The moral status of the embryo

During the 2002 public debate in Australia about whether destructive research on human embryos should be allowed, I remember reading the newspapers with frustration. In the same week, different reports claimed that the frozen excess embryos in question were: (a) dead; (b) merely human cells; and (c) not human at all. These are all incorrect, though (a) involves an interesting metaphysical question.[1]

Thankfully those days are over, and we no longer need to argue in informed circles that human embryos are indeed embryonic humans. The question we now face in public policy is: at what stage of development does the nascent human deserve protection? It is the answer to this question that has informed our community’s treatment of unborn humans, and therefore the way medical practice has developed. However, the question is complicated, not only by the differing definitions used by each side of the debate, but also by how each party decides what is and is not ethically permissible. Our motives also complicate the discussion—it has long been recognized that people tend to choose their definition and select their preferred moral calculus according to the result they want to achieve.[2]

We have examined the biological view in the previous chapter, which demonstrated the undeniable humanity of the embryo in physical terms. However, human beings are more complex than just biology, and as we have already mentioned, biological facts do not determine moral significance. In view of this, how has our society justified the destruction of unborn humans at embryonic and fetal stages? The answer lies in the way the developing human is considered in philosophical terms.


The proponents of destructive embryo research and abortion usually advocate that protection is only due to human persons, and that personhood is not conferred merely on biological grounds. The modern view is that the status of ‘personhood’ is not automatically given to any human being, but only to those who can perform certain functions. It is worth pausing here to look a bit closer at the idea of personhood’.

The concept of human personhood has been incorporated into Christian doctrine since its earliest writers, to express the biblical understanding of individuality. Boethius (480-524 AD), in his Fifth Tractate, coined the traditional definition of a person—“the individual substance of rational nature”—to defend the Chalcedonian definition of Christ as “one person in two natures”. The substance (a person) is separated from a specific property, its nature (human/divine).[3] For much of its history, this definition of personhood was understood to mean ‘an individual (human) being of a rational nature’. As explained by Thomas Aquinas, the classical understanding was that those who possess a human nature possess a rational nature, even if they are unable freely to exercise their reason at a certain time (for example, it they are too young). Therefore, it was considered that all human beings were human persons.

During the 20th century, the definition of personhood underwent a change, largely for political reasons. Over time, the origins of Boethius’ definition were lost, and it began to be interpreted as meaning that a person was merely a particular instance of a rational nature. The ‘nature’ gradually became more important than the ‘substance’.

In 1954, Episcopalian minister Joseph Fletcher published an account of human personhood in which he claimed that the human person must not merely possess a rational nature, but be able to exercise it. His motivation was a desire to justify legal abortion, which at the time was seen by some Christians as an expression of compassion toward women in a difficult situation (unwanted pregnancy).[4] This was at a point when the birth control movement had shifted the focus of the abortion debate away from the humanity of the fetus. Fletcher’s definition was driven less by scientific discovery and more by the political debate around abortion. If the embryo was not a fully human person then abortion would be much easier to justify.

Fletcher argued that what sets humans apart from other animals is their possession of reason. He claimed this is what grounds human dignity and is signified by the term ‘person’. He went on to argue that if the human embryo is not a human person then it does not merit legal protection. His approach is based on the work of the English philosopher John Locke, focusing on the actual intelligence and reflective powers that people can display, and requiring someone to have a high degree of self-awareness before they can be defined as a ‘person’. For Fletcher, the possession of human nature with the latent ability to reason was insufficient, and thus not only embryos and fetuses but also newborn infants would have to be classed as non-persons. He explicitly accepted the conclusion that infanticide would be justifiable on these grounds. Those in a prolonged coma or suffering dementia would likewise be excluded from personhood status. Technically, you would also have to exclude a perfectly normal adult who was asleep or unconscious, because their reasoning is also latent.[5]

In response to this argument, many people (Christians especially) would suggest that surely this is an unacceptable way to decide which humans deserve protection in our legal system. Obviously, any ethic allowing infanticide is not consistent with the Christian desire to defend the weak and helpless.

Traditionally those who are unable to speak for themselves and who thus become socially vulnerable are seen to be in more need of protection rather than less, which suggests that we should stick with the standard definition of ‘person’—that is, a living human being. If you are a human being, you possess a human nature, which means you have a rational nature even if you are unable to express it at the time.

There is some concern (amongst Christians especially) that attempts to redefine personhood are a foil aimed at political expediency—in this case, to allow the destruction of human embryos for research. Arguments about ‘personhood’ certainly became more important once embryos were created in isolation for use in IVF. Suddenly the focus was more on what the embryo actually was in and of itself, rather than just its importance in relation to the mother.

There are many theories regarding the point at which personhood begins, or when independent moral status is acquired. Generally these theories require the unborn child to have particular features or abilities before being considered worthy of protection. Some of these views are summarized below in table 3.

Table 3: Personhood theories

Point at which personhood begins Rationale Noted proponents
Fertilization Genetic union of parental gametes (one flesh) and continuum of self-directed development from this point Embryologists and many Christians
14 days Primitive streak visible in embryo; twinning no longer possible Warnock committee 1984, United Kingdom Parliament (see below)
Implantation Embryo is in an environment where maturation will occurorDefinitional change[6] Many obstetricians and gynaecologists
Quickening (first time at which mother is aware of fetal movement; 17-20 weeks) Confirms presence of fetus Medieval writers
Sentience (capacity to feel pain) Includes higher-order animals Philosophers LW Sumner and Peter Singer, and some animal rights activists
Viability (ability to survive outside the womb; varies with geographical location; 22+ weeks) “With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the ‘compelling’ point is at viability”[7] Supreme Court of the United States in Roe v. Wade
Birth Physical independence from mother Most Western federal courts
Self-consciousness “Life without consciousness is of no worth at all”[8] Philosophers Peter Singer and Michael Tooley

Public debate on these competing theories continues without any sign of resolution. My main objection to the claim that personhood begins at any point after fertilization is that these are arbitrary points. Yes, each one of these points is a significant milestone in the life of the human involved. But there will be many more significant moments that come afterwards. Once you go beyond fertilization, that’s all it is: the next stage of development, then the next, one after another.

Some of the ‘requirements’ for personhood listed above are not actually intrinsic properties of the fetus. For example, in pre-ultrasound times quickening (the first movements of the fetus felt in the uterus) was used to confirm that a live baby was present. But the timing of quickening varies according to the sensitivity of the pregnant woman, with first-time mothers regularly noticing fetal movement later than their more experienced sisters. And viability depends on biology and the standard of care available. The gestational age for viability keeps changing as technology in neonatal intensive care units improves. Likewise, the timing of birth can be dependent on a host of factors outside of the baby itself.

The idea of personhood that has most influenced international debates on human embryo research is that proposed by the Warnock committee, which reported to the United Kingdom government in 1984. While acknowledging that embryonic humans should have a special status, the committee decided to avoid answering the question of when life or personhood began. Instead it discussed how the embryo should be treated. Despite criticisms of this approach (how do you know how to treat it if you don’t know what it is?), the committee’s recommendation—that destructive human embryo research can be justified up to 14 days—has influenced policy makers around the world ever since. The introduction of in vitro (in the test tube) fertilization (IVF) in the United States was also approved after ‘putting aside’ the question of the moral status of the embryo.[9] Interestingly, at the time IVF was approved, the maximum length of time anyone had been able to grow human embryos in the laboratory was 14 days. How convenient.

The Warnock committee conferred emerging personhood on the embryo—that is, they indicated that personhood increases with age. They chose their time limit for destructive embryo research on the grounds that 14 days was the time when the primitive streak was visible in the embryo (“this marks the beginning of individual development”),[10] and also the time when twinning was no longer possible.[11] We now know that this science is out of date. Subsequent research has shown that the human embryo is organized from its very first day.[12] However, the Warnock report remains influential. Its assumptions permeated the United Kingdom’s most recent review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in 2005;[13] and the ‘14-day rule’ has been confirmed as an ethical principle by various government ethics committees, including United States federal committees[14] and Australian parliamentary reviews.[15]

The interesting thing to notice in the literature about the moral status of the embryo is that most philosophers—regardless of whether they think the embryo deserves protection or not—do not support the arguments used in the Warnock report to justify the ‘14-day rule’.[16] According to the philosophical literature, either the pre-14 day embryo is being unjustifiably exploited (because it deserves protection), or research on embryos is being unjustifiably limited (because they don’t deserve protection until later).

How do we decide which is correct? Certainly not by asking the researchers. The moral status of the human embryo is not a scientific question but a philosophical or metaphysical one, dependent on one’s world view rather than calculated by an equation. It does not lend itself to numerical values and deadlines.

Proponents of destructive embryo research further justify their position (that the human embryo does not deserve protection) by pointing to examples in modern life where our society already condones the discarding of embryonic and fetal humans. These include the marketing of contraceptives that work after fertilization, assisted reproductive technology (ART) research, and legal abortion.[17] The high rate of embryo loss before implantation in normal pregnancy is also considered to support this view.[18]

Despite the time given to discussions of personhood, it’s hard to avoid the impression that its place in the debate is really an excuse to justify what some people want to do anyway.

The philosophical theory that underlies the position that approves of human embryo destruction is ultimately consequentialism. Consequentialism is the ethical theory that right and wrong can be determined by looking at the consequences of our actions alone (leaving out consideration of things like motives, intentions, actions and the character of the person involved). Many national governments have decided that while the destruction of developing humans (usually in the form of excess frozen embryos left over from assisted reproduction) may be regrettable, the consequences of their destruction is sufficient justification—for example, potential medical cures through embryonic stem-cell research, babies through ART research, and freedom for women desiring abortion.

Yet the secular world is not entirely committed to the idea that early human life is unimportant. The Warnock committee recognized the mood of the community when they “agreed that the embryo of the human species ought to have a special status”.[19] However, without biblical grounding, many people are unsure as to why this should be so. One secular expression of the preciousness of human life is reflected in human rights declarations, which since World War II have been designed to protect the welfare of human research subjects. Technically, destructive research on human embryos contravenes documents such as The Nuremberg Code[20] and the WMA Declaration of Helsinki, which requires that “in medical research involving human subjects, the well-being of the individual research subject must take precedence over all other interests”.[21] The Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine ensures “adequate” protection of the embryo where in vitro research is allowed (although I’m not sure exactly what “adequate” includes), and also prohibits research on human embryos in vivo (in the body) and the creation of human embryos for research.[22]

However, when economic opportunity and political expediency call, such documents may fail to impact legislators. In Australia, amidst concerns expressed in the media that lucrative biotechnology opportunities would be lost if embryonic stem-cell research was not approved by parliament, laws were passed in 2002 to allow it—despite a previous Senate committee recommendation that human embryos be protected from destructive experimentation.[23] It is interesting that in Western Europe, countries that witnessed the worst of the World War II atrocities, such as Germany and Italy, have been among the most reluctant legislatures when it has come to approving destructive research on human embryos.

Another group that has decided fetal life can be valued without establishing formal independent moral status is a body of doctors involved with antenatal care.[24] Chervenak and Kurjak have argued that if a human being is presented to the physician, and if that human is expected to benefit from the application of the physician’s clinical skills, then that human being can be viewed as a patient. Certainly many doctors who work with newborn babies hesitate to advocate abortion once they realize how similar their tiny patients are to those in the womb.

Chervenak and Kurjak’s arguments ground the value of the fetus in the ontological continuity of its identity with the human who is reliably expected to achieve independent moral status later, after birth. While they respect the autonomy of the pregnant woman, they note that her expectation that the doctor will care for the child is expressed in her presentation to the doctor for antenatal care in the first place. They recognize the possibility of conflict should the mother refuse the physician’s advice, but suggest that beneficence (doing good) towards the baby should be their motivation, in balance with obligations to the mother (for instance, in regard to her safety). They endow the unborn child with moral significance by referring to codes of professional medical ethics. Those who take the Hippocratic Oath (historically the most influential declaration of the moral obligations of the medical practitioner) specifically promise not to “give a woman means to procure an abortion”.[25]

Despite difficulties in understanding why it should be so, the reality of our community’s instinctive attribution of special status to the human embryo is seen in the fact that in Western countries where destructive research on human embryos is legal, it requires official approval and is permitted only up to 14 days of development. There is societal hesitation to go further. Bioethicist Leon Kass, when discussing human cloning, famously referred to this hesitation as “the wisdom of repugnance”.[26] While accepting that repugnance is not a moral argument, he nonetheless sees it as “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it”.[27] He expands the point:

We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings not because of the strangeness or novelty of the undertaking, but because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. Repugnance, here as elsewhere, revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound. Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.[28]

We shall return to the idea of personhood in a moment, after we have considered what the Bible has to contribute to this question.

The biblical view

Christians have a moral compass, the Bible, which should inform all our decisions regarding right and wrong.[29] We do need to understand that in issues relating to modern technology, the Bible may not specifically address the point at hand. It is an ancient collection of texts written in times vastly different from our own. Nevertheless, despite its antiquity, the Bible is God’s revelation of the unchanging principles that should guide the lives of those who follow his Son, Jesus Christ. To elicit such principles it is necessary both to pay attention to explicit biblical statements and to look for biblical themes that can inform our decision-making.

Over the years many helpful frameworks have been developed for distilling and applying the Bible’s teaching on ethical questions—see, for example, those used by Michael Hill and John Stott.[30] Most approaches suggest that the Bible’s teaching is best applied to current ethical dilemmas by considering biblical revelation in 4 stages: creation, fall, redemption and future consummation. In other words, we need to consider the world firstly as God originally made it; then as it is affected by sin; then in light of the salvation that is possible through the work of Christ; and finally in view of the glorious future awaiting us. It is important to consider the whole of Scripture in our task so that our conclusions are not distorted by a partial appreciation of God’s purposes.

In considering the Bible’s teaching on the moral status of the human embryo, I acknowledge that opinion in the Christian community is divided on this issue. After examining the texts, I will explain my own view and the reasons for it.

Creation in the image of God

We can learn a lot about the way God wants us to treat humans by considering the way we have been made. All humans are made in the image of God, and this is the basis on which we are all to be treated equally and with dignity. There has been much debate over what it means for humankind to be made in God’s image, but it at least refers to embodied individuals who live out a role in history.[31] The creation story shows us that humanity has been brought into this world by God’s creative word and, like the creation around us, we constantly depend on his will, purpose and upholding presence:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27)

Human beings have been uniquely made in the image and likeness of God. This sets us apart from all the other creatures, which were made “according to their kinds” (Gen 1:21, 24, 25). If what qualifies you to be treated with equal dignity to others is the fact that you are a person, then all human beings have this ‘right’, for we are all persons made in the image of God. In contrast to the modern philosophical view that personhood must be earned, the Bible teaches that our personhood is inherent because of the nature of the God whose image we reflect. We are to treat all human beings with respect for the whole of their lives, regardless of their particular characteristics. It is not our respect that gives them dignity; rather, it is because they have dignity that we owe them respect.

The reality of sin and the Fall does not change this fact. Just as taking a $20 bill and screwing it up, throwing it in the mud and jumping on it does not reduce its intrinsic value (it’s still worth $20), so the ravages of sin have not reduced the value of human beings made in the imago dei. Man still retains the image of God (Gen 9:6).

When God said ‘Let us make man in our image’, and then created ‘man’ to be both man and woman, he underscored our need for community and relationships (reflecting the differentiated unity of the Godhead). In other words, we have been made for relationships both with him and with each other. This is further emphasized by the fact that when the solitary Adam was placed in the garden of Eden, God himself declared that it was “not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Up to this point in time, this was the only thing in the whole creation that was “not good”. This means that man can only truly understand himself as a finite embodied being in the context of relationships.

It also means that we do not make decisions independently of those around us. Even if we do not care about others, our actions will nonetheless affect them. Moreover, as human persons with a history, we each have a ‘story’ that is inextricably linked to the ‘story’ of others. Whether we realize it or not, we cannot act without being influenced both by our own narrative and by the narratives of others. We may like to think about issues like reproduction in an abstract or individualistic way, but biblically informed Christians will always accept that our choices profoundly affect others.[32] Our freedom, therefore, must be guided and limited by what the Bible says it means to be truly free—part of which is to live in loving relationship with others.

As mentioned, after the sin and judgement of the Fall in Genesis 3, humanity retains God’s image and likeness, passed down from father to son (Gen 5:1, 3; 9:6; also see Jas 3:9). Of course, sin has corrupted the image. That is why those in Christ “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10). One day this renewal will be complete (Rom 8:29), but not this side of glory (Phil 3:12-14). Nevertheless it is because we retain God’s image, even in our fallenness, that the book of Genesis informs us that shedding human blood is judged with capital punishment:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man,

by man shall his blood be shed,

for God made man in his own image.” (Gen 9:6)

This somber warning, together with other parts of Scripture, tells us how seriously God views murder. For example:

  • Such a crime is not only against man but against God himself, in whose image man is made (Gen 9:6).
  • The murderer himself is liable to be killed and is not protected by the sixth commandment, which prohibits the taking of innocent life (Exod 20:13).
  • The judicial code for retributive justice (i.e. the ‘eye for an eye’ of Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20) is clarified and qualified elsewhere in the Scriptures, with manslaughter specifically distinguished from murder (Num 35:10-28).
  • Murder pollutes the land in which it is committed, and atonement can only be made by shedding the blood of the one who has committed it (Num 35:33).

As far as God is concerned, the taking of human life is a very serious crime.

Continuity before and after birth

But when does human life begin?

It is quite clear that it does not begin at birth. The Bible indicates that all human beings have a relationship with God while still in the womb. Several passages attest to God’s careful moulding of the human form, while not identifying exactly when this relationship begins:

For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;

in your book were written, every one of them,

the days that were formed for me,

when as yet there was none of them. (Ps 139:13-16)

The psalmist, David, uses a variety of words here to evoke the picture of God as a craftsman: “formed”, “knitted”, “made”, “woven”. All of these point to the fact that each human being is a carefully modelled masterpiece. Furthermore, the passage does not refer to the fully developed fetus so much as to the early embryo. This is clear from David’s use of the Hebrew word golem (translated “unformed substance” in verse 16), a term used in Jewish literature to denote the first stage of human life after conception.[33] David Jones associates the idea of our being created in the “depths of the earth” with Adam’s creation from “dust from the ground” in Genesis 2:7.[34] Whether or not this link is present in David’s mind as he writes the psalm, Psalm 139 clearly portrays the mystery of human development long before the availability of antenatal ultrasound. It is also clear that David identifies with his unborn self in his mother’s womb. He is in no doubt that life outside the womb is a continuation of the life that began inside, and he acknowledges God’s full knowledge of his future even as he knows his past (cf. Ps 139:1-10; Heb 4:13). Similar ideas are found in several apocryphal texts (e.g. Wisdom 7:1-4; 2 Maccabees 7:22-23) and also in Job’s words:

“Your hands fashioned and made me,

and now you have destroyed me altogether.

Remember that you have made me like clay;

and will you return me to the dust?

Did you not pour me out like milk

and curdle me like cheese?

You clothed me with skin and flesh,

and knit me together with bones and sinews.

You have granted me life and steadfast love,

and your care has preserved my spirit.” (Job 10:8-12)

Further status is given to the developing embryo in Exodus 21:22-25. This passage outlines the penalties for injuring a pregnant woman during a fight, and appears to give the unborn human equivalent importance to one who has been born:

“When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Exod 21:22-25)

This passage seems to be saying that if men who are fighting injure a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely to a live child, the offender is to be fined. But if there is serious injury and miscarriage, you are to take life for life (the life of the unborn child is equated to the life of the attacker). This reading of the Hebrew is reflected in the NIV and ESV translations, among many others. However, consider another translation:

If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exod 21:22-25 NASB)

If this translation is correct, then a different interpretation follows. The attacker is not to be executed for bringing about the death of the child, but only for bringing about the death of the mother. In other words, it is the mother’s life that is equated with that of the attacker, not the child’s. This could be understood as suggesting that “the unborn do not have the same value or rights as those born”.[35] This is the common Jewish reading of the text, and is also reflected in a number of English Bible translations (notably KJV, NEB and RSV).[36] However, since the death of a (non-pregnant) woman has already been dealt with earlier in the chapter, it’s hard to see why it would be mentioned again.

Much of the confusion surrounding the interpretation of Exodus 21:22-23 stems from the influence of the Septuagint (or LXX).[37] The Septuagint version of the text yields a different translation again:

And if two men are fighting and strike a pregnant woman and her infant departs not fully formed, he shall be forced to pay a fine: according to whatever the woman’s husband shall lay upon him, he shall give with what is fitting. But if it is fully formed, he shall give life for life… (Exod 21:22-25, LXX)

According to this version, the death of a “formed” infant demands “life for life”, but the death of a “not fully formed” infant only warrants a fine. Many early Christians read this version of the Old Testament, and its influence lasted well into the Middle Ages. However, at this point, the Septuagint badly mistranslates the original Hebrew, using the word ‘form’ where the Hebrew clearly means ‘harm’ or ‘injury’. In other words, the formed/unformed distinction is nowhere present in the Hebrew text. In fact this distinction derives from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose (incorrect) explanations of early human development were widely accepted at the time.[38]

That the writer of Exodus is making a distinction between an unharmed child and an injured child is clear from his use of the term yeled—the normal term for a child. If the writer had wished to signify the miscarriage of an undeveloped fetus, he could have used the term sakal (the normal word for a miscarriage; cf. Exod 23:26) and referred to the fetus by either golem or nefel.[39] But this is not what is said, nor what is meant. The Hebrew word used is yatsa, which is a more general verb meaning ‘to come out’. In the context of pregnancy this nearly always refers to giving birth (as in Gen 25:24-26 and 38:28-30). Consequently, in the ancient world the Exodus text was not seen as a justification for abortion except, in rabbinic interpretation, to save the mother’s life.

However, the Septuagint was used as a basis for the ‘Old Latin’ version of the Bible (the Vulgate). This in turn was used by Augustine (among others), who felt obliged to embrace a formed/unformed duality. The popularity of his commentaries kept that version of Exodus 21:22-25 alive.[40] Yet it did not change people’s thinking that deliberate destruction of an unborn child was wrong. Indeed Augustine himself “disapproved of the abortion of both the vivified and unvivified fetus, but distinguished between the two”.[41] As I’ve argued, this distinction is based on a misunderstanding of Exodus 21:22-25. But however you interpret it, this passage only refers to accidental injury. Therefore, it “cannot be used to imply support for the intentional destruction of human life in abortion”.[42]

Furthermore, despite an acknowledged lack of understanding of the process involved in embryological development (see Eccl 11:5), the link between conception and birth was clearly understood in biblical times:

Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain… (Gen 4:1)

The birth of Christ was similarly announced:

…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:20-21)

Indeed, a strong argument for the importance of the nascent human comes from the incarnation of Jesus. It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus’ human existence commenced at his conception. This was certainly the understanding of the early Christian church.[43] As John the Baptist’s prenatal life is similarly described, Jesus’ prenatal life cannot be attributed to his divinity. If Jesus assumed human nature at the point of conception, it follows that all human existence commences at conception.

Luke’s account of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1 is interesting in this regard. Mary had just been visited by the angel Gabriel, and was in early pregnancy when she hurried to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was 6 months pregnant with John the Baptist:

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:41-44)

Luke is suggesting that Jesus and John, both in utero, were as present as Mary and Elizabeth at this meeting: John the Baptist is noted to have ‘recognized’ Jesus. Furthermore, the Greek word brephos, used to describe the unborn John, is the same word used later on to describe the baby Jesus (Luke 2:12) and also the little children who came to Jesus in Luke 18:15.

Luke’s account is also interesting because if Mary went to visit as soon as she received the news (“with haste”, v. 39), and given a journey of approximately one week, Jesus would have been a blastocyst (a 5-7 day old embryo) at the time Mary met Elizabeth, who acknowledged him as her Lord (v. 43).[44]

Pulling the above biblical strands together, then, we can only conclude that God recognizes and interacts with embryonic humans from the time of conception through to birth and beyond.

There are Christians who have argued against this understanding. RJ Berry, an ecological geneticist awarded for his advocacy of the Christian faith in the world of science, argues that Psalm 139 cannot be used to argue for continuity except in retrospect by a rational being (i.e. ‘Since I know I am here now, I realize it was me in my mother’s womb’). He argues it is not legitimate to say that God is in relationship with every fetus and embryo created (including those lost early in development). He makes a point of saying that continuity can only apply to persons:

Once a person exists [which Berry seems to define as one who is able to reason], one must reckon with his or her whole life history as a linked sequence of divinely guided and appointed processes and events. But Psalm 139 says nothing whatsoever about those who are not ‘persons’.[45]

Berry says that if we are honest, we should admit that we don’t know what relationship God has with the early embryo.

In other words, if I say that Psalm 139 seems to show God clearly interacting with a human person in utero, Berry would respond by saying we can’t know that, because by his definition of ‘person’ (derived from elsewhere) the fetus or embryo in Psalm 139 is not a person. This just seems to be an a priori ruling out of inconvenient evidence.

Berry also says we can’t count the incarnation of Jesus because that was a special case. This is a question of who has the burden of proof. Is it those who continue the teaching of the moral worth of the unborn, which extends since Old Testament times, or those who now want to disregard embryonic humans for the sake of scientific research?

Sadly, it appears that the late Anglican theologian Gordon Dunstan was influential in persuading Bishop Harries—the Chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research in the United Kingdom—to allow destructive research on embryos in that country.[46] Dunstan appealed to Christian tradition to downgrade the importance of the human embryo. He pointed out in a 1984 article that medieval Christians such as Aquinas believed the embryo did not have a soul until it was fully formed. He claimed it was only since the late 19th century that Christians had given absolute protection to the human embryo “from the moment of conception”.[47] Unfortunately, he based his ideas on the inaccurate translation of Exodus 21:22-23 in the Septuagint, and on the outdated embryology of Aristotle.


How does the Bible suggest we treat this being who is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14)? We will discuss the Christian ethical framework in chapter 5, but for now I simply want to point out that our God has a special concern for the vulnerable in society, and his expectation is that we will be likewise concerned. He upholds the cause of the weak and oppressed. He shows no partiality, and neither should we (e.g. Deut 10:17-18; 24:14; Isa 1:17). While these passages obviously don’t refer to embryonic human life, is there any member of society more vulnerable than an unwanted human embryo?

Should we give a human embryo the same moral status as a human adult? As we’ve seen, that depends on our view of human personhood. However, even if you are unsure whether the early embryo has the same moral status as a fully developed human adult, this is very different from saying that it has no moral status whatsoever, and is not entitled to any protection or any respect. (Specific exceptions are discussed throughout this book.)

It seems to me that logic obliges us to contend that human life and human personhood begin at fertilization. This is our experience. At no point during my pregnancies did I think of the child I was carrying as an embryo or a fetus. They were always babies, and I think this is a very normal and common perception.

We are now able to see why the public debate regarding when life begins has been so heated and protracted. Issues including the destruction of human life and the potential cure of disabling disease will inevitably arouse emotion. But it is obvious to me that consensus will never be reached, because of the different ways in which those on either side of the debate are addressing the question. Proponents of embryo and fetal destruction are looking at the favourable consequences they expect to result. Opponents will not permit this destruction of human life on any terms, despite anticipated consequences. For those who hold them, absolute moral values will stand regardless of the context.

This may make those opposed to destructive embryo research, for example, seem hard and uncaring to our community. It is suggested that such citizens do not care about human suffering, about those who live in hope of a miracle. There is no equivalent visual symbol for embryos as powerful as the disabled men and women, boys and girls who sit patiently in wheelchairs. We do have ‘snowflake children’—those born from donated ‘excess’ embryos left over from IVF. But they are relatively few in number, and it will be years before they can articulate their opposition as coherently as those who support human embryo destruction and sit eye to eye with politicians in parliamentary hearings.

We cannot expect those who do not acknowledge the authority of the Bible to agree with us, especially when Christians do not even agree with one another. We have not always taken the lead we should have when our community was trying to decide how unborn human life was to be treated. We have at times failed to be salt and light to a society seeking moral guidance. Around the time of the Warnock committee’s enquiry, there were many people looking to the church for direction as to how to treat the human embryo. Our failure is summarized in a comment by philosophers Peter Singer and Deane Wells at the time:

The difficulty here is that those upon whom God could most reasonably be expected to have vouchsafed revelation do not all seem to be in possession of the same information.[48]

This is a challenge for our churches. We need to equip Christians with a sufficiently sophisticated biblical understanding of our culture, including modern biotechnology, so that they are able to participate meaningfully in the public discourse that decides what scientific developments are acceptable to our community on moral grounds.

As for the moral status of the embryo, I would suggest that we need to recognize the personhood argument for what it is: pure expediency, designed to justify political decisions that allow the development of medical technologies and procedures that come with the cost of sacrificing early human life. I recognize that the overwhelming majority of those who want these technologies developed do so with good motives. Treatments for debilitating disease; avoidance of suffering; a child of one’s own—these are good things that we all value, and that we should value. However, we need to ask whether we should seek these things at the cost of another human’s life.

  1. Although we can be confident that (at least most of) the frozen excess embryos are not dead (a permanent state from which one does not return to life—biblical examples excluded, of course), can we say that a frozen embryo—being in a state of suspended animation—is actually alive, or do we have to wait until they are thawed to give them this status? If the latter, we would have to say that the embryos in question are neither alive nor dead. 
  2. Editorial, ‘A question of tolerance’, Times, 24 April 1990. 
  3. O O’Donovan, Begotten or Made?, OUP, Oxford, 1984, pp. 50-7. 
  4. To understand how some Christians came to support legal abortion, see DA Jones, The Soul of the Embryo, Continuum, London, 2004, chapter 13.  
  5. More detailed analysis of Fletcher’s theory is found in Jones, ibid., chapter 14. 
  6. See ‘Marketing strategies’ under ‘3. Understanding different contraceptives’ in chapter 6. 
  7. Roe v. Wade (1973) 410 US 113 at 163. 
  8. P Singer, Rethinking Life and Death, St Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1994, p. 190. Later in the book, Singer suggests that a period of 28 days should be allowed to lapse before the child has a right to life, during which time the parents could decide whether they want the baby. If not then infanticide is, according to his view, morally permissible. 
  9. MO Steinfels, ‘In vitro fertilization: “ethically acceptable” research’, Hastings Center Report, vol. 9, no. 3, June 1979, pp. 5-8. 
  10. Department of Health and Social Security, Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, M Warnock (Chairman), London, 1984, paragraph 11.22. 
  11. For further explanation of why these markers where chosen, see chapter 2. 
  12. See ‘Human development’ in chapter 2. 
  13. Department of Health, Review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act: A Public Consultation, London, 2005. 
  14. National Institutes of Health, Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel, 1994; American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Ethical Considerations of Reproductive Technology, 1986, 1990 and 1994; National Bioethics Advisory Commission, 1997, 1999; The President’s Council on Bioethics, 2002, 2004. 
  15. Legislation Review Committee, Review of the Prohibition of Human Cloning Act 2002 and the Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002, Justice John Lockhart (Chairman), Canberra, 2005 (known as the Lockhart review). 
  16. For further discussion of the philosophical approaches to justification of embryo research, see M Suttie, ‘Embryo research and the fourteen day rule: What implications does this global bioethical and legal standard have for human dignity?’, paper presented to the Global Bioethics: Emerging Challenges Facing Human Dignity conference, Chicago, 13-22 July 2009. 
  17. Incidentally, this should remind us of the need to voice our concerns with public policy at the time it is being discussed and decided. In the current public debates in Western society it is regularly pointed out that Christians did not strongly oppose the embryo destruction associated with the introduction of IVF—thus implying that we should not start making a fuss now. 
  18. For refutation of this argument, see ‘3. The problem of wastage’ under ‘Common objections to the argument that human life begins at fertilization’ in chapter 2. 
  19. Department of Health and Social Security, op. cit., paragraph 11.17. 
  20. ‘The Nuremberg Code (1947)’, British Medical Journal, vol. 313, no. 7070, 7 December 1996, p. 1448. 
  21. World Medical Association, Declaration of Helsinki: Ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects, 6th revision, adopted by the 18th WMA General Assembly, Helsinki, 1964 and amended by the 59th WMA General Assembly, Seoul, 2008, paragraph 6. 
  22. Council of Europe, Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine: Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, Oviedo, 1997. 
  23. Australia, Parliament, Human Embryo Experimentation in Australia, Report of the Senate Select Committee on the Human Embryo Experimentation Bill 1985, Parl. Paper 437, Canberra, September 1986, p. xiv. 
  24. FA Chervenak, LB McCullough and A Kurjak, ‘An essential clinical ethical concept’, in FA Chervenak and A Kurjak (eds), The Fetus as a Patient, Parthenon, New York, 1996, pp. 1-9. 
  25. GER Lloyd (ed.), J Chadwick and WN Mann (trans.), Hippocratic Writings, Penguin, London, 1978, p. 67. 
  26. LR Kass, ‘The Repugnance of Wisdom’, in LR Kass and JQ Wilson, The Ethics of Human Cloning, AEI Press, Washington DC, 1998, p. 19. 
  27. ibid., p. 18. 
  28. ibid., p. 19. 
  29. Ethical decision-making is explained in more detail in chapter 5. 
  30. M Hill, The How and Why of Love, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2002; JRW Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th edn, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2006. These texts are recommended for those who would like to explore further ethical issues from a biblical perspective. John Wyatt has provided an expansion of Stott’s scheme in the context of modern biology in his book Matters of Life and Death, 2nd edn, IVP, Leicester, 2009, pp. 51-82. 
  31. This idea is implied by biblical references to divinely ordained vocation (e.g Jer 1:5). For exploration of this theme, see O’Donovan, loc. cit. 
  32. Modern ‘science fiction’ examples used to debate the moral status of the embryo (these will be known to those familiar with the philosophical debate regarding abortion, violinists, etc.) are invalid on these grounds. 
  33. The term is used by JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings to denote the creature Gollum, who is ‘deformed’ by the malignant influence of the ring. 
  34. Jones, op. cit., p. 7. I recommend this book for those who would like to further examine the Christian tradition regarding the moral status of the human embryo. It has informed much of this discussion. 
  35. DP O’Mathuna, ‘Bodily Injuries, Murder, Manslaughter’ in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, TD Alexander and DW Baker (eds), IVP, Downers Grove, 2003, p. 93. 
  36. It is noteworthy that these three biblical translations belong to the same ‘family’ and therefore share much in common. 
  37. The Septuagint, or LXX, is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that was begun by the third century BC and completed sometime before 132 BC. It was used by Greek-speaking Jews throughout the Mediterranean world, and also by the early Christians. 
  38. I have come across the suggestion that the LXX was never meant to be a faithful translation so much as a culturally relevant interpretation of the Hebrew for Greeks at that time. See Mark Scott, ‘Quickening in the Common Law: The legal precedent Roe attempted and failed to use,’ Michigan Law and Policy Review, vol. 1, 1996, p. 204. 
  39. The one place in the Old Testament where the Hebrew word golem is used is in Psalm 139:16. And as we’ve already seen, it is certainly not used there in a way that implies the fetus is less than fully human. Nefel is the usual word for a stillborn child (Job 3:16; Ps 58:8; Eccl 6:3). 
  40. The idea of delayed ensoulment developed from the embracing of Aristotle’s science. Delayed ensoulment is not a biblical idea. Aristotle believed that formation of the human embryo was not complete until 40 days for males and 90 days for females. He believed that the embryo did not belong to the human species, and therefore obtain a soul, until then. Augustine picked up these ideas and they were subsequently propagated by Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle’s embryology was accepted as fact until the 17th century. However, by then both Calvin and Luther had taught that the soul was given at conception. With Aristotle’s biology discredited, Catholic theologians increasingly came to agree. See Jones, op. cit., chapter 4. 
  41. JC Bauerschmidt, ‘Abortion’, in AD Fitzgerald (ed.) Augustine Through the Ages, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1999, p. 1. 
  42. O’Mathuna, op. cit., p. 94. 
  43. Jones, op. cit., p. 129. 
  44. JJ Davis, ‘The status of the human embryo: religious issues’, plenary session at the Genetic and Reproductive Ethics Conference, The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, Deerfield, 14-16 July 2005. 
  45. RJ Berry, God and the Biologist, Apollos, Leicester, 1996, p. 73. 
  46. DA Jones, ‘Dunstan, the embryo and Christian tradition’, Triple Helix, Summer 2005, pp. 10-11. 
  47. GR Dunstan, ‘The moral status of the human embryo: a tradition recalled’, Journal of Medical Ethics, vol. 10, no. 1, March 1984, p. 43. 
  48. P Singer and D Wells, ‘In vitro fertilisation: The major issues’, Journal of Medical Ethics, vol. 9, no. 4, December 1983, p. 193. 

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