International bioethicists and theologians have been grappling since 1978–when Louise Brown became the first viable In Vitro Fertilized birth–with the meaning of the human. The birth in 1996 of Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell, further accelerated debate on a number of related issues including the ethics of human stem cell research and cloning, the moral status of embryos, the dignity of human life, and the point when life begins. Recent advances in induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) and Human Embryonic Stem Cell (hESC) research involving fertilized zygotes have further come under serious moral and religious scrutiny.

Detailed discussions of embryogenesis, including how and when the soul enters the conceptus, date to at least the time of the Presocratics (Heraclitus), and later the Pythagoreans (metempsychosis) and Aristotle. Not surprisingly, this philosophical discourse became intertwined with Galenic-Hippocratic medical ideas; when these topics later resurfaced in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, medieval Christian scholasticism, Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimonides, as well as Islamic physicians and natural philosophers Ibn Rushd, Al Ghazali, Al Farabi, and Ibn Sina, a similar interplay among science, religion and philosophy can be uncovered.

Examining how the ensoulment disputes and debates were framed, carried out and resolved in both the classical world and in late medieval Christianity, Judaism and Islam can provide insight by analogy and contrast into the current epistemological, hermeneutic and theological tools which are used today to help determine bioethical policy. Thus apart from an antiquarian or history of ideas interest in previous bioethical moral reasoning, a close analysis of how previous thinkers grappled with these difficult and not easily resolvable conundrums may contribute to the development of a robust and widely acceptable international framework and protocol for bioethical decision making.


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  • Accepted: 23 June 2012
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