This was your life

J. Alan Smith responds to the Bishop of Oxford


THE RT REVD RICHARD HARRIES, Bishop of Oxford has written an article, ‘Why limited cloning is right and necessary’, that was published in the Church Times on 20 August 2004. This article comments on his views from a pro-life perspective. To avoid undue repetition of the clause, ‘The Bishop said’, or its variations, direct quotations from the article are prefixed RH.

The Pro-Life position

At the moment of conception in mammals, when a sperm fertilizes an ovum a new member of the species is brought into existence. From that moment, if the parents are cats, the new member is fully feline; if the parents are dogs, the new member is fully canine; and if the parents are a man and a woman, the new member is fully human. During the normal life cycle, each member of the species passes through stages that are given particular names to indicate that he possesses the normal characteristics of that stage: zygote, embryo, fetus, neonate, pre-school infant, adolescent, adult and pensioner, to name but a few. Nevertheless, the passage from one stage to another does not imply any substantial change.

In the case of humans, the new member of the species has the right to life possessed by all other members of the species. This right to life applies equally to those humans created by cell nuclear replacement (CNR) or cloning.

I believe that a human possesses a human soul from the moment of conception and that this soul is spiritual and survives physical death. Nevertheless, I would not base the right to life of a human at any stage on his possession of a human soul for this would side-track discussion into the issue whether some humans do not possess human souls.

Similarly, I believe with Boethius that a person is ‘an individual substance of a rational kind’ (naturae rationalis individua substantia). This definition includes all humans. The test is that the species is rational and, in any particular case, does not depend on the capabilities of the individual concerned. However, I would not base the right to life of a human at any stage on his being a person for this would side-track discussion into the issue whether some humans are not persons.


RH: ‘The dominant Western view from the fifth to the nineteenth century drew a distinction between the early and the later developed embryo. For example, the penalty for abortion, which was always regarded as a sin, was much more severe if the abortion was after quickening. This view was partly based on the early Latin translation of Exodus 21–22, which draws a distinction between a formed and an unformed foetus.’

Quickening is a subjective event, the point at which the presence of the unborn human was first detected, without the facilities of modern medicine. It has no objective meaning that could justify different levels of care for those unborn humans before and after quickening.

Delayed ensoulment

RH: ‘It [The dominant Western view from the fifth to the nineteenth century] was also shaped by the Aristotelian notion of delayed ensoulment, whereby we are first a vegetable soul, then an animal one, and finally, after 40 days for a man and 90 days for a woman, a human soul. Pope Pius IX in 1869 abolished all such distinctions. Although we no longer share the Aristotelian view, I believe it was a carrier of a valid moral insight.’

It really is unfair to Aristotle to restate his view as though he would continue to hold it had he known that, from the moment of conception, a human embryo is a member of the species, homo sapiens.

Suppose Pope Pius IX and his successors had not ‘abolished all such distinctions’, just imagine what criticism would be levelled at them?

A story can, of course, be untrue and yet carry a valid moral insight. GK Chesterton reminded us that the moral of Cinderella is that of the Magnificat: exultavit humiles. Nevertheless we should be careful in drawing moral insights from the notion of delayed ensoulment.

The natural loss of embryos

RH: ‘Secondly, there is in nature a very high level of embryo loss. Perhaps as many as two-thirds of fertilized eggs are lost.’

There is here an implication that if, within a certain subgroup of the species, two-thirds die of natural causes, then it would be all right to experiment on the rest. If two-thirds of the House of Bishops were to die spontaneously, would the rest be legitimate candidates for experimentation?

Moreover, in many parts of the world there is a high death rate among newly-born children. If the death rate is sufficiently high, would this degrade the status of the survivors and enable us to use them as sources of spare parts?

The population of heaven

RH: ‘Are we really to believe that these [embryos who die at an early stage] are persons who are lost; that is, eternal souls? It would lead to the strange conclusion that heaven is populated mainly by persons who had never been born.’

No doubt one’s first glimpse of heaven would appear strange from an earthly perspective, but I presume that one would soon adjust to see earth from a heavenly perspective; I suspect that there are many aspects of heaven that would appear strange to us. But, if the Bishop believes that humans do not have eternal souls, when they are early embryos, perhaps he will tell us when we do acquire them?


RH: ‘Furthermore, no society that I know of has mourning rituals for the loss of very early embryos. This again seems to reflect a sound moral instinct: that what we have here is human life with the potential to become a person, but not an individual person.’

Mourning is a subjective process. Firstly, we cannot mourn those deaths of which we have not heard. If a society completely isolated from the rest of the world were totally lost, together with its unique culture, it would be deplorable but we would not mourn those who died because we would not know of their deaths. Similarly, the natural loss of an early human embryo is virtually indistinguishable from a normal menstrual flow, so we would not mourn the death of an embryo of whose existence we were ignorant, but it would not be rational to deduce from this that it would be all right to kill an early embryo.

Secondly, we mourn some deaths more than others. We mourn people we know more than people we do not know, hence the expression sometimes heard in the news: ‘No Britons are known to be among those dead.’ Moreover, we tend to mourn the death of someone approaching the end of his natural life who died peacefully in his sleep less than an eighteen year old killed in a road accident. But this does not make the former a more legitimate subject for experimentation than the latter.

The Bishop concludes this argument by asserting the existence of a human non-person in the form of the early embryo. Resisting the temptation to explore the various examples of other groups of humans declared to be non-persons, perhaps he would care to tell us when the early embryo does become a person?

The 14-day cut-off point

RH: ‘Another aspect of this, which many find significant, is the fact that before the 14-day cut-off point – that is, the emergence of the primitive streak or beginning of a nervous system – it is not obvious that you have an individual. Before this some of the cells go to form the placenta and umbilical cord. There is also the possibility of twinning. If we look at a photo of ourselves as a baby, we can say: ‘That was me as a baby.’ You can’t say that with any degree of credibility about the cluster of early cells.’

In born humans the continuity of the person does not require the retention of the same constituent cells. Cells are replaced on a regular basis and some cells are excreted every day.

That an early embryo may develop into two or more is no justification for killing him. Consider the following dialogue: ‘Don’t fire into that cave, there’s a person in there.’ ‘But there may be two or more people.’ ‘Oh, that’s all right, then.’

While it would be meaningless to talk of ‘When I was a sperm’ or ‘When I was an ovum’, it would be perfectly legitimate to talk of ‘When I was a zygote’. The phrase ‘cluster of early cells’ implies a random collection of cells that just happen to have come together whereas that ‘cluster’ is an individual substance controlling his own development.


RH: ‘Thirdly, what is potential does not automatically have the same rights as what results when that potential is actualized. A medical student, for example, is a potential doctor. But he or she has the responsibilities and rights of a doctor only when qualified. Human life with the potential to become a person needs to be accorded appropriate respect, but does not have the absolute protection to be accorded to a person.’

Clever juggling with the terms ‘potential’ and ‘actual’ avoids the fact that we are all partly actual and partly potential. A human embryo does not start as a potential human and become an actual human ‘in the twinkling of an eye’, but continually actualizes his potential in the sight of him who is pure act.

Once again we have the idea of a human non-person. But if such a human is not accorded the right to life, what on earth could constitute ‘appropriate respect’?

Objective or subjective

RH: ‘If the early embryo, a cluster of cells less than the size of a pinhead, has the status of a person, then obviously any research would be wrong, for it would be using a person, experimentally, as a means to an end. The same applies to embryos created by CNR. But if you do not believe the early embryo to be a person, then that objection falls.’

It is not clear that the size of the early embryo has any relevance in determining whether the embryo is a person. Nor is it obvious that one’s right to live is dependent on one’s size. Captain Marryat, in Mr Midshipman Easy, described a nurse excusing her illegitimate baby: ‘If you please, ma’am, it was a very little one.’

Moreover, whether an early embryo is a person does not depend on whether an individual or a group of people consider him to be a person. Let us contemplate the possibility that our society considers that an early embryo is not a person and is wrong in that belief.

The utilitarian argument

RH: ‘Therapies based on stem-cell research, whether derived from adults or embryos, is [sic] still a long way off. There is real hope, however, that in due course there will be help for people suffering from a range of horrible diseases. For that help to become available, the present phase of basic research is essential.’

This is a utilitarian argument justifying experimentation on embryos, because it would bring benefits to others. We are regularly faced with the unedifying spectacle of sufferers, and their friends and families, demanding stem-cell research in order to benefit them. Such a utilitarian argument could be used to justify the use of new-born babies as sources of raw material. The basic principle still stands, however: ‘It is wrong to perform destructive operations on Brown in order to benefit Jones.’

The fundamental flaw

The fundamental problem in the position taken by the Bishop of Oxford is his acceptance of the existence of a human who is not a person. This opens an infinite range of possibilities, too complex to consider in detail here. In the context of the early embryo I will restrict my consideration to the case where a human, at some stage later than conception, becomes a ‘person’ and thereby acquires certain rights including the right to life. This requires a justification that, at a certain point in changing from one stage to another, the change is so significant that it becomes a substantial change and we can reasonably call the result a ‘person’, a title denied to that human in all earlier stages. When is this substantial change? Implantation, birth, or, perhaps, consecration?


J Alan Smith is a Vice-President of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and a churchwarden of St Andrew’s, North Weald Bassett, in the Diocese of Chelmsford.

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