Release

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Why Young People Don’t Need God (Or Whoever’s Out There)

Today, 68 per cent of Generation Y-ers can firmly state that they have never doubted the existence of God. This figure seems high, until you compare it to the same study done five years ago, at 83 per cent. And there is nothing to indicate that this percentage isn’t still on the decline.

Michele Boorstein of the Washington Post reported that ‘the percentage of Americans who call themselves Christians has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, and those who do are increasingly identifying themselves without traditional denomination labels.’ Nor is this a lifecycle effect, meaning that as people age, they take recourse to religious belief: studies on generational patterns show that ‘the Millennial generation is far less religious than were other preceding generations when they were the same age years ago.’

Pew Research Center, American Values Survey

Source: Pew Research Center

What I want to know is this: how hard is it be religious, or irreligious in our world today? In a free society bombarded with competing claims on our political, economic, cultural, social attitudes, how much space do we have for religious freedom? These statistics seem to tell us that the answer is none to little. If this is true, then what is the alternative, and is it enough?

As a young girl I often accompanied my friends to church; I attended a Baptist primary school and later, an Anglican high school, both where learning R.E. and going to Mass was compulsory. Later on, when my father embraced Buddhism in his forties, I was exposed to another widely different set of religious customs and values. To this day, I identify somewhat as an atheist, meaning I reject the existence of god/s – but I draw from the teachings of both religions openly – I do, for example, believe in being a good Samaritan, karma, and I’m still very undecided about reincarnation. We had medieval crusades and the purging of Catholics and Protestants. Is this crisis of atheism now a common theme amongst young people?

As fiercely independent Gen Y-ers who thrive on technology and media, we are the first generation born with freedom of information at our fingertips. Our umbilical cords may as well have been internet modems connecting us to the wise, wide world. Modern media forces are the tip of the iceberg of information revolution, which does precisely that: it informs us of the multitudes of views and facts out there. Some of these might even be opposing views to those taught to us by our teachers, parents or religious practitioners. This might explain why young people can increasingly take control of their beliefs, and seek the vast amount of diverse information available out there. In secular Australia, where church and state function independently, everyone enjoys freedom of religion without fear of discrimination or hatred, and this includes the freedom of religious conversion also. This is a different story in non-secular societies like Saudi Arabia or Iraq where freedom of religion, though constitutionally protected, still faces massive cultural hurdles. So political liberty to choose or leave your own religion might contribute to the decline of religious affiliation in Western countries compared to in the Middle East.

But here, religion is no longer a dominant part of the lives of most Gen Y-ers. Instead of religion and morality, our everyday existence has slowly been taken over by the modern logic of capitalism and global consumerism. Education, intellectual self-development and professional achievement is held as the highest standard of man; religion is viewed as backward and irrational. More than this; science is commonly referred to as the primary authority on humankind’s biological evolution. In a world where the scientific method is the guiding light to enlightenment, where can a young person find the personal and social freedom to uphold his or her own religious beliefs?

Wherever you look, the most common answer is in the family and community. The conditions for religious faith are deeply entrenched in our cultural systems, and an ever-important structure of the family unit. Strong community bonds forged through years of churchgoing and participation are lifelong, and give a young person the opportunity to deepen his or her faith. The hereditary nature of religious belief is also understated: How many Christians do you know were born into Christian families?

On the other side of the argument, atheism is not a religion; it has no church or ceremony. It is the denial of God, the absolute inverse of religion. To get to the depth of atheism, you have to evaluate the appeal of irreligion, or No Faith as it is sometimes known. According to Reuters, the no-religion group is the fastest growing religious affiliation category. Each year 1.3 million more adults claim identification with ‘no religious affiliation’. American economist and atheist Bryan Caplan gives a blunt and uncompromising statement on why he considers religious believers to be irrational.


  • accept their religious beliefs with little or no evidence
  • accept religious beliefs that are contrary to the evidence
  • accept religious beliefs without studying competing views
  • are certain about religious beliefs that are dubious at best, and
  • accept their religious beliefs not because they are intellectually compelling, but because they are emotionally comforting.

Once we examine these points though, an important question arises: does atheism relieve the anxiety, isolation and disappointment that many seek to soothe through God, community and prayer? Most of us already live as if there are no gods. Atheists may have the upper hand on ideological justification – not satisfied with the rationale of believing anything, they opt to believe in nothing – but this lonely superiority could leave them feeling more bereft than their religious counterparts.

Perhaps we do reject brick and mortar religious institutions but we can’t deny that spirituality is something we all feel strongly. A friend of mine, a staunch atheist who was recently forced to sleep at the airport due to unforeseen circumstances, chose the Airport Prayer Room as his refuge that night. He jokingly insisted that philosophy was his religion, and as we were in the midst of phone conversation that night, he considered ‘all philosophical discussions a form of prayer’. Another friend has on occasions cited kindness as her religion.

Can these simple moral philosophies really take the place of entire belief systems? Why or why not?

Finally, I want to point out that alternatives to religion do exist if you’re after existential validation. Humanist and agnostic theories are not mere negations of religion, but pose sound arguments of their own. You may like to read about some of them here.

To end this off, religion is fast waning in a world of…well, trivial pursuit. This is unrelated to the intensity of faith of those who do declare themselves to be devoutly religious. But those numbers are steadily decreasing. Maybe it’s a matter of political liberty and choice, maybe it’s the media opening up more corners of the world to us. But at the end of the day no matter what you believe in, it should matter what kind of person you strive to be. And this is true for all of us regardless of religion or irreligion.

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