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 1984,1 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 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 Using this licence, scientists in Newcastle upon Tyne were among the first in the world to successfully clone a human embryo in 2005.6
  • In 2008 the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act drastically liberalised UK law on the use of embryos. Key provisions of the Act include:
  • Permitting UK scientists to create animal-human hybrid embryos for research.
  • Approving the use of embryo testing techniques to select “saviour siblings” – children brought to birth specifically to provide genetically matched cells or tissue for a sibling with a serious medical condition.
  • Allowing the introduction of regulations which permit the creation of genetically modified children with three genetic parents in order to avoid mitochondrial disease (see GM babies).
  • Allowing scientists to conduct embryo experiments using stocks of donated tissue available at the time the Act was passed. The Government claimed there was “sufficiently strong” evidence to justify this, even though the original donors did not give express consent for their tissue to be used to create embryos, and may even have been opposed to such research.
  • Abolishing the previous requirement that doctors should consider “the need of the child for a father” when carrying out in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment. The move allowed single women and lesbians greater access to IVF treatment. It flies in the face of the weight of evidence which emphasises the important role a father plays in a child’s development (see Marriage and the Family apologetic).

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”.7 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.

Humans do not simply bear or have the image of God; we are the image of God. Splicing together mankind with animal-kind degrades the image of God in humanity and blurs, legally and morally, the essence of what it means to be human. Fundamentally undermining human dignity, and therefore God’s image, in this manner constitutes a direct challenge to God himself.

Saviour siblings

Under the ‘saviour sibling’ procedure embryos are created in a laboratory and then selected to be compatible with an older brother or sister who is ill. Some have tried to argue that because the child has been specially chosen, it will be more valued than a normal child. But there could be deep psychological consequences for a child who knows they were not created for their own intrinsic value but as ‘spare parts’ for someone else.

Every person has an intrinsic value because they are made in God’s image. That value is not dependent on any external consideration. However, the ‘saviour sibling’ process selects and creates certain children by the criteria of their potential usefulness to someone else. This devalues them as human beings. It is underlined by the fact that all unwanted embryos which fail to meet the criteria, are destroyed.

As a child, the ‘saviour sibling’ is clearly denied a choice over how his or her body is used. The fact is that no one should be rendered the unconsenting instrument of someone else. That was the moral problem at the heart of slavery. The eighth of the Ten Commandments prohibits taking something from another person without their consent – “thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:13). But is not this the reason a saviour sibling has been created?

Ethical alternatives

In the UK much of the focus of public attention has been on obtaining “stem cells” from embryos for use in combating diseases. A stem cell is an unspecialised cell capable of giving rise to a specialised cell of the body, such as a skin cell, a blood cell, a muscle cell, or a nerve cell.

But in recent years, adult stem cells derived from human tissue have led to numerous medical treatments. Adult stem cells can be found in places such as the umbilical cord and the nasal cavity. In stark contrast, embryonic stem cells have not yet provided a verifiable medical treatment.8

Furthermore, the discovery and development of “induced pluripotent” stem cells has provided an ethical alternative to embryo research. These are ordinary human cells (e.g. skin cells) genetically “reprogrammed” to acquire embryonic-like qualities. Top scientists such as Professor Ian Wilmut (creator of Dolly the sheep), have abandoned embryonic research in favour of the potential offered by induced pluripotent stem cells.9

The 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act permitted the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos in order to provide British scientists with embryos to carry out stem cell research. But the work on animal-human hybrids was abandoned as a failure a year after the Act was passed.10

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.11

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.”12

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.”13

Church of Scotland

In 2006 the Church of Scotland revised its official position on embryo experiments.14 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”.15

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.16 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.'”17

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”.18

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.”19

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’.”20

  1. 1Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, Department of Health and Social Security, Cmnd 9314, July 1984
  2. 2Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, Department of Health and Social Security, Cmnd 9314, July 1984
  3. 3Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, ‘Human Embryo Research’, see http://www.hfea.gov.uk/PressOffice/Backgroundpapers/Humanembryoresearch as at 3 March 2005
  4. 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
  5. 5Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, Press Release, HFEA grants the first therapeutic cloning licence for research, 11 August 2004
  6. 6The Guardian, 20 May 2005
  7. 7Exodus 20:13
  8. 8See Prentice, D and Macrito, R, Stem cells, Cloning and Human Embryos, Family Research Council, 2013
  9. 9The Daily Telegraph, 17 November 2007
  10. 10The Independent, 5 October 2009
  11. 11Report of Proceedings, 2003, General Synod July Group of Sessions, Church of England, 34(2) page 234
  12. 12Report of Proceedings, 2003, General Synod July Group of Sessions, Church of England, 34(2) page 233
  13. 13Embryo Research: Some Christian Perspectives, A report from the Mission and Public Affairs Council, Church of England, July 2003, page 5
  14. 14Church of Scotland, Press Release, Kirk to Update Position on Stem Cell Therapies, 20 April 2006
  15. 15Pre-Conceived Ideas: A Christian Perspective of IVF and Embryology, The Church of Scotland Board of Social Responsibility, 1996, page 62
  16. 16Minutes of the Proceedings of the General Assembly of The Church of Scotland, 23 May 2006
  17. 17Church of Scotland, Press Release, Kirk to Update Position on Stem Cell Therapies, 20 April 2006
  18. 18Church of Scotland, Press Release, Kirk to Update Position on Stem Cell Therapies, 20 April 2006
  19. 19Cherishing Life, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, 2004, page 79
  20. 20Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II, 1995, see http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html as at 28 April 2015, including a quote from his Insegnamenti X, 3, (1987), 1446