Wednesday 26 March 2008

Embryo Wars — five critical questions

What did I do in the great embryo war? — stay out of it is one possible answer, but if twentieth century science was driven by physics (leading to us going nuclear) the twenty-first is set fair to be driven by life sciences. Towards what? Hard to say, but it’s a vital question. I am very much an ordinary Joe, Historian not life scientist, but people have asked me for a view, so here are some preliminary critical questions (in ascending order of importance):
  • Q1: Why whip people’s consciences?
    There is a political dimension, because politics is where laws come from. I like the idea of free votes, because it requires people to make out cases that persuade others rather than coerce them using the party machine. This is all the more true of a conscience question — Using whips looks like you know you really can't persuade them, and maybe you can’t.
  • Q2: Is Every sperm sacred?
    It’s a simple modern idea that conception defines the logical top of the slippery slope. It’s one easy and obvious place to draw lines. Christian tradition, however, has taken a rather more “farmer Giles” view of these things. Augustine talked about embryo inanimatus, not yet endowed with a soul. Medieval Christians dated ensouled life from “Quickening.” Trying not be be too gross, Lucy and I once lost an early pregnancy and turned up to our surgery with what our doctor tactfully referred to as “matter of conception,” wrapped in a hanky. Was it within the purpose of God, whatever its precise status? Yes. Did I want to rush out and give it a Christian funeral? No. Ten weeks later I would have, and it would have mattered very much to me. Call me illogical. I’m with Saint Augustine on this one. A Blastocyst has the potential to become a baby. The vast majority don’t make it, within the purpose of God, including that one.
  • Q3: What about Species bending?
    Well, producing Chimeras sounds much more frightening than breeding mules. We’ve been doing some degree of this since the Bronze age. But what about altering what it means to be human or animal? Genesis teaches a sacred ordering of nature. God asked the man to name what was already there — to order and steward all pragmatic possibilities. We have many more possibilities before us than Adam. How do we fulfil the charge and avoid the curse that was laid on us all in him? If I have a pig's valve put in my heart, does that make me a hybrid? technically, yes. Practically, even within the Jewish/ Christian view that you are a body rather than have a body, such hybrids obviously retain their full humanity. Cytoplasmic embryos are emphatically not the same thing as true (mixed gamete) hybrids. We already use transgenic embryos for medical purposes, but on the “One step at a time, and learn from it” principle I would oppose any proposal to put animal genes into human embryos. As to the matter under discussion, if we should be reluctant to monkey about with this stuff (and I feel we should be) use of Cytoplasmic embryos actually reduces the requirement for human embryos. There are thus pro-life arguments for allowing it. Radically different research options are coming up in the outside lanes, too, but we need to take every proposal very much on its own merits.
  • Q4: We can do all sorts of things — does that make them right?
    No. Life is God-given. The Warnock report gave limited special protection to human embryos, and this is surely right, to honour the concept of humanity. I don’t buy the idea that something becomes right merely because we can do it. Lots of things we can do are emphatically wrong, and this lies at the heart of the classic nuclear dilemma. Far better if nukes had never been invented, but you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Saint Paul pointed out that Instrumentalism is not enough — something isn’t right merely because it can be done. If I have to err, I would do so on the conservative side of this argument. It’s easy to mock slippery slope arguments, but one thing does lead to another. We should keep in place strong legislative protection against, for example, the implantation of research lab embryos in a woman, or culture beyond the current 14 day limit. What we actually need far more is a map for the country around us as research proceeds — a major agreed framework within which to understand the implications. I can’t see we’ve yet quite got that, though Warnock was a start. Our lack of this worries me more than than anything proposed in the current bill, and I think serious ethics committee work needs to be done at a more theoretical level.
  • Q5: What is our Moral duty here?
    Cherishing life is a plain moral duty, but part of cherishing life is to relieve suffering and help people, and this often involves radical intervention in natural processes. Dr Frankenstein and Nazi mad science are very different from what is being proposed and why. God gave us brains to use, and there is a clear moral and social objective in enhancing our capacity to understand and promote healing. Of course there is the principle of Double effect (no good should rest on a bad); but you can only know Cytoplasmic embryo research is inherently bad if you take the “every sperm is sacred” line, which, with Saint Augustine, I don’t.
Whatever we do is within the mercy of God. These are very much preliminary musings. I’d like to hear very much more from morally aware Christians within the research community — like you?


Anonymous said...


The key question here is at what point is an embryo a human being? If embryos are human from conception then it is immoral to create them simply to experiment - that is tantamount to slavery. If however they are only human from a certain point, it would be perfectly acceptable to use early age embryos for research.

I have been deeply influenced by an argument used by a Roman Catholic friend of mine which goes as follows. Consider Jesus in the womb. Was there ever a point after his conception that in aborting the embryo in Mary's womb you would not have been aborting God? The considered answer must be "no". However, the doctrine of the hypostatic union teaches us that Jesus was totally divine *and* totally human. Therefore, at every stage he was divine he was also utterly human. Any other perspective would be to take an adoptionist view of Jesus' divinity.

Given that at all points after conception Jesus was human, why would we consider any other human not to be so from the same point?

I consider this argument to be superior to more anthropomorphically based reasoning as it rests in a key Christological point, not in an assumption about human nature in and of itself.

I would be interested in hearing your opinion on this.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Peter, many thanks for a really interesting point I had not heard before. Straight off the cuff...

I suppose the classic answer before the 1960's would have been that Augustine's "embryo inanimatus" is fully human but not (yet) a complete human being — rather like Adam before God breathed life into him.

Jesus was held throughout from Annunciation to Resurrection within the loving purpose of God. If he had been killed in some other way before the crucifixion, would he still have been able to save us? I can't imagine who would have aborted him when or why, or what God would have done about it. What of his manhood before the Incarnation? This all strikes me as very interesting stuff, but Christianity got through 1900 years without this kind of speculation, and I'm not sure it adds that much to our faith. The fact is Jesus wasn't aborted, and we have no way of knowing how things would have gone with us if he had been, let alone warrant to construct a new anthropology on such speculation.

There's a circularity about your friend's argument, like people who say they believe in the Bible because the Bible tells them to believe in the Bible. If, as a matter of fact a blastocyst is a complete human being theologically speaking than Jesus was, of course fully one of those. If, as a matter of fact a blastocyst is only a human being in process of formation, although fully human, Jesus would be one of those. Anyone who aborted him at any stage would be aborting what they aborted.

Chalcedonian orthodoxy teaches that Jesus' humanity was complete and subject to human processes of formation. It doesn't tell us how this formation process was completed, which is the question at issue here. The dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary was invented later to help protect this aspect of the Incarnation by throwing things, as it were, a generation back. Most Christians manage without it, as they did before modern times, but I realise some Christians find it a helpful safeguard.

Not much of an answer, I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

The embryology bill raises all manner of problems for those in the disability communities. It becomes acceptable to 'terminate' embryos rather than implant them for IVF - solely because they show some genetic signs of disability. Any and all disability becomes something to be dispensed with. Is this the same caring, accepting world that Jesus showed us? To help those whose quality of life turns out to be low, yes of course. To say that all IVF embryos who have a genetic disability have no right to live at all, no matter what their quality of life may be like, that seems a step too far, to say the least. We are rejecting some 20% of the population.

I know I'm not comparing like with like, but the closest I can get to trying to explain my reasoning is this: If we were selecting embryos on the colour of their future skin and terminating any that were black, because we falsely reasoned that any person who is black might have a poor quality of life in a mostly white culture, would it be ok? Surely it would be better to change the culture to be accepting of those who are black.

Is it then ok to do this for all IVF embryos with genetic signs of disabilities? Why do we not seek to change our culture and support mechanisms to make life more enjoyable for those with disabilities who may be struggling?

Is the real reason cost? Does it simply cost more to have people with disabilities in society?

How close are we to eugenics?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many, many thanks for this important dimension which I did not include in my initial thoughts — it certainly raises a sixth question — What value judgments are assumed in IVF and other processes about the value of Exceptonal people's lives. Are they valid as they are, or what?

This is where we do begin to move into the realm of Nazi mad science. It's about intentions not procedures. As I understand it Nazi scientists, basing what they did on social darwinism, tried to eliminate traits from the human pool, on the explicit assumption that some people are less than human.

I think the value of all God-given life is an absolute non-negotiable. We live in a very discriminatory society, and I fear we've got something wrong here, and there's a kind of social darwinism creeping in by the back door.

I fear that by going down a simply absolutist line about biological processes, Christians may obscure or even blow the more important principles about intentions.

Many thanks again for drawing attention to this vital dimension.

Anonymous said...


For being off the cuff you got to the heart of the issue - a what point DOES a blastocyst betcome more than just a clump of cells? Or to put it a different way, a what point does an embryo have a soul?

I do think it's vitally important that as we answer those questions we have at the forefront of our minds Chalcedonian orthodoxy. We must make sure that what we say about humans we can also say about Jesus, otherwise we will be in danger of a pastoral theology that inadvertently undermines the Incarnation.

Yes, we've managed 1900 years without this kind of debate, but 1900 years ago we weren't as aware of the process of conception and embryonic growth as we are now. Growing scientific understanding doesn't mean an abandonment of orthodoxy - rather it reinvigorates us to continue to explore the depths of the truth of the Hypostatic Union.

God Bless,


Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I'm very much with you, Peter. The great achievement of Chalcedon for me is protecting us from the false notion that Jesus had a kind of diminished humanity, "good enough to do the job" in Nestorian terms, but somehow less than ours. This certainly point us on to the question of Jesus' soul — but that's for another day...

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