The Sanctity of Life

Embryo Experiments


Historical background
  • Experiments in human embryology were largely unregulated until 1990. The new regulations came about in that year at the recommendation of the Warnock Inquiry.
  • Abortion was legalised in 1967. Consequently it might have been thought inconceivable for an official committee of inquiry to come out against destructive experiments on human embryos. In fact this inconceivable event almost occurred.
  • The Warnock Inquiry, reporting in 19841, had only a majority of one vote to recommend that experimentation be permitted on human embryos up to 14 days.
  • Four dissenters on the Inquiry argued that such research should only be conducted on embryos unused after in vitro-fertilisation (IVF) treatment and should be done with a view to enabling a woman to become pregnant.
  • An additional three dissenters rejected any deliberate destruction of human embryos.2
  • In response to the recommendations the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act legalised experimentation on human embryos of up to 14 days development for the purposes of research into infertility, congenital disease, causes of miscarriages, contraception and detecting gene or chromosome abnormalities. Only spare embryos arising from In Vitro-Fertilisation (IVF) treatment could be used.
  • In 2001 new regulations were made to allow cell nuclear replacement (therapeutic cloning) to be licensed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA). The grounds for research were extended to include increasing knowledge about embryos and serious disease and to enable such knowledge to be applied in developing treatments.3
  • In 2002 the HFEA granted the first licence to carry out research on human embryos to produce stem cell lines. The embryos were donated.4
  • In 2004, the HFEA granted the first licence to create human embryonic stem cells using therapeutic cloning.5

Biblical arguments

The sanctity of life

Life is sacred from conception (see Sanctity of Life). Experiments on human embryos therefore involve the destruction of human beings.

The deliberate taking of an innocent human life breaks the sixth commandment “You shall not murder”.6 The state ought to prohibit such activity, not regulate it. Human beings are not commodities.

Research on human embryos involves the destruction of some human beings for the benefit of others. This is to treat human beings as commodities.

Embryos are the weakest members of society. It is wrong to exploit the weak merely because some ‘benefit’ can be derived from it. Destructive experimentation on embryos means that people can be killed as a means to an end.

Duty to care

The Bible strongly encourages mankind to care for his fellow man. We are our brother’s keeper (Genesis 4:9). We are to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40) and Jesus taught that a stranger in trouble was our neighbour (Luke 10:25-37).

Church positions

Church of England

In July 2003 the General Synod affirmed the sanctity of the human embryo and the need to treat it with profound respect. The Synod recognised there are different views among Christians on the morality of embryo research.7

In addressing the Synod, the Bishop of Norwich concluded: “We recognize the absolutist tradition and we are trying to give respect to that in the motion.”8

A research paper endorsed by the Synod in July 2003 further stated:

“It is plain that for Christians the key question concerns the status of the embryo. Does it have the same right to deserve the protection that is accorded to early human life on the basis of the traditional respect for the sanctity of human life? The new developments promise benefits of various kinds in the advance of scientific understanding and medical knowledge, and in the eradication of serious disabilities. But in Christian thought, where the ends are not simply taken to justify the means, it must be a prior question whether what is done in pursuit of these goals is itself morally acceptable.”9

Church of Scotland

In 2006 the Church of Scotland revised its official position on embryo experiments.10 This was the Kirk’s first major change on the issue since 1996, representing a significant shift from its previous policy of completely opposing embryo experiments. Since 1996 the Church of Scotland had held that “the human embryo must be regarded as an actual person, and regarded as a person at all stages of development from the moment of conception. Therefore all treatment of a human embryo which is not for the benefit of that embryo is morally wrong and as such all research on human embryos is morally wrong.”11

However, a 2006 report by the Kirk’s Church and Society Council which was accepted by the General Assembly in May 2006 moves away from this position, giving the green light to embryo experimentation in certain circumstances.12 The report stated: “While it recognises that for some in the church ‘the embryo already has the same human dignity as a person who has been born’, the majority of the working group took the view that ‘the moral status of the human embryo is not established until some time into its biological development after conception.’”13

However, the 2006 report opposes “the deliberate creation of human embryos for research by IVF methods or nuclear transfer cloning methods, except into serious diseases and only under exceptional circumstances”.14

Roman Catholics

In 2004 the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales stated:

“Medical research which involves the destruction of human embryos is a ‘crime against their dignity as human beings’ (The Gospel of Life, Paragraph 63). It should also be noted that there are good alternative sources of stem cells which do not require cloning or the destruction of embryos.”15

The Papal Encyclical Evangelium Vitae states:

“When the Church declares that unconditional respect for the right to life of every innocent person – from conception to natural death – is one of the pillars on which every civil society stands, she ‘wants simply to promote a human State. A State which recognises the defence of the fundamental rights of the human person, especially of the weakest, as its primary duty’.”16

  • 1Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, Cmnd 9314, 1984 cited by Cameron, N (Ed.) Embryos and Ethics, Rutherford House Books, 1987, pages 2-3
  • 2Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, Cmnd 9314, 1984 cited by Cameron, N (Ed.) Embryos and Ethics, Rutherford House Books, 1987, pages 2-3
  • 3Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, ‘Human Embryo Research’, see as at 03 March 2005
  • 4Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, Press Release, HFEA Licence Committee Approves Two Applications for Research on Human Embryos to Produce Stem Cell Lines, 28 February 2002
  • 5Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, Press Release, HFEA Grants the First Therapeutic Cloning Licence for Research, 11 August 2004
  • 6Exodus 20:13
  • 7Report of Proceedings, 2003, General Synod July Group of Sessions, Church of England, 34(2) page 234
  • 8Report of Proceedings, 2003, General Synod July Group of Sessions, Church of England, 34(2) page 233
  • 9Embryo Research: Some Christian Perspectives, A Report from the Mission and Public Affairs Council, Church of England, July 2003, page 3
  • 10Church of Scotland, Press Release, Kirk to Update Position on Stem Cell Therapies, 20 April 2006
  • 11Pre-Conceived Ideas: A Christian Perspective of IVF and Embryology, The Church of Scotland Board of Social Responsibility, 1996, page 62
  • 12Minutes of the Proceedings of the General Assembly of  The Church of Scotland, 23 May 2006,
  • 13Church of Scotland, Press Release, Kirk to Update Position on Stem Cell Therapies, 20 April 2006
  • 14Church of Scotland, Press Release, Kirk to Update Position on Stem Cell Therapies, 20 April 2006
  • 15Cherishing Life, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, 2004, page 79
  • 16Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 1995, page 180, including a quote from his Insegnamenti X, 3, (1987), 1446

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