What are some of the new choices and ethical questions presented by science and technology that traditional religion never faced?  

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is certainly an assignment designed to get one thinking about science, religion, and the way the two subjects clash. This being said, there are many different trajectories of thought available in regards to this assignment. Does one discuss warfare, birth, vaccination, genetics, technology, etc.? Further, which specific “traditional” religious doctrine are you interested in?  Does one discuss Christianity (in a specific religion such as Roman Catholicism), Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.? The list is so long of “new choices” that you mention, so many religions affected, and no way to approach generalization, that my first tendency as an eNotes Educator is to focus on a traditional Christian religion (Roman Catholicism) and the many new birth choices: sterilization, in-vitro fertilization, reduction, and genetic selection.

Where the “older” birth choices that often contradicted religious teaching were birth control and abortion, the newer birth choices are many, varied, and having to do with genetic research. Considering the ancient concept of general religion, I had to laugh at the “older” implication of legal abortion and birth control in that both have really become viable options only in the last half-century or so. Still, if I was writing this answer in 1974, those are the two “new choices” that I would discuss. Science has come such a long way since then.

As an example of a “traditional” religion, Roman Catholicism has a very specific teaching that anything going against God’s natural order of creation should be avoided. In terms of the “old” choices, abortion and even birth control (with the exception of Natural Family Planning) should not be practiced. In short, anything that creates a child or prevents a child in a different way (other than a man and a woman coming together within the marriage covenant) is considered “sinful” and/or against what God originally planned.

Let us look at prevention first. Apart from birth control, sterilization is one “new choice” that science has proposed for stopping pregnancy. A man can get a vasectomy or a woman can get a tubal ligation, etc. Both of these operations either stop sperm from exiting the man’s body or stop an egg from continuing through the fallopian tube and, as such, completely prevent conception. This is truly preventing a child from being conceived and, therefore, is frowned upon by the traditional religion of Catholicism. (I have to say, however, that in actuality, it is totally a different story. Many Roman Catholics, even devout practicing Roman Catholics, that I know have been sterilized.)

In-vitro fertilization is another very technological choice in order to avoid infertility and create a child. When a couple fails to conceive naturally (and/or a homosexual couple wants to have a child), in-vitro fertilization is a viable option. In-vitro is another way to say “in a test-tube.” In short, a human egg and sperm are united under a microscope and then the embryo is inserted into a woman’s uterus. Again, because the traditional religion of Roman Catholicism is not a fan of anything other than the natural act of intercourse, in-vitro fertilization is absolutely forbidden. Further, usually multiple embryos are inserted in hopes of one or more implanting into the uterine wall. This is precisely where the next issue comes up: reduction.

Reduction is another such “new choice” and a very definite euphemism for aborting one or more embryos/fetuses. When a woman conceives via in-vitro fertilization (or even via a conception drug such as Clomid), reduction can be considered. If seven embryos are inserted and all (or most) of them “take,” many women consider a reduction simply due to the female body’s inability to support that many babies at one time. One or more of the embryos/fetuses are then removed and eliminated in order to make room for one or two (or three) of the other viable babies. A traditional religion such as Roman Catholicism would absolutely be against this, considering these “reductions” to be true abortions.

Finally, we need to approach the wider field of genetic selection. Perhaps you have read one of the recent articles about creating a so-called “perfect baby.” This is the idea that a couple can choose eye color, hair color, skin pigmentation, and even certain personality traits. How? Genetic alteration due to science. This field is vast and, quite frankly, is so expensive that it is still only available to the very rich. Again, because this is in no way natural, a traditional Christian religion (and specifically Roman Catholicism) is completely against this practice.

In conclusion, it should be quite obvious the snowball effect in regards to technology and birth. I must also say that there is an impossibility for generalization here because of the vast number of “traditional” world religions and the vast numbers of “new choices” in regards to science. I have chosen birth choices and Roman Catholicism as the focus here. I realize it is possible you were hoping for something totally different (warfare and Islam, for example). So if you would like another specific possibility, please repost your question.