The Sanctity and Dignity of Human Life
During 2008 the House of Commons has been considering the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Key votes on major ethical issues took place in a Committee of the Whole House in mid-May, and the final stages of the Bill were completed in the autumn. As the extensive media coverage has made clear, this Bill liberalises the existing law covering the use of human embryos. It applies to technologies ranging from in-vitro fertilisation to animal-human cloning. It also offered the first opportunity in nearly 20 years to significantly amend the law on abortion. This Bill is a comprehensive assault on the sanctity and dignity of human life.
Four key areas encompassed by the Bill are:
Creating animal-human embryos for research
Cloning human embryos for research
Creating ‘saviour siblings’ (where children are selected through IVF and brought to birth to provide cells or tissue for an older sibling who is ill)
Changing the law on abortion.
1. Creation and Man in the Image of God
We know instinctively, guided by conscience, that such things are wrong. Before we consider these individual issues raised by the Embryology Bill we should start by looking at the Bible’s doctrine of man – who are we and when does human life begin?
The Bible opens with God’s creation of the universe in six days. As God creates living creatures on the fifth and sixth days, each is made ‘after their kind’: fish, birds, animals, insects and so on. But the pinnacle of creation is mankind. In Genesis 1:26-27 we read this:
And 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 fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Man is unique. He is special in the whole of creation because he alone is made in God’s image. In the words of Louis Berkhof: ‘According to Scripture the essence of man consists in this, that he is the image of God. As such he is distinguished from all other creatures and stands supreme as the head and crown of the entire creation’.
The opening of Genesis also sets out what we call ‘creation ordinances’ for example: ‘And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth’ (1:28). Chapter 2 goes on to give the specific account of the creation of Adam and Eve, and of God’s provision of marriage for the procreation of children, summarised in verse 24: ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh’.
We then reach Genesis 3, which records the Fall of man, ‘the crash’ when we disobeyed God, believed the Devil, and sin was unleashed on the whole creation. Mankind fell and yet man is still made in the image of God and those creation ordinances still hold good. As if to underline this point, God restates them to Noah after the worldwide Flood brought judgment on ‘the world that then was’, Genesis 9:6-7: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein’.
As Berkhof explains, the image of God in man consists of:
the soul or spirit of man, that is in the qualities of simplicity, spirituality, invisibility and immortality;
his moral and rational nature, that is the intellect and will with their functions;
the intellectual and moral integrity of man’s nature, revealing itself in true knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10);
the body, not as a material substance, but as the fit organ of the soul, sharing its immortality; and as the instrument through which man can exercise dominion over the lower creation;
man’s dominion over the earth.
Most elements of the image are intrinsic to man – we would not be human beings without them. They remain, though corrupted by sin. Man is ‘noble in his ruin’. However, in Berkhof’s words, ‘the good ethical qualities of the soul and its powers’ have been lost. At his creation Adam possessed this original ‘righteousness’ which is the moral perfection of the image – ‘true knowledge, righteousness and holiness’. This righteousness was lost at the Fall but is regained in Christ (see Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10).
A key implication which flows from this doctrine is explained by Anthony Hoekema: ‘What makes sin so serious is precisely the fact that man is now using God-given and God-imaging powers and gifts to do things that are an affront to his Maker’.
It is important to emphasise that the image of God is not limited to the soul, but extends to every part of man’s nature – including his body. As Calvin wrote: ‘…although the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and heart, or in the soul and its powers, yet there was no part of man, not even the body itself, in which some sparks did not glow’.
In fact it is because man is made in the image of God that murder is so wrong. Remember God’s words to Noah after the Flood, Genesis 9:6: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man’ (Genesis 9:6). The principle is codified in the Sixth Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20:13).
Truly, in the words of the Psalmist, we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14). Every human being has intrinsic sanctity and dignity, as a creature made in the image of God. That applies to every human who has ever lived – from monarch to peasant all are made either male or female in the image of God. But at what point does an individual human life begin?
2. What the Bible Says About When Life Begins
Everyone was once an embryo. Embryos are very small. In the first few days they are a fraction of a millimetre wide. By the beginning of the fifth week of a pregnancy the embryo is still just a few millimetres long.
There can be no doubt that a new unique biological human life is created right at conception when the sperm fertilises the ovum. After this point no new genetic material is added. The fundamental characteristics of the new individual are fixed. These characteristics range from sex and the factors which influence height and build, right through to the colour of the hair and eyes.
Everyone was once a human embryo. The undeniable fact is that if the embryo of William Shakespeare had been destroyed, then William Shakespeare would never have been born.
There are several passages in the Bible which refer to the unborn or to the human embryo.
God’s Knowledge of the Embryo
In Jeremiah 1:5 God claims to have foreknowledge of the prophet: ‘Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations’. Eryl Davies comments: ‘One cannot escape the conclusion that the embryo in the womb is a person; it is known to God even before conception and God as Creator is the one who ‘formed’ the child. And for that child, as for Jeremiah, God has a purpose’.
In Psalm 139:13, David praises God: ‘For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb’. God’s knowledge of the Psalmist goes back to his creation in the womb: ‘My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect.’ (Psalm 139:15-16). David traces his life right back to the time when he was just a ball of cells a few days old. David’s claim is that God had knowledge of him as an embryo.
Man is Fallen from Conception
In Psalm 51:5 David acknowledges: ‘Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ (The word used for shapen is the verb ‘to writhe’ which is used of the pains of childbirth.) It is striking that David is referring to himself as ‘I ... me’ not only at birth but also as an embryo at the moment of conception. There was a direct continuity between himself as an adult and himself as an embryo. This continuity is seen in other Old Testament passages.
Bible commentator Alec Motyer argues that the ‘fact of original sin is here more distinctly expressed than in any other place in the Old Testament’. David had sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba but he knew also that sin tainted everything that he did. He believed in the fall and the doctrine of original sin. Henri Blocher argues that Psalm 51 is a ‘radical confession’ of sin: ‘…David refers to his birth and conception in the clear realisation that his very being is shot through and through with the tendencies that produced the fruits of adultery and murder. As far back as he can go, he sees his life as sinful’.
The New Testament passages dealing with the incarnation of Christ unavoidably deal with Christ’s conception and humanity. The incarnation is one of the central claims of the Christian faith. Matthew’s Gospel records that the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying ‘Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost’ (Matthew 1:20). The writer to the Hebrews after dealing with the pre-existence and incarnation of God’s Son in chapter 1, states in chapter 2 that Jesus is not ashamed to call His followers ‘brethren’ (v11) and that ‘in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren’ (v17). This makes it clear that Christ was human in every way that we are human, yet without sin. So if Christ’s human life began at His conception (Matthew 1:20), this must mark the point at which all human life begins.
Human personhood begins at conception and the human embryo is precisely that – a human embryo. This follows from the fact that Christ was both fully God and fully man. To hold that the incarnation did not begin at conception denies the deity or humanity of Christ at some point. As Nigel Cameron points out: ‘The church has consistently labelled as heresy any idea that a divine ‘spirit’ was added to the human body of Jesus, or that somehow in some other fashion the human being that began life was mere man and was later ‘adopted’ to be the Son of God’.
In 1930, Gresham Machen wrote a classic defence of the virgin birth. In discussing the doctrine of the incarnation he said:
It is essential that the Son of God should live a complete human life upon this earth. But the human life would not be complete unless it began in the mother’s womb. At no later time, therefore, should the incarnation be put, but at that moment when the babe was conceived. There, then, should be found the stupendous event when the eternal Son of God assumed our nature, so that from then on He was both God and man.
To summarise, we alone out of all creation are made in the image of God and our lives begin at conception. Next month we will consider how these truths relate to the specific issues raised by the Embryology Bill.
3. Modern Attacks on Human Life
Scientists seeking permission for this research say their aim is to bring about medical treatments for all sorts of conditions. There is a shortage of human eggs for embryonic stem cell research and so they want to use animal eggs instead, creating animal-human embryos using cloning technology. Following the debates earlier this year, our Parliament became the only one on earth to vote to explicitly legalise these experiments. (The Bill stipulates that all animal-human embryos must be destroyed by the fourteenth day of their development.)
Although the science behind this technology can be complex, the ethical issues are very clear. Think back to the doctrine of the image of God. Theologian Herman Bavinck once wrote: ‘Man does not simply bear or have the image of God; he is the image of God’. Anthony Hoekema, in his book Created in God’s Image, develops that theme: ‘In the creation of man God revealed himself in a unique way, by making someone who was a kind of mirror image of himself. No higher honour could have been given to man than the privilege of being an image of the God who made him’.
Surely it denigrates the image of God in man to cross-breed mankind with animals. This technology fundamentally undermines man’s dignity as made in the image of God and so constitutes a direct and evil attack on God Himself. That is why as His people we react with horror. Indeed, most people, even in our hardened society, have an instinctive revulsion to these experiments; their reaction bears witness to the foundational and timeless truth that man is the image of God. (It is probably unnecessary to seek to identify which particular aspect of the image of God in man is most offended by these experiments; after all, man in his entirety is made in God’s image.)
God created human beings alone in the likeness of Himself. Mankind’s status as the ‘crown of creation’ sets him above the animals; there is an intrinsic difference between man and animals. This is shown by the Genesis account and attested to throughout the Bible in different ways, see for example Luke 12:7 where Jesus reassures his disciples:
But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.
There is a related theological objection to such research. God has created living beings ‘each after their kind’ and those boundaries must never be crossed. It would be wrong to seek to create, for example, a half-fish, half-bird creature in a laboratory. Furthermore, whatever the moral status of an animal-human embryo, the embryo is being created simply to be destroyed up to 14 days later. That, too, must be wrong.
The claim is made that the research is needed to provide medical cures, but as Christians we reject the argument that the end can justify the means. And powerful practical objections can be made to the demands for animal-human embryos. The truth is that after a decade of research no successful treatments have yet been developed using embryonic stem cells. In contrast, adult stem cell research (which is non-controversial) has proven far more successful, with over 70 treatments already developed combating cancers, degenerative diseases and spinal injuries. Adult stem cells are readily obtainable from sources such as the umbilical cord, teeth and the nose; they are also available from bone marrow. New treatments are being announced rapidly. Moreover, cloned human embryos develop abnormally – how much more abnormal animal-human embryos will be. Animal-human embryo research may reveal very little about human embryonic development.
Cloning involves the creation of an embryo which is almost an identical genetic copy of another embryo. In the UK it has been legal since 2001 to clone a human embryo and use its cells to create organs and other cells. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill continues this regime. Embryos can be cloned to obtain stem cells for medical research provided that the embryos are destroyed before they are 14 days old. This is sometimes described as ‘therapeutic cloning’, though it is not therapeutic for the embryos since they are destroyed in the process.
The cloning technique that is often used is called somatic cell nuclear transfer (often abbreviated to SCNT) and this is the technique that created Dolly the sheep. What exactly does the procedure involve? Remember, first, that most of a cell’s genetic information is contained within its nucleus. (There is also some genetic material in the area surrounding the nucleus.) Under SCNT the nucleus of one cell is placed into an egg which has had its own nucleus removed. When an electric current is passed through this egg it begins to divide – creating the cloned embryo, who has the same DNA as the donor of the nucleus. The cloned embryo also inherits some DNA from the egg which has had its own nucleus removed. The embryo may be a clone of a man or a woman.
Under the Embryology Bill it will continue to be illegal to clone an embryo and permit it to develop into a foetus (so called ‘reproductive cloning’). Cloned human embryos are not permitted to live beyond 14 days. After this time they must be destroyed. It is a criminal offence not to destroy these human embryos. Once a new life has been created through cloning there is no moral distinction between it and any other embryo. All embryos deserve our protection. Why, then, is cloning wrong?
Again, we go back to the Genesis creation account. It demonstrates that human relationships are based on relations between a husband and wife, their children and the wider family. God’s creation of the marriage relationship, and its central place in the procreation of the next generation, is for our benefit. It is via procreation that human beings are to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28; 2:24 and also Genesis 9:7).
The use of cloning is an attempt to create, rather than to procreate. It involves mankind taking upon itself a responsibility which properly belongs to God alone. Just as the builders at Babel strove to reach to the heavens and become gods, advocates of cloning are seeking a control over fellow men that goes far beyond the created order. By seeking to become like God, mankind will become increasingly alienated from God.
In procreation, as in every aspect of life, God is sovereign. He does the choosing. But human cloning puts the choices about a new life in the hands of a human rather than God. It is left to the scientist to decide. The clinician assesses which embryo appears fit for implantation and discards the rest. Human cloning usurps God’s position as the Almighty Creator. Job acknowledged, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’ (Job 1:21).
This technology means that man, and not God, chooses the desired characteristics of any resultant children. Cloning gives man control over the next generation. Thus man exerts a tyranny over future generations. As C S Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man:
In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.
Specifically, ‘therapeutic cloning’ is morally repugnant because it creates life with the specific aim of experimentation and destruction. The stem cells are extracted for research and the embryo dies. Pro-lifers have called this practice ‘technological cannibalism’.
4. Experiments on Embryos
Since embryo experiments were legalised in 1990, the UK has been at the forefront of science which involves destructive experiments on human embryos. What a shameful legacy! Having established that life begins at conception and so is worthy of full protection, it is self-evident that all such experiments are wrong.
To those who say: ‘Surely you are not asking me to give the early embryo equal status to a more developed baby’, the testimony of the Bible is this:
Even from day one an embryo is made in the image of God – with all the profound implications which flow from that. Consider this passage from Calvin’s Institutes: Whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him… (You may) say, He is contemptible and worthless; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.
God has deigned to give every human embryo ‘the beauty of His own image’; we cannot, indeed must not, gainsay Him. Experiments on embryos violate the Sixth Commandment – ‘Thou shalt not kill’.
Under this procedure embryos are created in a laboratory and then selected to be compatible with an older brother or sister who is ill. If a chosen embryo – a ‘saviour sibling’ – is successfully born, their tissue is available to treat the brother or sister. Even Lord Winston, fertility treatment pioneer and the strongest supporter of the Bill in the Lords, has pointed out that the procedure is rarely successful.
Some have tried to argue that because the child has been specially chosen, it will be more valued than a normal child. But many others are concerned that there may be grave psychological consequences for a child who knows they were not created for their own intrinsic value, but as ‘spare parts’ for someone else.
Every person has an intrinsic value because they are made in God’s image. That value is not dependent on any external consideration. However, the ‘saviour sibling’ process selects and creates certain children by the criteria of their potential usefulness to someone else. This devalues them as human beings. It is underlined by the fact that all unwanted embryos, which fail to meet the criteria, are destroyed – yet another part of the procedure which is inherently wrong.
As a child, the ‘saviour sibling’ is clearly denied a choice over how his or her body is used. The fact is that no-one should be rendered the unconsenting instrument of someone else. That was the moral problem at the heart of slavery. Moreover, we need to think about the application of the eighth commandment to this situation, which says we may not take something from another person without their consent – ‘thou shalt not steal’. How then can we create someone in order to do that very thing? Ultimately, as in cloning, it is the manufacturing of people by design. We wrench from God’s hands what properly belongs to Him.
Before looking at the present day situation, it is helpful to look back at the historic Christian opposition to abortion. It is not difficult to show that Christians have generally always been opposed to abortion. The early Church was relentless in its opposition to abortion. These early Christians only had the Bible to form their views. There was no Church tradition.
Infanticide was very common in the Greco-Roman world. Abortion was also widely practised. But the opposition of the early church to abortion and infanticide was so strong that historians believe that it was responsible for eliminating abortion from the Roman Empire. W E H Lecky, the 19th Century Irish historian, commented that:
The practice of abortion was one to which few persons in antiquity attached any deep feeling of condemnation … (Yet) with unwavering consistency and with the strongest emphasis, (Christians) denounced the practice, not simply as inhuman, but as definitely murder.
The Didache, a teaching manual in the early church written around the end of the first century, explained the implications of the sixth commandment against murder. It stated bluntly: ‘You shall not commit infanticide, nor procure abortion’.
In the Greco-Roman world there was certainly an awareness of drugs which cause abortion (‘abortifacients’). When contrasting the ‘Way of Life’ with ‘The Way of Death’ the Didache denounced those who practice ‘medicine’ and are ‘killers of the child, who abort the mold (plasma) of God’.
Tertullian, the early African Christian thinker, writing at the end of the second century (c.160 - c.225 AD), explained the difference between the pagan and Christian view of abortion:
For us murder is once for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb, while yet the mother’s blood is being drawn on to form the human being, it is not lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder. It makes no difference whether one take away the life once born or destroy it as it comes to birth. He is a man, who is to be a man; the fruit is always present in the seed.
His contemporary Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – c.215 AD) protested against those who hide fornication by abortion. He taught that Christians must not ‘take away human nature, which is generated from the providence of God, by hastening abortions and applying abortifacient drugs to destroy utterly the embryo and, with it, the love of man’.
Over the centuries Christians have boldly and resolutely opposed abortion. How much more that is needed today. Under our present law in Britain abortion is permitted up to 24 weeks gestation and up to birth where the child is thought to be handicapped. (Several votes in the Commons to reduce this limit were lost in May.) About 1 in 5 British pregnancies now end in abortion – which makes a mother’s womb the most dangerous place in Britain.
The 1967 Abortion Act made it legal to have an abortion on a number of specified grounds. After the Act was introduced the numbers of abortions rose rapidly. By 1973 111,000 were performed on women resident in England and Wales. Today the specified conditions are applied in a very relaxed way. Abortion has become commonplace. The latest figures available show that in Great Britain in 2007 there were over 210,000 abortions. The increasing use of the morning-after pill, under the guise of contraception, has also led to very early abortions becoming routine.
Abortion is the deliberate killing of an unborn baby. On the Bible’s terms it must therefore constitute the murder of a human being made in the image of God. Our present laws permit the mass murder of the most vulnerable members of society – the unborn. In the 16th Century Calvin wrote: ‘the foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being… If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light’. It is right to say that a silent holocaust is occurring all around us.
Some people say: ‘It can’t be as simple as denouncing abortion as the destruction of life. Doesn’t compassion compel us to allow abortion sometimes? What about the ‘hard cases’ where the mother’s life is at risk or where the pregnancy results from rape? What if the child is badly handicapped?’
It’s helpful to put these doubts into perspective. There have been 6.7 million abortions in Great Britain since the 1967 Abortion Act. Of the abortions performed on residents of England and Wales, only 0.4 per cent were because of risk to the mother’s life. The percentage performed on the grounds of foetal handicap was 1.3% (although that ‘handicap’ was sometimes something as minor as a cleft palate). In 2006, over 98% of abortions were carried out for social reasons.
As Christians we must be consistent in our recognition of the sanctity of all human life from conception. This is true even if a child might be born with a disability. An unborn child who is handicapped has no less right to life than any other child. If we were to go down the road, as some do, of saying that we are not human until we reach a certain point in our development, how can we decide at what stage the embryo becomes a human? What is there to stop people suggesting that human life doesn’t begin until a few weeks after birth? A baby whose fragile life is entirely dependent upon others for survival could be argued to be less than a full human being. Indeed Peter Singer, the Professor of Ethics at Princeton University, has already suggested this. We must stand against any attempt to redefine the point at which human life begins.
It has been very encouraging to read reports that fewer and fewer doctors are willing to perform abortions. It has also been fascinating to see new technology, ‘4D’ imaging, which can show us amazing images of unborn babies in the earliest stages of life. We can now see what David describes in Psalm 139!
The Scriptures make clear that there is forgiveness through Christ’s death on the Cross for any and every sin, and that certainly includes those who have had, or participated in, abortions. It also applies to women who have taken particular contraceptives only later to find out that they can act to destroy an embryo. As 1 John 1:7 makes very clear, the blood of Jesus Christ God’s Son cleanses from all sin.
Yet at the same time as we care for women affected by abortion, we must also pray that Christians will be stirred to stand against this great evil. I have no doubt that abortion is the modern equivalent of slavery and that the great William Wilberforce, if he were alive today, would be leading the campaign to restore protection to the unborn child.