Brave New World? (2)
Written by Douglas Milne
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Reformed Ethics - Bioethics

Embryo research is the new holocaust, a genocide behind closed doors. An interview with Dr. Douglas Milne.

An interview with Dr. Douglas Milne, principal of the Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia, by Peter Hastie, editor of  The Australian Presbyterian, from which these articles are adapted with permission.

Continued from here. 

Why is the moral status of the embryo the most fundamental of all moral issues in bioethics?

The moral status of the embryo is now agreed as being a fundamental issue by Christians, secular philosophers, as well as by scientists operating in the field of biotechnology. The reason for this is that many of the technologies involved are directly related to what we can discover about or do to human life at its very beginnings. The status of the human embryo is a fundamental issue because the use of embryos is central to a number of new technologies such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), embryonic stem cell research, pre-implantation diagnosis, and other therapies that are being considered for the future. So, if anything, the moral status of the embryo is gaining in importance and is not receding into the background.

When does human life begin?

Human life begins at conception when the egg and the sperm unite and form a new, unique, individual, human being. The Bible seems to point strongly in that direction. For example, Psalm 139 bears witness to God’s engagement with the human being from the beginning. One of the strongest supports for this belief comes from biblical theology and its insights into the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The question has to be asked: “When did God become man? When did Jesus Christ become the man Jesus?” There seems to be only one answer to that question. It was when Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. It was at that point, when Mary conceived, that God became man. That has been the instinct of faith of Christian people down through the ages. It is expressed classically in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, which we often recite in worship services. So, the witness of the church supports that view historically, and the Bible, both textually and theologically, does so, too.

Why do you preference the point of conception as against other points like 14 days or 24 weeks?

Because the scientific evidence suggests that the development of the embryo is a continuum; it is an unbroken, though not unvaried, development of human life. This development starts in the womb at conception, proceeds through gestation, birth, and adult life. We could put it like this: there are only two defining moments in human life; one is conception, when we actually begin to live, and the other is death, when our life ceases. Everything in between is relative. And that’s true of the various stages of development of new organs within the fetus while it’s inside its mother.

Are there any difficulties about saying that life begins at conception?

Yes, there are some. One of the most significant ones relates to the number of lost pregnancies that occur naturally. The figure is something like 70%. If we believe that life does take place at conception and that every human embryo is a person, then that does present us with significant problems. The problems are not insurmountable in view of the sovereignty, wisdom, and compassion of God, but they are real. There is no question that there is a high degree of loss of human life, and that does present difficulties for us.

Is there any biblical evidence that suggests that life starts at conception?

I have already mentioned Psalm 139. I have also referred to our Lord being conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary. We should also notice that the Bible everywhere ties in God with the beginning of human life. In the Old Testament, particularly in some of the narratives, it is very clear that God is the giver of life. He is said to be involved with the processes in the womb. The Bible writers regard the womb as a sacred place. One further reason why I believe that life begins at conception is that everywhere in the Bible, man is referred to as a spirit/body. He is a duality. He has form as well as freedom. Without the one, the other does not operate. Adam is made of dust, but he is also dependent on the breath of God for his life. This suggests the impartation of the soul or spirit. At any rate, the Bible indicates that the soul is the life of the body and consequently we think of death as the departure of the soul from the body. Death begins at that point. Now if that is true of death, then it stands to reason that the beginning of life occurs at the point where body and spirit combine for the first time. Now if we apply this reasoning to the embryo, it seems that the process of animation or, as we traditionally call it, the impartation of soul coincides with the point where the embryo is animated. And this takes place at conception. The presence of life indicates the presence of spirit and soul. This is another argument that comes from Scripture to support the view.

Do theology and philosophy have any light to throw on the status of human embryos?

Well, I think theology certainly does. Classical theology has always taken a high view of man at every stage. Philosophy is also able to help us with some of its arguments. Aristotle, in particular, held a view of man that is very close to the biblical one. He believed that the soul is the principle of life in matter. He also distinguished, though he didn’t separate, potentiality from actuality. He argued that living things actually become what they potentially always were. We find support for Aristotle’s position in the genetic coding of the embryo from the beginning. DNA is almost like the soul in Aristotle. It is what drives the embryo to become what it is or what it will be. So, there are principles in philosophy that can be helpful and provide supportive confirmation of Christian positions.

Given that scientists are creating thousands of embryos which are frozen at the moment, what should be happening to them?

Well, my own personal view is that it’s wrong to be creating human beings in this way and then freezing them. I don’t think that freezing embryos reflects their proper status and intrinsic value.

Do you have an idea of how many are actually being created?

There are millions of embryos being manufactured by scientists around the world, and then frozen and destroyed. While some survive and are used in scientific procedures to create life, the vast majority of these frozen embryos will be destroyed.

When you look at it from a Christian point of view, does this constitute the new genocide?

This is the new holocaust. I don’t think there is any doubt about that. What we effectively have is a genocide being conducted behind closed doors. The general public never sees it and the statistics are hushed up. The problem is that none of it is televised as in Darfur or Kosovo. We don’t actually see it happening in front of our eyes. It’s kept off the front page of newspapers.

The rhetoric of biomedicine carries much of the blame for this. Rhetoric is an interesting aspect of modern medicine. People use pleasant sounding terms for some pretty nasty procedures. Scientists dress up a lot of their procedures by talking about finding cures and discovering how disease works. They regularly use justifying language to veil actual procedures that kill human life.


Well, one common instance is the way medical professionals now speak about abortion as a treatment. They use language to describe abortion as though it is nothing more than a medical procedure. It’s never referred to as the destruction of a human life.

How late can abortions actually take place in Australia at the moment?

Well, legally it’s up to around the beginning of the third trimester, so that takes it up to about the six-month mark. After six months, there is really no doubt that what is involved is the destruction of a viable infant.

So a child who is twenty-four weeks in the womb could be destroyed?

Most abortions are limited to the first trimester, before thirteen weeks gestation. After twenty-three weeks, which is regarded as a late abortion, the question is referred to the hospital’s own review committee and the woman receives extensive counseling.

Should embryos have full legal protection?

There is a movement afoot at the moment in America that is seeking this protection. I think that in some ways it expresses a consistently Christian position. If human embryos are new human beings at the first stage of their life’s journey, then they certainly ought to be protected by law. Another way of putting this would be to say that, in general practice, experiments or operations ought not to be made on human subjects unless they themselves 1) have approved them and 2) will benefit from them. Now, neither case happens with human embryos. So there is a very real case for saying that in current practice human embryos are denied human rights. I believe there is a strong moral and legal case that human embryos should have human rights, and should have those human rights guaranteed by law.

How should we classify the Downs child, the unborn baby, the Alzheimer victim? Just because they are missing certain capacities, does that make them any less human?

This touches on the debate about the nature of human personhood. Indeed, the term “personhood” is a modern one which suggests a capacity in itself or a property that some human beings may have and others may not, so in certain respects it is an undesirable term but it is part of the common discussion now, so we will continue to use it. There are those who make a distinction between a human being and a person on the basis of certain capacities. Very often these qualities or powers come down to things like the capacity for self-awareness, the ability for social contribution, which have to do with a healthy adult person.

So, are all these definitions artificial constructs?

They are more than artificial; they are quite mischievous because they introduce divisions into the human family that should not exist. If we go back to our biblical theology, we see that man is made in the image of God. This is the best starting-place for understanding who or what the human person is. We must begin with God. When we do that we can find no justification for distinguishing the divine being from the divine persons. God is personal and that is the very nature of His divine being. In the same way, we cannot separate personhood from human being when we are speaking about people. To be a human being is to be a human person.

When we think of embryos, or fetuses of unborn children, or elderly people who have lost their mental powers, we are still dealing with human beings. We are dealing with human beings who lack at this stage, in the case of newborns or unborn, certain capacities, but capacities that they will in time develop and demonstrate. In the case of elderly people, it may be the loss of capacities that they might never recover. Whatever the case, the human being is a human person and that is the only category that we ought to work with.

Does the Bible have anything to say about how we should view disabilities?

If you look at the laws of Moses as a guide to social ethics, which I believe is a useful application of these laws, you’ll discover that again and again God speaks of His compassion and care towards the disabled. The disabled are listed in a variety of ways. One of them is to refer to such people as “widows” or “orphans” or “strangers” or “the poor.” These terms identify representative classes and would involve other classes such as disabled people today. There is strong biblical warrant for protecting the disabled that goes back to the moral character of God. In the New Testament, we think of the parable of the Good Samaritan as a classical case of the need to show compassion to the disadvantaged. Jesus tells us to go and follow the example of the Good Samaritan. Here was a man who was utterly disabled, he was probably dying, and he would have died apart from the assistance of the Samaritan. He took all the trouble to attend to him and to see him into hospital and to pay for his care there. So there are certainly pointers in the Bible of our need to protect the disabled.

Is life only for the strong and beautiful?

The strong and beautiful make a serious error of judgment if they think that life is about the body, the body beautiful, the healthy body, and the perfect body. The Bible, on the other hand, says that life consists of far more than physical attributes. The fullness of life that Jesus spoke of is always life in relation to God. Our life is greatly impoverished if we have no relationship with God. We may be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but the important part of our human existence is to know our Creator. This is the relationship that enriches every other aspect of our lives. So it is quite possible to be a disabled person physically, or even mentally and yet, if we know God, already taste something of that true and abundant life that God has promised.

Is there anything wrong with treating infertilities? Do you have any advice for couples who are struggling with this issue?

Infertility is both a religious and a medical issue. If we are dealing with a Christian couple, I think it’s an issue of faith to begin with, although obviously it’s a medical issue as well. In one sense, it’s a little bit like singleness in that the infertile couple need to reach the point where they are willing to accept that not having biological children may be God’s will for them. If they start from that position, they are better placed to deal with their problem in a balanced and God-honoring way.

Initially, infertility is a test of faith. Are they willing to accept that this might be the will of God for them? Can they rest in that? There are good things that can actually come out of infertility. Let’s assume that it’s a permanent condition. Does this mean that there are no redeeming factors in the situation? I was talking to a man recently who told me that he became involved in all kinds of youth work which would have been closed to him if he had children of his own. One can think of couples in the history of the Christian church who have been in that position. That is one aspect, the pastoral aspect of it.

Then there’s the question of coming to terms with the medical solutions or medical helps. Initially, that would probably be in vitro fertilization (IVF), although it depends upon the type of infertility. If it involves sperm or eggs, there are all sorts of solutions for that medically. IVF is the standard route that most couples follow. It is a long story. There are all sorts of aspects to it—financial, personal, and the status of the embryos, to mention just a few. Presently the usual practice, although the numbers have dropped, is to create spare embryos and then to transfer two or three to the woman’s uterus knowing that two of them perhaps will not implant and will be lost. It’s also possible that spare embryos will have to be frozen or kept for another cycle at another time. So, there are huge ethical issues in IVF as it is practiced at the moment. They relate mainly to the creation of extra embryos and the almost certain destruction of this human life that has been created.

What is coming around the corner in terms of bioethics challenges?

I believe that the major issue that will confront Christians in the near future is the question of genetic enhancement. The processes are already underway. We now not only have the ability to cure embryos of disease or defects while they are in the womb, but the potential exists to also enhance them. Some scientists have said that enhancement is the next logical step beyond healing. They regard it as inevitable. If you can restore something, then why can you not take it to the next step and make it even better? Now that we are understanding how genes interact and we have the capacity to manipulate them, there is a huge temptation to enhance our genes. It’s a complex problem given the number of genes involved in a human being but institutions and laboratories around the world are working on this tirelessly. It is only a matter of time before a momentum develops to proceed in this direction.

Are you saying that it’s bad for scientists to manipulate genes to get rid of high blood pressure or a propensity towards colon cancer or nearsightedness?

No, I am not. All those therapies would be in the spirit and tradition of medicine, which is to remove disease wherever possible and to make people whole. The problem is that enhancement goes several steps further. In a sense it’s like inventing human beings again, only with vastly superior abilities.

So if we discover that our child is going to get an iQ of 110 we can do something to supercharge them up to 160?

Exactly! And that will apply to height, beauty, musical and artistic ability, physical prowess, IQ , and physical powers and dexterity.

And so we are playing God?

Yes, I believe we are. I think the Christian position should be no enhancement, full stop. I have noticed that some Christian leaders in the USA have come to this position. It’s okay to restore people using gene therapies; that’s traditional medicine. There is nothing threatening or morally difficult about that. Where we have to draw the line is over playing God by using genetic enhancement. Enhancement will come with the new creation and we are to wait for that patiently. In the meantime, we are to help restore the fallen creation in which we live, as far as we can and in legitimate ways.

It is also instructive to notice how Jesus healed numerous people suffering from many different kinds of illnesses and disabilities but in no case did Jesus enhance people although presumably He was capable of doing so since He was the messianic Son of God.

Are there any good books on this subject?

I would suggest John and Paul Feinberg’s volume, Ethics for a Brave New World. It’s a very thorough book and pays a lot of attention to biomedical ethics. There is also a book by Nigel Cameron and Joni Eareckson Tada, How to be a Christian in a Brave New World, which is very readable and popular. It is more up-to-date than the Feinberg volume. The other book that I would mention is by Scott Rae and Paul Cox titled Bioethics. This is an important book because it looks at how we should be presenting Christian values in the public square. It provides a model for reasoning through an ethical dilemma and gives actual cases through which the authors take you. It is a very practical volume with a difference.

Dr. Douglas Milne is principal of the Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. This article was printed in Heritage Reformed Churches' "The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth" and is republished here with permission.