The Embryology Bill and Protesters

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill

Why is there opposition to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill currently going through the British Parliament? First, the Bill legislates for designer babies. It permits the manufacturing of children to use parts of their organs to treat another person – the so-called "saviour siblings". Secondly, the Bill may be emended to allow for more abortions than at present. There have been 5.3 million abortions in England and Wales since the 1967 Abortion Act. Of these only 0.4% were for the risk to the mother's life, only 1.3% for foetal handicap, but 98 percent were for social reasons. That, it is argued, is shocking enough. Thirdly, the Bill allows for the creation of animal-human hybrids (euphemistically called "human admixed embryos"). For all the initial restraints, it is feared there will be rogue scientists at some point developing procedures whose genetic consequences could be horrific. Fourthly, human reproductive cloning in some circumstances, it is claimed, could now be argued as legal even without always destroying the embryo at 14 days. Fifthly, the Government is wanting to allow tissue from organs donated by dead people, without their consent, to be used in embryo and human hybrid embryo experimentation. Sixthly, the Bill is legislating against the importance of a father to a child's well being, in spite of the contrary evidence of the now classic Families Without Fatherhood and other such studies. This is to allow single women and lesbians greater access to IVF treatment.

If that is what the Government wants, what do the voters think? A recent opinion poll has revealed that there is strong opposition nationally. These are the findings: 79% of the British public think that it is important to consider a child’s need for a father when creating a child by IVF fertility treatment. 60% think that it is wrong to create animal-human embryos, while 33% do not think it is wrong and 7% do not know. 51% agree that the creation of 'saviour siblings' denies the child a choice in how its body is used while 39% disagree.

Easter and Bishops’ protests

But what do Church leaders think? Easter Day 2008 witnessed a storm of protest. Two bishops in particular spoke out. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Cardinal O’Brien had already announced that he would be addressing issues in the Bill in his Easter Sermon. On the day he said the following:

“With full might of government endorsement, Gordon Brown is promoting a Bill that will allow the creation of animal–human hybrid embryos. He is promoting a Bill which will add to the 2.2 million human embryos already destroyed or experimented upon. He is promoting a Bill allowing scientists to create babies whose sole purpose will be to provide… parts of their organs or tissues. He is promoting a Bill which will sanction the raiding of dead people’s tissue to manufacture yet more embryos for experimentation. He is promoting a Bill which denies that a child has a biological father, allows tampering with birth certificates, removing biological parents, and inserting someone altogether different. And this Bill will indeed be used to further extend the abortion laws… This Bill represents a monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life. In some other European countries one could be jailed for doing what we intend to make legal.”

The Archbishop recognized that many “excuses” for this legislation included the claim “that cures will soon be found for various diseases, which afflict mankind, through this legislation.” He did not, however, find this convincing as “the opposite seems to be the case, when cells required for ongoing investigation into cures through medical science can take place through cells obtained in other ways from human bodies and certainly not through the creation of animal–human embryos.”

A little further south and nearer home there was another Easter Day Sermon in Durham Cathedral by Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. He was equally outspoken about the "current controversy about embryo cloning":

"Our present government has been pushing through, hard and fast, legislation that comes from a militantly atheist and secularist lobby… The media sometimes imply that it's only Roman Catholics who care about such things, but that is of course wrong. All Christians are now facing, and must resist, the long outworking of various secularist philosophies, which imagine that we can attain the Christian vision of future hope without the Christian God… Have we learnt nothing from the dark tyrannies of the last century? It shouldn't just be Roman Catholics who are objecting. It ought to be Anglicans and Presbyterians and Baptists and Russian Orthodox and Pentecostals and all other Christians and Jews and Muslims as well. This isn't a peripheral or denominational concern. It grows directly out of the central facts of our faith, because on Easter day God reaffirmed the goodness and image-bearingness of the human race in the man Jesus Christ, giving the lie simultaneously to the idea that utopia could be had by our own efforts and to the idea that humans are just miscellaneous evolutionary by-products, to be managed and manipulated at will. The Christian vision of what it means to be human is gloriously underscored by the resurrection of Jesus, and we as Easter people should make common cause with all those who are concerned about the direction our society is going in medical technology as in so much else besides."

The key issue

The key issue is “how are we to think of the human embryo?” Modern innovators, however, who want to make free use of new technologies have carefully avoided this issue. The 1984 Warnock Report that set the framework for both the debate and actual practice in Britain consciously refused to address the issue of the nature of the embryo:

“Although the questions of when life or personhood begin appear to be questions of fact susceptible of straightforward answers, we hold that the answers to such questions in fact are complex amalgams of factual and moral judgments. Instead of trying to answer these questions directly we have therefore gone straight to the question of how it is right to treat the human embryo.”

The Church of England’s Board for Social Responsibility response in 1985 was the report Personal Origins. It disagreed with the Warnock Report:

“Some of our contemporaries have hoped to avoid the question of the embryo’s status altogether, and have thought it possible to move directly to a purely deliberative question: how are we to act towards the early embryo? The implication of this manoeuvre would seem to be that human status is not so much discerned as conferred; that social practice is sufficient of itself to validate the claims of any pretence to humanity.”

Inspite of all the protests of the Church of England, Warnock has been allowed to win the day. The result is that now, following the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act 1990 that set up the HFEA (the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority), research on human embryos up to fourteen days of life is permitted (it is to be noted that those who disagree with embryonic experiments are excluded from the HFEA). This 1990 Act has had international significance as Britain is a world-leader having carried out the first successful human in vitro fertilization. However, others in Europe, who are all too aware of Nazi eugenics and other medical horrors, have been banning the creation of embryos for research as the Cardinal implied.

The philosopher President and the new Pope.

An interesting coincidence occurred in May 2004. Marcello Pera, the President of the Italian Senate, a Professor of the Philosophy of Science at Pisa University and a self confessed secularist (not a Christian believer) and Joseph Ratzinger, soon to be Pope Benedict XVI, quite independently were giving lectures that included references to embryo experimentation. These have now been published together (as Without Roots, 2006).

Marcello Pera, in his lecture, first gave a warning regarding “new problems for which we are so unprepared”. He said that “sometimes we settle too quickly on solutions, because of philosophical or ethical hubris, petty interests, improvised conventions or premature action.” He then gave an example: “one example of such improvisation or prevarication is when one person says that an embryo or a ‘pre-embryo’ is not a person before a given date, as if the predicate ‘person’ were empirical, and could be applied on the basis of its having certain cells, rather than on the basis of what it actually is, namely, a moral and religious concept that cannot be defined in terms of experimental science alone.” He then described his personal position in these terms:

“I have never believed in allowing philosophical questions to be dictated by the contingencies or conveniences of practical decisions, such as experimenting with, correcting, and manipulating embryos. This is why I believe that from a philosophical and moral point of view, we must take the position that an embryo is a person, from the moment of conception. My belief is also grounded in practical considerations. A person is not a thing. Therefore if we recognize the personhood of the embryo from its first moment, we would all become more responsible. Scientists would become more responsible when they face genetic and biological questions, since they would no longer believe that they were dealing only with questions of fact rather than also with questions of value, or claim that their discoveries in themselves represent progress, as if bonum et verum et factum convertuntur - the ‘good’, the ‘true’, and the ‘made’ are convertible – always and everywhere. Lawmakers would also become more responsible; when they try to get the green light for this or that congressional bill, they would have to do a better, more accurate job of weighing the ethical reasons on one side of the balance against the practical, scientific, social, and economic issues on the other. Health workers would also become more responsible; when they act they would be less inclined to experiment, dare, and light heartedly believe that if something is possible scientifically then it is allowed in practice, so long as you have the instruments and means. Finally, the patients of biomedical technologies and all citizens would become more responsible; everybody would be less propelled to second their desires, transform them into needs, consider them values, and construe them as rights.”

The new Pope then argued in his lecture for the mainstream Christian position and why it recognizes a “person from the moment of conception.” His argument was that according to what is now common knowledge with regard to the embryo, “from the first instant [of conception], the program is fixed as to what this living being will be: a man, this individual-man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. In other words, in the zygote resulting from fertilization the biological identity of a new human individual is already constituted.” He argued that this is not philosophical but scientific fact and added: “one can verify empirically that there is a new individual: ‘individual’ is an empirical term since it refers to an organism that, while being completely dependent on the mother, is nevertheless a new organism with its own genetic program.” He then asked, for him, the important question:

“‘How can a human individual not be a human person?’ From this derives the ethical deduction, ‘The human being must be respected (as a person) from the very first instance of his [or her] existence’… From this derives, on the other hand, a deduction for the legislator. If this is the way things are, then the authorization to kill the embryo means that ‘The state is denying the equality of all before the law.’ For us the question of the right of life for all those who are human beings is not a question of the ethics of faith, but rather of the ethics of reason. It is at this level that the debate should take place.”

The Bible and the Christian tradition

The background to the Christian tradition is that abortion was common in the ancient world. That is why in ancient Greece the Hippocratic Oath for doctors was: “I will not give a pessary to a woman to cause abortion.” Abortion was also common in the Roman Empire by the time of Christ. The coming of Christ and the spread of the Christian faith, however, brought a challenge to this practice of abortion. In the period immediately following that of the Apostles - the period of the Church Fathers - one of the distinctives that marked the Church off from the pagan world was its opposition to abortion. This was a fruit of the gospel - the extension of care to the humblest of human beings, including human embryonic and foetal life. Early canon law, and subsequent pronouncements, have in general defended life in the womb as “human” or “human on the way” and so as worthy of Christian love and protection. More recently, however, an ethic of “justifiable foeticide” has evolved. This, too, claims a Christian basis, namely that human life itself does not have an absolute value, only a very high one. There may therefore be occasions when life can be taken or protection withdrawn. But such a serious action has to be justified. As with the “just war”, the right to act cannot be presumed. It has to be argued for. Most would agree that a serious threat to the actual life of the mother is a justifying reason. Some argue that some congenital deformity is a justifying reason (some would say that this has to be such that no life outside the womb can be maintained). But these and other difficult cases are very rare. As we have seen, 98 percent of abortions in Britain are for social reasons.

But is it, in fact, innocent life that is being taken? Is actual human life being destroyed in abortion or in embryo research? And why should conception be so important? What does the Bible say? Exodus 21:22 refers to an injury to a pregnant woman. If she miscarries, the claims of the foetus are assessed as less than her own. But violence to the foetus is still an offence. Mostly, however, the Bible speaks at a more general level. Ecclesiastes 11:5 says, “As you do not know... how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.” That suggests there should be a certain agnosticism, or at least humility, in our thinking about antenatal life. We are not facing a blob of tissue, but a divine mystery; something we cannot understand fully. But agnosticism here means, surely, we ought to protect the child from conception onwards. If you discover someone knocked down in the road, you should not say, “I wonder if he is dead or not? I do not know, so I'll leave him.” Rather you should presume life and seek help.

The basic philosophical question, however, is this: “Whose is the history of that which is in the womb - the mother's or a separate person's?” The Psalmist had no doubt. It was his history. He was in the womb: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). Isaiah said much the same thing: “Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name” (Isaiah 49:1). Most importantly, this is also the Christian understanding from the New Testament stories of the birth of Jesus. The incarnation of the Son of God began not with his birth but with his conception. So we say in the Creed: “He was conceived...” In so far as Jesus Christ reveals true man (as well as true God), the inescapable conclusion is that life in the womb is human from conception. It is interesting to note the use of the Greek word brephos that means “child” in Luke 1:41. “The child leaped in her womb”. That is the same word as is used for a child after birth. And, more than leaping in her womb, the child apparently was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth spoke of the pregnant Mary as the “mother of my Lord”.

Human in What Way?

The fundamental Christian belief is in a God who gives, a God of “grace”. He “gave” his only Son for our sins (John 3:16). And human life is a “gift”. When Job was bereaved he said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). Human life is “given”; it is not “achieved”. That is important. We do not “achieve” our humanity by reaching certain standards of performance or development. Nonetheless, in the debate on embryo experimentation many assume today that the word “human” (and so the offer of protection) is to be applied only where there are certain “achievements”. These are in terms of physical performance or psychological or mental development. This, however, is a totalitarian road. Also it can go on to exclude from the category of the “human” also certain physical or racial “under-achievements”. So, for example, Peter Singer, the Princeton Professor of Bioethics, and many others say that disabled babies (and not just profoundly disabled) can be dispensed with after birth. This is the reintroduction of infanticide. It is already happening in Holland along with other forms of euthanasia.

If humanity is a “gift”, the first 14 days surely cannot be discounted as a period of “nonbeing”, any more than other periods of a person's life. Behind human procreation is the divine creation. Procreation is creation on behalf of God (“pro” being Latin for “on behalf of”). Protection is to be offered to human beings not because they “reach a certain stage of development” but because of the fact that they are all created by God in his image. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6).

So in saying that the embryo is “human”, we are saying that in virtue of its genotype or genetic code it is a distinct being that has been procreated. It may be that God's creative powers, entrusted to men and women, have been misused (even by medical scientists), but that is not a ground for destroying what has been created. And what is created is a human embryo. It is not a human 10 week foetus, nor a human infant, nor a human adolescent, nor a human adult, nor a senile human being. If a senile person is a degenerating member of humanity, an embryo is a developing member. Nor is the embryo just “potentially” human. Yes, it only potentially has the characteristics it will develop in later life. The new born baby only potentially has the characteristics it will develop as a toddler or teenager. A human embryo can be thought of as “human with potential”. An ovum or sperm - i.e. prior to conception - is “potentially human”. Nor should we moralize according to size and so the minuteness of an embryo (the world looks microscopic from the perspective of an astronaut). Nor should we be impressed by the natural loss of many early embryos (earthquakes happening do not mean massacres are justified), nor by the problem of subsequent twinning (a flat worm does not cease to be a worm because it can form itself into two), nor by the significance of implantation (that is not a matter of identity but of environment). Surely it is, therefore, most reasonable to say that the boundaries of human life are conception and death.


There are many other problems to consider, including the guilt felt by those involved in embryo experimentation or abortion. Christians, therefore, must not only teach what is right. They must also teach the good news of Good Friday and forgiveness at the Cross of Calvary, where Christ bore every kind of sin including sins in this not so Brave New World. Some reading this may be scarred from their own experiences. The gospel, of course, is that Christ loves the sinner and forgives, but he hates the sin and says: “Go and sin no more.” Of course, we need to thank God for modern biotechnology. The Bible teaches that we have permission to “subdue” the earth and “rule”. But there are also limits. According to Genesis to ignore those limits spells disaster (Genesis 1:28, 2:17).

(See also the sermons at 07/08/2005am and 14/08/2005pm and “Cloning Humans” at

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