FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Embryos, Persons and the Mind of God 28 March 2008

“What one always has to bear in mind is that it’s the children that should come first – not chronologically or causally in this instance, of course, but in our thinking about what ultimately is in the mind of God for his children, as ‘our’ children have lived in his mind for all eternity. Does he want our children to be born of a father and a mother, and to grow up in the love of their father and mother? There can be no doubt, from the perspective of Christian faith, that the answer to this question is ‘yes’”.

The above is a quote from my last post, on gay marriage and adoption. This appeared first in my now discontinued (re-branded) blog, BTCP: Bisexual, Transgender, Christian and Proud Of It. There it inspired a couple of comments, which I haven’t copied over to the new format, one of which was to the effect that if it was in God’s mind to bring children into this world through the loving union of a father and mother, wouldn’t he just do this? My reply – paraphrasing myself – was essentially ‘no’: it might be God’s will that this should happen, but our sin impedes and distorts God’s will, and must therefore be allowed to damage creation (if our freedom to choose evil as well as good is to be genuine); and that God could not arbitrarily alter the laws of biology he had made to reflect and express his loving purpose in creation simply to prevent us from abusing those laws to create and destroy human life without regard to the moral law.

This got me thinking about how we live in the mind of God, both during our temporal existence as living and breathing human beings, and in His eternity (which we view from our time-bound perspective as ‘before’ and ‘after’ our mortal lives). And how does that relate to our human personhood, and the ethics of human reproduction and embryo research?

My point is this: from the perspective of faith, human life by definition is always personal in the sense that it is an embodiment – a bodily image or reproduction – of the personhood of God himself: Father, Son and the love of the Spirit that unites them and gives rise to the whole of creation as the expression and reflection of the divine love and self-understanding (the Word). In this light, insofar as any actual human life form comes into existence, it necessarily has this essential personal character – as part of its DNA, one might say. This is the case from the moment of conception: the human person that has lived in the mind of God for all eternity now also lives in a time-bound, physical form. The Concept (the Word) has manifested itself in a material body: conception; the Word becomes flesh; a human being is made in God’s image. That human personhood is therefore as complete in a single fertilised ovum or a collection of undifferentiated embryonic stem cells as it is in a newborn baby or mature adult: alive, and able to survive and prosper outside the womb.

When I say that this intrinsic personhood of human life is built into our ‘DNA’, this is also a reference to the fact that, with respect to our genetic inheritance, we are all the expression and product of the union of our biological father and mother, even if the loving moral and spiritual union of our father and mother that God wills for us was absent from the specific biological process of our conception. God loves us into being even when love is absent from the human reproductive processes involved.

Those who attempt to morally justify embryonic stem-cell research seek to do so by denying that undifferentiated embryonic cells do constitute a ‘human person’ or ‘human being’ that might have rights similar to those of born human beings or even foetuses, such as the right to life; the right not to have medical experiments conducted on one’s body / person against one’s will; or the right not to have one’s fundamental genetic structure manipulated and combined with that of other species. It is doubtless scientifically and descriptively true – looking at the question from a materialist perspective – that a collection of undifferentiated embryonic cells does not (yet) have the characteristics that one tends to think of as defining personhood: the beginning of the formation of a recognisably human body, with all the immensely complex variety of cell and tissue types, and bodily organs.

But firstly, the religious – or certainly, the Catholic Christian – moral objection to stem-cell research is not based on such a definition of personhood: the bodily characteristics that appear to denote our status as human beings and persons are in a sense only the ‘outer’ material form of our personhood that in essence lives and exists in God. Once those cells exist, a human person that lives in the mind of God has begun to unfold in time and space, and to reveal and be a small but integral part of God’s loving creative and redemptive purpose.

Secondly, from a purely logical perspective, it is quite arbitrary to declare that after, say, 14 days from conception, what had previously been regarded as a mere collection of undifferentiated cells is now to be regarded as an embryonic human person with rights that it did not have during the first two weeks of its existence. The embryonic person would not exist now had it not gone through 14, or however many, days of undifferentiated-cell existence. This is a continuous process; and to declare that in the later stages of its development, the embryo has a humanity or personhood (humanity defined as personhood) that it did not have in the necessary earlier stages that went before seems completely illogical and self-serving; and it flies in the face of our intuitive perception of when our lives as human persons begin: from the moment of conception when the DNA structures that define who we are started to be laid down.

Besides which, the time limit from which embryos and foetuses are recognised as human beings or persons with legal and human rights is arbitrarily moveable depending on the purpose that is being justified: 14 days in UK legislation with respect to regulating stem-cell research, but 24 weeks when it comes to the legal limit for abortions. When does an unborn human person become a full human being and, as it were, a citizen with full legal rights? It appears to be the case that what defines the threshold for an embryo or foetus to be recognised in law as a human person in this way is merely the point at which they become physically (visually) recognisable as viable, autonomous human entities from the particular perspective that is invoked: that of the medical researcher who recognises that, beyond a certain point, he is extracting cells not from an amorphous, undifferentiated mass but from an actual living embryo that is starting to take on the visual, albeit microscopic, form of a human body and person; or the perspective of medical practice and childbirth, where the 24-week abortion limit was based on the latest stage at which a foetus could not survive if plucked untimely from the womb – a time limit which, for that very reason, is being revised in the current UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, as medical advances have made it possible for foetuses to survive from an earlier age.

This really is a rather primitive and, indeed, material, irrational and superstitious way to decide when an unborn human entity becomes a human person: simply when it corresponds to our bodily image of a human being – paradoxically defining the humanness of unborn life purely in relation to the appearances and conditions for survival of born life. The unborn clearly don’t stand a chance if the odds are so heavily weighted against them. In reality, the vision of faith and the science in this matter fundamentally concur; at least when the science is logically understood as describing a process whereby recognisable bodily-human personhood (what we think of as our existence and personhood) necessarily begins in the undifferentiated (‘unrecognisably’ human) embryonic stem-cell state. If we are living human beings and persons now, that is because what we are now was already laid down and was potential within what we were from the moment of our conception – and, in the light of faith, within the eternal mind of God.

This is why, for me, it is so revealing that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which has provoked such heated debate in the UK during the last week owing to prime minister Gordon Brown’s initial refusal to allow his Labour Party MPs a free vote on its morally controversial aspects, should sanction such diverse measures as the creation of hybrid human-animal embryos for the purposes of stem-cell research, and the removal of a legal reference to the ‘need for a father’ on the part of children born to Lesbian couples through IVF or other assisted-conception treatment. This latter provision extends to the very birth certificate of such children, in which it will now be possible for both women to be registered as the real (biological) parents, even if neither of them actually are the genetic parents (for instance, if a fertilised egg from another couple is used as opposed to IVF using the eggs of one of the women). This means that such children are officially without a father. They retain their existing legal right to try and trace their genetic father as soon as they reach the age of maturity (18 in the UK); but they will never be allowed to officially recognise that person as their true father – in the eyes of the law, he becomes a ‘mere’ sperm donor and no more.

The thread that these two measures in the Bill have in common is that they involve a denial of those two aspects of unborn human life that are fundamental from its very beginning: that it is personal and a product of the union of a man and a woman, in the sense that, from conception, the human entity is an individuated, unique and living combination of the DNA of its parents – DNA which in turn defines their personhood. And from the faith perspective, the unborn human being is also of course sacred: a living human person ultimately made by God in his image, which we are therefore commanded to respect and protect. And such is, not just the vocation of the believer, but the true calling of science: not so much to determine the ‘mind of God’ through empirical and theoretical enquiry into the material world that is in God but is not God; but to seek ways to cure the ills of our mortal existence that do not violate the purity and beauty of human life that is called in Christ to share God’s mind and love for all eternity.

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