Embryonic Research: A Christian Examination on the Morality of Using Embryos for Research

Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World as a warning against using technology to produce, engineer, and enhance humankind and their way of living.[1] Biotechnology has advanced enough to make some of Huxley’s nightmares a possibility today. It has made major strides in producing technology for healing, curing, and preventing diseases and injuries. It has even made it possible for infertile couples to be able to have children. This is a gift to many because children are a blessed gift from God (Ps 127:3), but some want to use this technology to enhance humanity at the cost of the unborn.[2] This defies God’s decree of protecting life and normative consideration of the unborn as persons. It will be argued that despite the increasing advancements in biotechnology and desire to produce healthy children it should not be done at the cost of life forming from an embryo for research.

Understanding the Science

There are a few scientific fields that affect the embryo. These fields within biology and biotechnology are broad in their applications and implications. This paper will focus on those applications and implications regarding the embryo because the view of the embryo determines whether one sees fit to protect the embryo.

Embryo

The gametes (egg and sperm cells) from a male and female combine to form a zygote. The zygote is the combination of DNA from both gametes and contains the necessary genetic information to form a human being.[3] This is the beginning of the embryo. To some, this should end the debate causing people to recognize that the embryo is a human person worthy of protection. Others need more proof or place additional standards other than DNA to qualify a human person. Knowing from conception the embryo contains all the necessary genetic material for a human will help formulate and guide the argument for the protection of the embryo.

In Vitro Fertilization

In vitro Fertilization (IVF) is where the fertilization process takes place in a petri dish instead of the fallopian tube.[4] Eggs are extracted from a female, the male provides the sperm, and the physician places them in a petri dish hoping that most will be fertilized.[5] Up to four embryos are implanted within the woman’s uterus in the hopes that at least one will successfully implant causing the woman to become pregnant.[6]  Sometimes embryos are frozen to be implanted over a process of several months until one is successful. This will often leave left over embryos. Some are discarded while others are used for research. This poses a problem because if the embryo, even one formed in a petri dish, is considered a human person, then the issue of how to handle them needs to be addressed.

Stem Cell

Five days after conception, the human embryo reaches the blastocyst stage which contains an inner cell mass that will develop into the fetus and an outer cell layer that will become part of the placenta.[7] It is these inner cells that are important to stem cell research because they can virtually form into any type of human cells. These are considered totipotent and pluripotent stem cells.[8] Stem cells extracted from an embryo are called embryonic stem cells, and this process destroys the embryo.[9] Because of their potential, they are highly valued for their research and medical applications. The problem is that acquiring the stem cells from the embryo at this stage causes its destruction.

Cloning

When most people think of cloning, they think of cloning mature adults like that in science-fiction, but scientists have been able to clone embryos since 1993.[10] In the cloning process, a mature human egg is obtained from a woman and enucleated, the nucleus of the egg cell is removed, and likewise for a somatic cell obtained from any adult human being.[11] The extracted nucleus from the somatic cell is then placed in the egg cell, or renucleated, and activated to grow like a normal fertilized egg.[12] The embryo is then transferred into a woman’s womb to grow in utero towards the birth of a human child. If the cloned embryo is allowed to grow in utero towards a fully formed human, then there is not much of a problem. If these embryos are being cloned merely for research, then there is a problem if the embryos are considered to be a human person.

Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering includes therapeutic genetic engineering, or gene therapy, which intervenes to cure diseases, and nontherapeutic genetic engineering, or enhancement engineering, which enhances human traits (e.g., hair color) and capabilities (e.g., intelligence). These can both be applied at the somatic cell level where the modifications are introduced into nonreproductive cells preventing the modifications from being passed on to future generations, or at the germ-line level where modifications are introduced into sperm, ova, or embryos allowing the modifications to be passed on to future generations.[13] These provide valuable promises to mankind, especially gene therapy, in regards to curing diseases. Germ-line genetic engineering can directly affect the embryo and provides the most promises of eradicating genetic diseases before they are passed to future generations. Some critics of germ-line genetic engineering are concerned that this research will destroy or damage the embryos.[14]

Arguments For and Against the Protection of the Embryo

Now that some of the basic science has been explained about these processes and how they affect the embryo, whether it is moral or not to harm or destroy the embryo will be discussed. These arguments come from the specific fields addressed previously, but will be combined and applied to the embryo specifically.

Argument For the Protection of the Embryo

Michael J. Sandel argues that life has an inherent value inscribed into it.[15] He says people “speak of the sanctity of life…without necessarily embracing the strong metaphysical version of that idea”.[16] Whether people recognize this value originates from God or not, they do recognize that there is an inherent value to life. Applying this to the embryo means that there is something innate in mankind to find the inherent value of the embryo as a human life. Leon R. Kass describes this innate feeling, this “repugnance”, as the “emotional bearer of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it”.[17]

This argument cannot stand alone, though. Some people may not recognize or have become desensitized to their innate nature to protect the human embryo. This argument of innateness and inherent value can be applied to atrocious acts such as slavery and genocide because they “feel” that these people are inferior. By itself, it can be misused or defeated, but it can stand with additional arguments and proof such as the scientific fact that the embryo contains human DNA. Nonetheless, the innate desire to protect life and recognize when something is immoral should be heeded.

The human embryo possesses all of the necessary material, especially genetic material, to be able to grow and form into a fully recognizable human being. Simply because the embryo does not look like a human does not mean that it is not one. As the President’s Council on Bioethics states, “[The embryo] is not just a ‘clump of cells’ but an integrated, self-developing whole, capable (if all goes well) of the continued organic development characteristics of human beings.”[18] What makes the embryo a human is not what it looks like, but that it contains the necessary DNA and potential.

If looks merely defined what a human being is, then it would be impossible to recognize when something is a human. Humans develop throughout their lifetime sometimes changing drastically in how they appear. An infant is easily distinguishable from an adult. Those that have lost limbs or become deformed due to tragic accidents or diseases could possibly be considered non-human because of their appearances. Because of this, an embryo cannot be considered non-human based upon its appearance. There is something more that defines what a human being is, and one of these factors is the DNA contained within the embryo.

Joel B. Green makes the argument that the human person is a unified, embodied whole.[19] In other words, he agrees with the view of monism that states that a human person cannot be separated into parts (e.g., soul and body). If one follows Green’s argument, then it would follow that a human person is completely whole at conception not lacking anything that would define or characterize them as a human person.

Argument Against the Protection of the Embryo

There are those that would make the distinction between the body and mind, dualism, arguing for, or allowing, the destruction of an embryo especially for medical research and progress. Jeff McMahan is one of these. He uses a thought experiment about brain transplants to show that a person consists of the mind and not the body.[20] If a person consists of their body, then the person whose body received the new brain would remain the same person. If a person consists of their mind, as McMahan argues, then the person would be transferred to a new body along with the brain. While this is a purely hypothetical question that science cannot answer yet, it shows that people intuit that a person consists of more than their body.

To overcome the objection of a hypothetical situation, McMahan gives the example of dicephalic twinning. [21] This is a form of conjoined twinning where two heads exist on one body. Since there is only one body and two heads, it would follow that two distinct persons exist because two minds exist. This would mean it would be morally acceptable to destroy the embryo for medical research because the capacity for consciousness is not yet realized.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it can be applied to anyone sleeping or in a coma. At these times, a person is not conscious or self-aware of what is happening, but no one says that it is morally acceptable to kill someone simply because they are asleep. They would say there is still at least the capacity and potential for consciousness to take place when they wake up. This would mean that capacity and potential are two factors that help to determine personhood. These are two factors the embryo also possesses meaning that consciousness alone cannot determine that it is morally acceptable to destroy the embryo for research.

Some will say that the outcome of embryonic research outweighs any harm that happens to the embryo. The ability to prevent genetic diseases from harming an individual at the embryonic level is worth being able to do research on embryos until it is possible to prevent genetic diseases.[22] Being able to clone humans, even at the embryonic level, to provide lifesaving medical procedures seems to be more morally acceptable than allowing people to die.[23] Both of these ideas take a utilitarian approach disregarding the equal moral value of the embryo. No one finds it acceptable to destroy the city of New York and its inhabitants if it means saving the United States of America. People would want to find another solution that would save all possible lives no matter the scenario. A way to progress modern medicine without destroying the embryo also needs to be discovered.

The Biblical Stance on the Personhood of the Embryo

The debate about the moral value of the embryo hinges upon whether or not the embryo is a human person. Many pro-life apologists will turn conversations about abortion towards the determination of whether or not the unborn is a person worthy of rights equal to that of a born person.[24] If one agrees that the unborn is a person, then all other conversations about abortion become moot. This method can be applied to medical research and the embryo as well. If it is determined that the embryo is a human person worthy of protection, then any objections towards protecting it become moot. It becomes unethical to do research on the embryo just as it is unethical to do research on children and adults without at least having informed consent, especially if this research knowingly harms or kills.

The Christian should argue this point having a divine mandate to fight for the misfortunate and those unable to fight for themselves (Prov 31:8–9). God gave the Hebrews laws to help them live morally and how to deal with social issues. Exodus 21:22–25 is such a passage, and it deals directly with the unborn. This passage is usually understood as a woman having a miscarriage due to men brawling and striking her, and they only have to pay a fine because the unborn is not equivalent to adult personhood. It is assumed that if the unborn child was considered equal to that of full personhood and was killed in the process, then the men’s lives would be taken as equal punishment. This is an improper understanding of the passage.

Most Bibles will translate this phrase as “giving birth prematurely” (cf., ESV, NASB, NIV, NLT). It is not understood as a miscarriage, but as a successful birth of the child even under strenuous and unnatural circumstances. The Hebrew word yasa for “live birth” is used in this passage.[25] The Hebrews had a word for miscarriage, shakal, available to them, but they did not choose to use it here.[26] If the word for miscarriage was available but not used, then this has the implication of a successful live birth.

This passage gives two different scenarios. The first speaks of the premature birth where no harm is done and a fine is charged. The second one speaks of where harm is caused and the lex talionis is applied.[27] This can be applied to either the woman or unborn child because the passage lacks any pronoun that would indicate who receives the harm.[28] In the first case, the baby is born without any further harm done to either the baby or mother. Therefore, a fine is charged. Since this passage does not specify who receives the harm, then it follows that if either the baby or mother is killed that lex talionis would be enforced showing that God considers the embryo to be a human person.

The Bible uses conception and birth interchangeably. This implies that God ascribes the same value and attributes to the embryo as He does for those that have been born. Job 3:3 uses synonymous parallelism, a poetic form where two lines essentially say the same thing.[29] The fact that the terms “conception” and “birth” are used interchangeably describing the same person shows that an embryo is considered a person.

This writer agrees with Rae’s assessment that the Bible supports dualism.[30] Rae provides a discussion around Paul describing the soul being away from the body affirming the existence of the soul (2 Cor 5:1–10). The soul can be described as an “immaterial ‘something’ that endows a human being with an intellect, emotions, a will, and an autonomous ‘sense of self’”.[31]

The existence of the soul posits a serious problem for monism. If the soul is separate from the body, then the question arises of when the body begins to possess a soul. If the body gains a soul after the embryonic stage such as at the fetus stage or after birth, then it could be argued that the embryo at the point of conception until the point of ensoulment, the point a body receives a soul, is nothing more than an empty shell. This would mean that it does not deserve respect and protection equal to that of a human person. This is why the idea of monism might be favorable in the argument for the protection of the embryo as a human person, because it makes the question of when ensoulment happens a moot question.

This does not mean the Christian dualist is unable to argue for the personhood and protection of the embryo. Some say the soul is created and given to the body at the point of conception.[32] When God created Adam, He breathed the breath of life into His lungs making him a living creature (Gen 2:7). This “breath of life” has the connotation of ensoulment.[33] If this is the case, then the very presence of a soul at conception would make the embryo worthy of protection equal to that of a grown human person.

Adam’s case is very different from every other human’s because he was created and not born. He was created in the Image of God, but being created in the image of God applies to all humans (Gen 1:26–27). Being created in the Image of God, the Imago Dei, gives the implication of having a soul and being considered a person. Most people will agree that the embryo is human and alive because it contains human DNA, but they disagree that it is a person. A human being does not equate to personhood to them. Scripture does not support this conclusion. Scripture supports the idea of being a human equates to being a person. A human being is the Image of God, and it follows that a human being is a person because they bear the Image of God no matter what stage of life they exist.[34] If a human being is a person deserving of respect and protection beginning at the embryo level, then no harm or destruction should come to the embryo even for medical research.

Conclusion

It has been argued that the embryo is a human person worthy of protection from any harm or destruction caused by medical research. The Christian is mandated by God and His Scriptures to protect the innocent including the embryo. The tools to do so are provided by science, philosophy, and the Bible. Science proves that the embryo contains all the necessary DNA and building blocks to be considered a human person. Philosophy carries on the idea of potentiality being sufficient enough to warrant equal rights and protection of the unborn that is given to born human persons. The Bible shows that God considers children, both unborn and born, to be sacred meaning that the destruction of the Imago Dei is abominable. Therefore, any harm that befalls the embryo violates God’s normative consideration of the embryo as a human person worthy of protection and rights equal to born human persons. The possible benefits that would come from medical research do not outweigh the harm done to embryos.

Bibliography

Congdon, Robert N. “Exodus 21:22-25 and the abortion debate.” Bibliotheca Sacra 146, no. 582 (April 1989): 132-147. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 18, 2016).

DeGrazia, David, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard. Biomedical Ethics. 7th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

Disney, Lindsey, and Larry Poston. “The breath of life: Christian perspectives on conception and ensoulment.” Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 2 (2010): 271-295. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 4, 2016).

Feinberg, John S., and Paul D. Feinberg. Ethics for a Brave New World. 2nd ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010.

Green, Joel B. Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2004.

Kass, Leon R. “Cloning of Human Beings.” In Biomedical Ethics. Edited by David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 577-580, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

McMahan, Jeff. “Killing Embryos for Stem Cell Research.” In Biomedical Ethics. Edited by David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 508-513, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

National Institutes of Health. “Stem Cell Basics.” In Biomedical Ethics. Edited by David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 501-508, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

President’s Council on Bioethics. “The Moral Case Against Cloning-for-Biomedical-Research.” In Biomedical Ethics. Edited by David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 501-508, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

Rae, Scott B. “‘Body, Soul and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible’.” Perspectives On Science and Christian Faith 61, no. 3 (September 2009): 191-194. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 4, 2016).

Rae, Scott B. Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.

Sandel, Michael J. “Mastery and Gift.” In Biomedical Ethics. Edited by David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 610-615, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

Wachbroit, Robert. “Genetic Encores: The Ethics of Human Cloning.” In Biomedical Ethics. Edited by David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 501-508, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

Walters, LeRoy and Julie Gage Palmer. “Germ-Line Gene Therapy.” In Biomedical Ethics. Edited by David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 602–609, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

Endnotes

[1] Aldous Huxley. Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2004). This writer used the combined version of Huxley’s two books in preparation for this paper. Brave New World is the fiction novel that he wrote, and Brave New World Revisited is Huxley’s own examination of the philosophies addressed within his novel.

[2] This writer uses the English Standard Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.

[3] David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, Biomedical Ethics. 7th ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 427.

[4] Ibid., 526.

[5] Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 159.

[6] DeGrazia, Mappes, Brand-Ballard, Biomedical Ethics, 527.

[7] Ibid., 463.

[8] National Institutes of Health, “Stem Cell Basics,” in Biomedical Ethics, ed. David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 504.

[9] Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 145.

[10] Ibid., 203.

[11] DeGrazia, Mappes, Brand-Ballard, Biomedical Ethics, 530.

[12] Ibid., 530.

[13] Ibid., 531.

[14] LeRoy Walters and Julie Gage Palmer, “Germ-Line Gene Therapy,” in Biomedical Ethics, ed. David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 606.

[15] Michael J. Sandel, “Mastery and Gift,” in Biomedical Ethics, ed. David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 612.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Leon R. Kass, “Cloning of Human Beings,” in Biomedical Ethics, ed. David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 578.

[18] President’s Council on Bioethics. “The Moral Case Against Cloning-for-Biomedical-Research,” in Biomedical Ethics, ed. David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 515.

[19] Joel B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).

[20] Jeff McMahan, “Killing Embryos for Stem Cell Research,” in Biomedical Ethics, ed. David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 511. The thought experiment states that identical twin undergo a brain transplant. One brain remains even though the body is completely destroyed. The other twin’s body remains, but his brain is destroyed. The healthy brain is then transplanted into the healthy body.

[21] Ibid., 511–512.

[22] Walters and Palmer, “Germ-Line Gene Therapy,” 604–605.

[23] Robert Wachbroit, “Genetic Encores: The Ethics of Human Cloning,” in Biomedical Ethics, ed. David DeGrazia, Thomas A. Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 587.

[24] Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 131. This writer has also heard speakers from the Life Training Institute teach this method at apologetics events.

[25] Ibid., 131.

[26] Robert N. Congdon, “Exodus 21:22-25 and the abortion debate,” Bibliotheca Sacra 146, no. 582 (Spring 1989), 138, accessed March 18, 2016.

[27] Ibid., 138. The lex talionis is the “eye for an eye” punishment. The Laws given by God were intended for a crime to receive equal punishment. Therefore, murder should be punished by execution, a life for a life.

[28] John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg. Ethics for a Brave New World. 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 106.

[29] Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 128.

[30] Scott B. Rae, “‘Body, Soul and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible’.” Perspectives On Science and Christian Faith 61, no. 3 (Fall/Winter 2009), 192, accessed March 4, 2016.

[31] Lindsey Disney and Larry Poston. “The breath of life: Christian perspectives on conception and ensoulment.” Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 2 (2010), 273, accessed March 4, 2016.

[32] Ibid., 277.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Feinberg and Feinberg. Ethics for a Brave New World, 87–101.

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