Embryo Liberation

December 01, 2008

Embryo Liberation

During the public debate in Australia preceding the passing of Federal legislation allowing destructive research on human embryos in 2002, I remember reading newspaper reports that the frozen excess embryos in question were (a) dead, (b) merely human cells and (c) not human at all. (Note these are all incorrect, though (a) involves an interesting metaphysical question.) 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? The answer is complicated not only by the differing arguments used by either side of the debate, but also by how each will decide what is and is not ethically permissible.

This question is important not only in the context of destructive embryo research. Once we decide when human life begins, it will impact our views on other areas of life where early human life is threatened—IVF, contraception and abortion for instance.

I will commence my examination of this topic by examining the biology involved. I will then proceed to examine the secular basis for justifying destruction of developing humans, before finally considering the biblical view. We will then be in a position to consider the rightful place of the unborn human in our society.

The biology

Human conception begins with the fertilization of an egg1 by a sperm, creating a single-celled organism called a zygote. From this point, development is a continuum through pregnancy and childhood to adulthood. All the genetic material (DNA) required for full maturity of the human being is present in the zygote. Therefore, in embryological terms, we have a member of the species homo sapiens.

First cell division occurs within 24 hours of conception, and cellular division continues while the embryo travels down the fallopian tube towards the uterus. At day five or six, the basis for the developing baby and placenta, a blastocyst (a hollow ball of cells with an inner cell mass) is formed.

The embryo attaches to the uterine wall and the mother’s blood supply starts to nourish it at the end of the first week, during Implantation. This doesn’t always occur successfully, in which case an early miscarriage is said to have taken place.

There is dramatic development over the next six weeks, and by week seven the embryo measures 1.3 cm in length and all essential organs have begun to develop. After eight weeks, we call the developing human a foetus.

Eminent embryologist Ronan O’Rahilly has no doubt that in biological terms we are dealing with a human being from the time of fertilization. ‘Although life is a continuous process, fertilization … is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically    distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte (egg).’2 The embryo, from the time it is created, is a unified, unique, dynamic, self-directed whole, not just a collection of cells. There is evidence that organisation exists from the first cell division.

If, then, it is clear that a human’s embryonic life begins at fertilization, how has destruction of human embryos been justified? Our next section will tell us.

The secular view

The proponents of destructive embryo research and abortion have traditionally advocated that protection is only due to human persons, and that personhood is not conferred merely on biological grounds.

The concept of human personhood has been with us since Boethius (480-524). However, for much of its history, personhood was understood to mean ‘an individual being of a rational nature’. As explained by Aquinas, one who possesses a human nature possesses a rational nature, even if they are unable to freely exercise their reason at a certain time. Therefore, it was considered that all human beings were human persons.

The definition of personhood underwent a change last century, when political expediency intervened. In 1954, Episcopalian minister Rev Joseph Fletcher, influenced by the work of John Locke, published an account of human personhood which claimed that the human person must not merely possess a rational nature, but be able to exercise it at the time. This obviously would involve a high degree of self-awareness, and Fletcher demonstrated that this interpretation would imply that not only embryos and fetuses but also new-born infants are non-persons. He explicitly accepted the conclusion that infanticide would, on these grounds, be justifiable. Those in a prolonged coma or suffering dementia would be likewise excluded from personhood status.

Fletcher’s motivation was based on a desire to justify legal abortion, which was seen by some Christians as an expression of compassion towards women in a difficult situation. This was at a time when the birth control movement had shifted the focus of the abortion debate away from the humanity of the foetus. It is obvious, though, that any ethic which allows infanticide is not consistent with the Christian desire to defend the weak and helpless. Since Fletcher’s time, many others have expressed similar views, with great success in political terms. Alternative views of when personhood begins are wide-ranging and beyond the scope of this essay.

The idea of personhood which has most influenced national debates on human embryo research is that proposed by the Warnock Committee, which reported to the UK Government in 19843. 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, the committee’s recommendation, that destructive human embryo research could be justified up to 14 days after fertilization, has influenced policy makers around the world until this day. It is interesting that, at the time, the maximum length of time anyone had been able to grow human embryos in the laboratory was 14 days.

The Warnock committee conferred emerging personhood on the embryo, that is, they indicated that personhood increases with age. They justified their time limit 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’) and also the time when twinning was no longer possible. Of course, we now know that this science is out of date and that the human embryo is organised from the time of the first cell division. However, The Warnock Report remains influential. Proponents of destructive embryo research also pointed to places where we already condone the discarding of embryonic and fetal humans to justify their position. Such places include the marketing of post-fertilization effect contraceptives, IVF research and legal abortion.

Destructive research on human embryos contravenes years of human rights declarations which, since World War II, have been designed to protect the welfare of human research subjects. These include documents such as The Nuremberg Code (1946) and The World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki (1964). The Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine from 1997 specifically prohibits destructive research on human embryos and the creation of human embryos for research. However, once again, when political expediency calls, such documents have failed to impact legislators in many countries.

Despite the time given to discussions of personhood, the philosophical theory that ultimately underlies the position which approves destructive embryo research is consequentialism. This is the argument that right and wrong can be determined by looking at consequences of our actions alone. Our community has decided that, while the destruction of developing humans may been seen to be regrettable, the potential consequences of their destruction—medical cures through embryonic stem cell research, improved IVF, freedom to women through availability of some contraceptives and abortion—justify the use.

The biblical view

Christians have a moral compass, the Bible, which, for Christians, should inform all decisions on how right and wrong are decided. With regard to issues affecting modern technology, however, we need to recognise the fact that the Bible does not specifically address those issues which interest us. In such situations we need to look for biblical themes which can inform our decision-making.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that consensus among Christians regarding when the life of an individual human being commences is not complete. I will be explaining my own view and the reasons for it. My research into the meaning of biblical texts on this topic revealed varying interpretations of key verses, at times a result of the biblical translation used. My response has been to look at the original language texts, conscious of the fact that I am not a Hebrew scholar. Those interested in pursuing this complex topic will find references for further reading.

There is no key verse in the Bible which tells us when human life begins. It is, however, quite clear that it does not begin at birth. The Bible makes the link between conception and birth in many places such as Genesis 4:1, ‘Adam lay with his wife Eve and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain’. In Isaiah 46:3 God speaks to Israel and uses both conception and birth to metaphorically describe his sustaining of her, therefore linking the life inside the womb to that outside—‘you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth’.

There is no doubt that the Bible indicates that we have a relationship with God while still in the womb. Several passages attest to God’s careful moulding of the human form (Psalm 139:13-16, Job 10:8-12). Apocryphal texts (Wisdom 7:1-4, Maccabees) contain similar ideas.4 It is clear that God has a personal relationship with each of us, including plans he has made for us, while we are still in the womb (Psalm 139:16, Jeremiah 1:5).

Further status is given to the developing embryo by passages that could be thought to give the unborn human equivalent importance to one who has been born. Exodus 21:22-23 is an important yet confusing passage that explains Israelite law for dealing with penalties for injuries incurred during a fight. The provisions for a pregnant woman injured during a fight have been interpreted in several ways, including the following.5 It is possible to interpret the passage as meaning: if men who are fighting injure a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely to a live child, the offender is 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. An alternate reading is: if men who are fighting injure a pregnant woman and there is a miscarriage, the offender is fined. But if there is serious injury and the woman dies, you are to take life for life (it is the mother’s life which is equated with that of the attacker). This is the common Jewish reading of the text, also reflected in the KJV, RSV and NASB (note these Biblical translations have a common origin). While scholars (both Christian and Jewish) are unable to resolve all ambiguity, for several reasons my preference is for the first interpretation.6

A strong argument for the importance of the nascent human comes from the incarnation of Jesus. According to the early Christian church, Jesus’ human existence commenced at his conception.7 If he assumed human nature at this point (see Philippians 2:7-8), it follows that all human existence commences at conception. Luke’s account of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1:41-44 is interesting. If Mary went to visit Elizabeth as soon (Luke 1:39 says that Mary ‘hurried’) as she received the news that she was ‘with child’ (Luke 1:31), according to Josephus’ estimation of the travel time involved, Jesus would have been a blastocyst (a one week old embryo) at the time Mary met Elizabeth. And Elizabeth acknowledged Jesus as her Lord (v.43).8 John the Baptist, also in utero, is also noted to have recognised Jesus on this occasion.

Pulling the above biblical strands together, then, we can see that God recognises and interacts with embryonic humans from fertilization. The Bible also states that all humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that this is the basis on which they are all to be treated equally.

Further exploration is required to see how Christians are to determine right from wrong. The Christian Bible demands that we use a combination of deontology (rule-based decision-making, as seen, for example, in the Ten Commandments—Exodus 20) and virtue ethics (deciding what a virtuous, or godly, person would do in that situation) when deliberating over such determinations. While consequences are important, our motives, actions and context are also to be considered in our ethical decision-making. We are specifically taught that we may not do wrong in order that good may result (Romans 3:8). We should never kill an innocent human being, regardless of the consequences (Exodus 20:13).


It seems to me that biological and biblical logic obliges us to contend that human life and human personhood begin at fertilization. I believe that the arguments speak for themselves. We now are 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 our emotions.

Furthermore, it is obvious that consensus will never be reached—indeed, there is no consensus to be had—because of the different ways in which those on either side of the debate are addressing the question. Proponents of embryo and foetal destruction are looking at the favourable consequences they expect to ensue from the research. Opponents will not permit this destruction of human life on any terms, regardless of consequences —absolute moral values are inflexible.

This will make those opposed to destructive embryo research, some aspects of assisted reproduction and abortion seem hard and uncaring to our community. It is suggested that such citizens do not care about human suffering, about those in wheelchairs hoping for a miracle. But such arguments depend on the presumption that embryonic humans are not persons deserving of protection; and there is no visual symbol for embryos to match the power of the disabled. It remains the case that the God of the Bible repeatedly calls on his followers to protect the vulnerable in society (Deuteronomy 24:14, Isaiah 1:17), including embryonic humans. ©


1 The correct term for the female human gamete is ‘oocyte’, but here I will use the more familiar term ‘egg’.

2 O’Rahilly, R. and Muller, F. (2001). Human Embryology & Teratology, 3rd ed. New York: Wiley- Liss, p8.

3 UK Department of Health & Social Security (July 1984). Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology.

4 Several passages, especially Wisdom, reflect the influence of an Aristotelian understanding of embryology.

5 See Jones, D.A. (2004). The soul of the embryo. London:Continuum. Jones examines the Christian tradition regarding the moral status of the human embryo. Exodus 21 is discussed more thoroughly on pp46-56.

6 The idea that a human life in the womb could be equated with human life after birth is also present in the Hebrew of Genesis 9:6 (subsequently lost in the Septuagint translation). I am also persuaded by the choice of Hebrew words in the Exodus passage. See Ibid.

7 Ibid, p129.

8 Davis, John Jefferson.. The Status of the Human Embryo: Religious Issues. Presented at the 12th Annual Conference on Bioethics, The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, Bannockburn, Illinois.

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