These are perhaps the most crucial questions which help to shape our understanding of what it means to be human today. Involving a complex mix of ethical, scientific and theological perspectives they are far from easy questions to answer. Yet as we begin to consider the advances and developments in fertility treatments and embryology, the need to consider the issues surrounding the beginning of human life become all the more important.
In succinct terms, fertilisation is the fusion of a sperm and ovum. Over the course of a 24-hour period, the sperm penetrates the ovum and the DNA of both parents combines to give rise to a new genotype – a unique new entity.
From this point on, the DNA remains unchanged; each cell of the embryo – as with the adult – will share the same unique genetic code. The one-cell structure, known as a zygote will, after several hours, divide to create a two-cell zygote, generally referred to as an embryo. Everything needed for life is present at this stage.
Consulting embryology texts and other scientific literature it quickly becomes apparent that there is little doubt expressed over when biological life begins. For example one text book clearly states that ““Human development is a continuous process that begins when an ovum from a female is fertilised by a sperm from a male…a zygote is the beginning of a new human being.”
Based upon this understanding, one cannot fail to understand that at the moment of fertilisation, the embryo is a human embryo because it is derived from human parents with DNA of a specific human type.
The fusion of sperm and egg marks the beginning of a process of continuous, changing and evolving development which, if uninterrupted and with the necessary nutrition and supportive environment, will lead to birth and beyond that, to adulthood. It may be hard to imagine and relate to the fact that a tiny ball of cells could be one of us. Yet the fact remains, we were all an embryo once!
Turning to the Bible, scripture offers us some clear guiding principles in this area of embryology:
First, every human being is made in the image of God (imago dei). We reflect God’s image in what we do (capabilities and attributes) and what we are (our humanity). Therefore each human life has a unique dignity and unique value because of the divine image. God has chosen to bestow this image uniquely upon human beings. Thus where human life is there is also the image of God . This includes the human embryo which possesses the very nature, value and dignity of being in the image of God and worthy of protection.
Second, scripture can guide us in our understanding of the status of the human embryo. Jesus became human at the moment Mary’s egg became miraculously fertilised . Consequently the incarnation of God the Son, Jesus Christ, started as an embryo. Furthermore, we read when Mary and Elizabeth met shortly after, John ‘jumped’ or ‘leaped’ in Elizabeth’s womb in recognition of Mary’s baby, Jesus. At this point in time, Mary would have been only a week or two into her pregnancy (at the embryo stage) .
Whilst some may argue that there are no grounds for parallels to be made between the conception of Jesus Christ and other humans, the Bible tells us that Christ shared in our humanity and was like us in every way . In order to be the Saviour of the world and our redeemer, he had to take on human flesh. The mode of conception may have been uniquely different to how we were conceived but the gestation or development process was common to all. Thus, at one point in his life, Jesus was an embryo just like you and me. Therefore we can be in no doubt that the tiniest human being is a person in God’s image.
In 1990, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act became law. This Act gave statutory force to the recommendations of the Warnock Report and set up the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to oversee the Act’s legislation and operation.
The HFE Act allowed in vitro fertilisation along with embryo freezing, research and destruction. For the first time, the Act permitted licensed individuals to experiment with embryos during their first 14 days as well allowing consent to be obtained for embryos to be used in IVF treatment for infertile couples and to be donated for the infertility treatment of others .
In 2001 the Act of 1990 was subsequently amended by way of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Research Purposes) Regulations 2001 which allowed for the cloning of human embryos for research into diseases again up until their 14th day .
Parliament decided to take the unusual step of allowing the creation of human embryos for experimental purposes because it was hoped that this would help scientists extract and manipulate ‘stem cells.’ Stem cells are particularly interesting because they can be programmed to develop in any number of different ways to create different kinds of body tissue and it was hoped that, as such, they might be manipulated and introduced to sick human beings in order to help them get better.
At the time the point was made that one can access stem cells from people after their birth without going through the morally problematic process of creating a human embryo for the purpose of extracting stem cells in the context of which the embryo will die. It was determined to proceed, however, because ‘human embryonic stem cells’ were said to exhibit greater potential than ‘adult stem cells.’
In 2005 it was recognised that it would be necessary to introduce a new HFE bill to take into account the pace of change and progress since 1990.
Key innovations included:
In the absence of a sufficient number of human eggs to create the number of fully human embryos desired, scientists wanted to be able to compensate in the creation of cloned embryos through the use of animal eggs instead.
Initially, before the publication of the bill, the government made it clear that they planned to ban the creation of hybrids, but following a successful campaign from scientists, the government backed down and permitted the research to go ahead.
b) The creation of ‘saviour siblings’ or ‘spare parts’ children
The bill proposed legalising the creation of so called ‘saviour siblings’. Using a process known as pre-implantation diagnosis (PGD) in conjunction with IVF treatment, human embryos are selected that are found to be “compatible” with a pre-existing older ill sibling.
A genetically-compatible embryo will then be selected and implanted in the mother’s womb with those embryos found to be incompatible being destroyed or donated to other women who are seeking IVF treatment. Once the implanted embryo is born, blood stem cells from the umbilical cord or cells from the cord itself (and possibly other body elements) can be harvested and used to treat the ill sibling.
Despite the benefits of such a move, one should not overlook three key issues. First, the process involves the destruction of otherwise healthy embryos but which are not a tissue-match for their sick sibling.
Second, whilst harvesting cord blood in no way physically harms the saviour sibling, harvesting ‘part organs’ – permitted by the Act – could cause pain and discomfort.
Finally, the long term psychological impact on the ‘saviour sibling should not be underestimated . All saviour siblings would know – even if there parents loved them – that they were different from other children because they were not conceived simply as an end in themselves but rather as a mean to an end, a means to the end of curing their sick older sibling.
c) Need for a father and a mother
In the case of IVF treatment, the bill removed the requirement to consider the potential child’s need for a father when considering an IVF application.
The House of Lords amended the bill so that the need for a child to have ‘supportive parenting’ is considered instead. The bill also permitted for the first time the deliberate creation of children with the intention they should never have a present father. Whereas previously it had been possible for a single women to access IVF so long as the child’s need for a father was taken into consideration, the bill allowed lesbian couples to access IVF as a couple and for both the women’s name to go down on the birth certificate.
The Bill also made provision for the deliberate creation of children with the intention that they should be denied a mother from as young as six months. Specifically, it made provision for a same sex male couple to access IVF using a surrogate mother and to then become its parents via fast tracking parenting orders.
All of these proposals were accepted and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill received Royal Assent on 13 November 2008 , becoming the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. In taking such a step, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the UK overstepped ethical boundaries which virtually every other European country hold to in order to become a nation supposedly at the cutting edge of scientific research.