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Who is a parent? Parenthood in Islamic ethics

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The ethical and legal challenges posed by assisted reproduction techniques are both profound and breathtaking, with most societies unable to fully comprehend one technique before another one, even more daring, emerges. The wrongful implantation of embryos in two women undergoing in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatments at two separate clinics in the UK seriously vitiates the traditional concept of who is a parent. In one case, a patient’s embryos were wrongly implanted into another woman seeking similar treatment, and in the second, a woman’s eggs were fertilised using sperm from a man other than her husband.

In the first mix-up, neither member of the recipient couple was the genetic parent of the child, while in the second case, the recipient mother was the genetic mother and her husband was not the genetic father. The mix-ups resulted in litigation to determine who the rightful parents were. First, I will show in this paper that, although the outcome of the application of English law in both cases was in agreement with the outcome prescribed by basic principles of Islamic law and bioethics, that agreement is based on different reasoning in the two traditions. Next, I will show that the profound ethical implications of reproductive technologies begs for a more pluralistic bioethical discourse than the one-dimensional analysis applied by secular Western societies that currently dominates the enquiry, particularly as most Western societies are more or less multicultural and multireligious.

Box 1 Specialist terms and vocabulary

Concepts from the Qur’an

  • al-walad li’l-firash—child of the matrimonial bed

  • firash—matrimonial bed

  • fuqaha—jurists

  • haquq adami—public/personal rights

  • haquq Allah—God’s rights

  • ibarah al-nass—literal or explicit meaning of a given text, which is borne out by its words

  • iqrar—acknowledgement, confession

  • la tabanni fi al-Islam—adoption is not permissible in Islam

  • maslaha—consideration of the public interest

  • nasab—a person’s genealogy

  • tarbiyah—general …

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  • Competing interests: None

  • *Present address: Molecular Biology & Bioinformatics, National Biotechnology Development Agency, Federal Ministry of Science & Technology, 16 Dunkofia Street, PMB 5118, Area 11, Garki, Abuja, Nigeria: azzubair{at}

  • Abbreviations:
    in vitro fertilisation