For What It Is Worth – The Status of the Human Embryo

Philippa Taylor (2002), CARE and CBPP, London.
32pp., £4.50.  ISBN 0-90519-505-1

Let me first declare a vested interest.  About two years ago I had a ding-dong in the pages of Evangelicals Now with Dr Andrew Fergusson, the director of the Centre for Bioethics and Public Policy (CBPP), which co-published this booklet.  While I have spent twenty years proclaiming and defending the specialness and dignity of the human embryo from fertilisation, Dr Fergusson is agnostic about this key topic.  His scepticism is two-fold.  He wrote, ‘Biology does not give a black-and-white-answer’ and the Scriptural record does not give ‘a sufficiently certain answer.’  I disagreed.  So, I was intrigued to discover in this booklet if CARE and CBPP had shifted their bioethical position.

The booklet gets off to a shaky start.  The Introduction (p. 3) sets out the importance of the question, ‘When does human life begin?’ and maintains that the answer consists of the biological, moral and theological.  OK, so far!  But its downfall comes on this opening page because it constructs its answer from these ‘three relevant fields of response’, in that order.  That is, it begins by maintaining that ‘we can build a moral perspective … on this biological evidence’.  This is the sort of response to be expected from a worldly moral philosopher, like a Mary Warnock or a Robert Winston, not from an evangelical Christian organisation.  It is typical of modern-day ‘cart-before-the-horse’ ethics, where the practice determines the principles – Christians usually call this dangerous approach to ethics, pragmatism.  Still on p. 3, the booklet concedes that, ‘Biblical testimony also provides us with important pointers …’.  Do you get a sense of the downgrading of divine revelation?  I did.

These opening weaknesses begin to alert the reader to the fact that this booklet is neither well written nor well produced.  It is not just the occasional missing word, or use of the archaic ‘thus’, ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’, but also the non-use of the apostrophe, such as in ‘persons status’, and ‘Gods character’.  There are also the split infinitives, ‘to deliberately destroy’, the coining of new words like ‘responsivity’, and the use of ‘fetus’ and ‘foetus’ on the same page.  These, and more, all indicate a sloppy piece of copy editing.  And in the event, the promised third section on ‘moral aspects’ is not even presented.

But what of the meat of this booklet?  Are the issues raised the important ones? Are the arguments presented clearly and convincingly?

It is, in places, overly complex.  Why is it necessary, in what is, after all, a booklet aimed at a general readership, to use highly-technical terms like ‘pronuclei’, ‘syngamy’ and ‘genotype’ (p. 4), none of which is explained in the Glossary?

It is also confusing.  Some examples from Section 1, Biological Aspects, will suffice. In section 1.4, it states that at fertilisation several of the child’s characteristics ‘… are already partially determined.’  What does ‘partially’ mean in this context?  A mere line, explaining that environment, diet, and so on also play a part, would allay the confusion.  Or, having established (section 1.1) that fertilisation results in a one-cell zygote, it goes on, in section 1.5, while still on the subject of fertilisation, to talk about ‘a tiny ball of cells’.  Or, in section 1.7, additional confusion arises when Caroline Berry is somewhat obscurely, yet apparently disapprovingly, quoted from her 1993 Christian Medical Fellowship publication.

Section 2, Theological Aspects, will engage the attention of Bulletin readers.  However, it begins by going straight to the New Testament, ‘The most valuable and significant biblical text is that in Luke …’.  This undersells the reader and certainly does nothing to display the exciting momentum of the Bible’s doctrine concerning the nature of man, the imago Dei (not, Imago dei, as on p. 8), which begins, at least, way back in Genesis 1:26, though the booklet does examine this, and some other Old Testament texts, later on.  Section 1 was exclusively about ‘fertilisation’, yet in Section 2 this becomes exclusively ‘conception’, but the parallel meaning of the two words is never explained.  Furthermore, the statement (section 2.1) that ‘God became incarnate as an embryo’ should surely, especially in the light of the previous section’s arguments, be ‘zygote’.  And this Section ends with two complex arguments, which are poorly defined and poorly contended.  Indeed, I defy general readers to grasp their significance.  The first deals with, ‘… the biblical tension between the immaterial and physical in the embryo.’  And the second deals with the, ‘… biblical tension … between the "already" and the "not yet".’  If these are ‘biblical tensions’, why are relevant Bible verses not quoted to demonstrate them?  Add on the frequent, but undefined, use of ‘rights’ (‘human rights’, ‘right to life’, and so on) and I had now gathered more questions than answers.

Perhaps Section 3, Some Arguments and Answers would help me.  Seventeen issues are raised, amounting to about half the booklet’s contents.  Here, I am happy to report, things picked up a little.  Some of the answers are enlightening, and, perhaps not surprisingly, become the more convincing when Scripture is interwoven.  The old ethical chestnuts of ‘natural embryo loss’ and ‘implantation’ are decently dismissed, but the philosophical and biological craziness of Warnock’s 14-day rule, which it calls ‘a relatively arbitrary decision’ (whatever that might be!) is not plainly shown to be what it truly is.  The other arguments poorly dealt with include ‘ensoulment’, ‘potential’ and ‘personhood’.   Readers of the Bulletin might be surprised that they even warrant inclusion because the first is such a theological red herring and the second two are such linguistic dodges.  These issues are best explained either laboriously, over several pages with numerous footnotes, or snappily, such as on p. 19, ‘So human embryos are not potential human beings but rather human beings with potential.’  This booklet’s usual approach of producing arguments of a page or two in length seems to be the least satisfactory.  Such matters are further confounded by the namedropping (section 3.14) of others, ‘such as Singer and Tooley et al.’, yet no attempt is made, not even in the Appendix, to explain about, or cite the works of, these two ghastly, yet influential, moral philosophers.

Section 4 consists of little more than a page of, Some Applications.  Section 5 is a similarly brief Conclusion.  Ambiguity is present here too.  The Conclusion perhaps tells it all, ‘… we should also, at the very least, give the embryo the benefit of any doubt that we may think still exists.’  One is left with the distinct feeling that CARE and CBPP are afraid of offending anyone.  So it is regrettable that one of the largest evangelical Christian agencies in the UK still remains somewhat agnostic on the matter of the status of the human embryo.  The question has not been unambiguously answered.  The booklet reads as if it were produced by a committee – perhaps it was.  But at 14p per page, I would want something more for my money.


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