The crucial issue
Beliefs about the sanctity of life lie at the heart of all the ethical debates on embryo experiments, abortion and euthanasia.
There can be no doubt that a new biological human life is created at conception. Everyone has been a human embryo. The question is, when does that human life acquire the status of becoming a human person whose life is inviolable?
Abortion was legalised in 1967, then in 1990 there were debates on making it legal to carry out experiments which destroy human embryos.
The issue of personhood
- The Warnock Inquiry, reporting in 1984, considered the status of the embryo and whether it was morally right to permit experiments on embryos to be carried out and, if so, on what basis.1
- The main conclusion of the Warnock Report was that human embryos should have ‘special status’ only after 14 days when a rudimentary nervous system (‘the primitive streak’) has developed.2
- Perhaps given that abortion was already legal it is no surprise that the Warnock Report sidestepped the issue of when human life or ‘personhood’ begins. The report claims to be more concerned with how it is right to treat the human embryo.3
- Some philosophers adopt a “gradualist” approach – saying that personhood begins a certain period of time after conception depending on the characteristics or functions of the embryo.
- Influential philosophers such as John Harris have gone on to develop other definitions which assign personhood to “a creature capable of valuing its own existence”.4 They claim that abortion and euthanasia are justifiable on this basis. According to Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, the killing of newborn babies should also be permitted in some cases.5
Embryos and the Bible
The Bible clearly supports the view that life begins at conception.
Scripture teaches that human life is precious and that murder is wrong (Genesis 9:6). Uniquely among all creatures only man has the capacity for a relationship with God. Only man has a soul. Only man was made in God’s image, God’s likeness (Genesis 1:26).
The Bible talks of God knowing an individual from conception (Jeremiah 1:5).
David said he was “sinful from the time my mother conceived me”.6 So David was in need of a Saviour from the very point of his conception. Job speaks of God moulding him like clay and forming his skin, flesh and bones.7
In Psalm 139, the Psalmist praises God whom he says “created my inmost being … [and] knit me together in my mother’s womb”.8 God’s knowledge of the Psalmist goes back to his creation in the womb when he “was made in the secret place”.9 God saw his “unformed body”, that is, God saw the Psalmist as an embryo.10
It follows that the human soul must be present from conception. Body and soul cannot be separated until death.
The incarnation of Christ also has important implications for medical ethics. Jesus Christ reveals not only the nature of deity but also the nature of what is human. It is the central claim of the Christian faith that God became man and dwelt among us11 to become the Saviour of men.12
The life of Jesus Christ on earth began when he “was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary”.13 The incarnation began with the virginal conception and not in the manger in Bethlehem.
The gospel of Luke states that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and the power of the Most High overshadowed her (Luke 1:35).
God became incarnate as an embryo. The consistent teaching of the Church is that Jesus’ humanity began at conception. The only difference between Jesus’ humanity and ours is that Jesus was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). The writer to the Hebrews is clear that Jesus had to be made like us in every way, sin excepted.14
The phrase “to be made” must refer to Jesus’ gestation, his development in his mother’s womb. It cannot refer to Jesus being a created being since the writer to the Hebrews begins by dramatically asserting that Christ is divine, the Son of God, begotten not created. Referring to Psalm 2:7, he asks, “For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?” (Hebrews 1:5, KJV).
Since Jesus shared our humanity and was made like us in every way (Hebrews 2:14, 17), our own human life must have begun at conception.
The American evangelical theologian Professor Gresham Machen, wrote a classic defence of the virgin birth in 1930. This was widely acclaimed by Protestants and Catholics alike.
Gresham Machen wrote of the doctrine of the incarnation:
“To that doctrine it is essential that the Son of God should live a complete human life upon this earth. But the human life would not be complete unless it began in the mother’s womb. At no later time, therefore, should the incarnation be put, but at that moment when the babe was conceived. There, then, should be found the stupendous event when the eternal Son of God assumed our nature, so that from then on He was both God and man.”15
Human personhood begins at conception and the human embryo is precisely that – a human embryo.
The image of God
Because “God created man in his own image”16 he has an entirely different status from other animals. No animal is made in God’s image or has a soul. Uniquely in the created order, it is human life which is specially protected in the Bible.
The fundamental prohibition on killing, and the basis for it, is set out in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
Our significance, and so the claim to protection, derives not from our ‘quality of life’ or gifts and abilities, but from our status as being made in God’s image.
Professor John Wyatt, Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at University College, London, rejects the notion that personhood depends on how you function:
“…in Christian thought, the dignity of a human being resides, not in what you can do, but in what you are, by creation. Human beings do not need to earn the right to be treated as Godlike beings. Our dignity is intrinsic, in the way we have been made…”17
Professor Wyatt argues that because of this intrinsic dignity there is a duty of care for the embryo:
“I therefore find myself driven by the thrust of the biblical material, by theological arguments, and by the undeniable reality of widespread human intuitions about abortion, to the conclusion that we owe a duty of protection and care to the embryo and the early fetus as much as to the mature fetus and newborn baby… There is no point from fertilization onwards at which we can reliably conclude that a human being is not a member of the human community, one who is known and called by God, one with whom we are locked in community.”18
The incarnation and the image of God
The incarnation was made possible precisely because man was made in God’s image.
As Nigel Cameron states:
“For the reason why God could become man was that man, his creature, already bore his image; he already reflected the personal character of God in a human form. For God to become man in embryo therefore requires that man in embryo already bears the image, and absolutely forbids the possibility that in the early stages of his biological life the divine image can be absent.”19
Every single human life bears the image of God. It therefore has special intrinsic value regardless of how young, old, able-bodied or disabled that life might be.
Even without the biblical witness, there would still be a fundamental problem with destroying human embryos. This is the fact that where there is doubt, medicine operates on the principle of ‘playing safe’.
The undeniable fact is that if the embryo of William Shakespeare had been destroyed, then William Shakespeare would never have lived.
Sperm and ova which do not meet simply die – no human life exists. Once they do meet and fertilisation takes place, a new unique human life has begun. No new genetic material is added after the point of fertilisation.
As Hadley Arkes has pointed out:
“The question, however, is not what the organism ‘looks’ like, but what it is. The embryo may not look like the average undergraduate – some people may even think that it looks like a tadpole – but it is never the equivalent of a tadpole even when it ‘looks’ like one. That apparently formless mass is already ‘programmed’ with the instructions that will make its tissues the source of specialized functions and aptitudes discriminably different from the organs and talents of tadpoles. This ‘tadpole’ is likely to come out with hands and feet and with a capacity to conjugate verbs.”20
These are weighty considerations which at the very least mean that the benefit of the doubt should go to keeping the embryo alive. A human embryo is not a potential human being, it is a human being with potential.
- 1Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, Cmnd 9314, 1984, page 60
- 2Banner, M, Christian Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems, Cambridge University Press, 2003, page 62
- 3Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, Cmnd 9314, 1984, page 60
- 4Harris, J, ‘Euthanasia and the Value of Life’, in Keown J (Ed.) Euthanasia Examined, Cambridge University Press, 1995, page 9
- 5’Taking Life: Humans’, Peter Singer, 1993, see http://www.utilitarianism.net/singer/by/1993—-.htm as at 30 September 2014, and other articles
- 6Psalm 51:5
- 7Job 10:9-11
- 8Psalm 139:13
- 9Psalm 139:15
- 10Psalm 139:16
- 11John 1:14
- 12John 3:17
- 13The Apostles’ Creed; Matthew 1:20
- 14Hebrews 2:17
- 15Machen, G, The Virgin Birth of Christ, James Clarke & Co, 1958, page 394
- 16Genesis 1:27
- 17Wyatt, J, Matters of Life and Death, IVP/CMF, 2012, page 61
- 18Ibid, page 173
- 19Cameron, N (Ed.) Embryos and Ethics, Rutherford House Books, 1987, page 13
- 20Arkes, H, First Things, Princeton University Press, 1986, page 364