Are Human Embryos Made in the Image of God?

Adapted from Jeff Hardin’s talk at the 2019 BioLogos Conference, Jeff weighs in on embryonic ethics.

Equipped with biological facts and Biblical perspectives, how should Christians consider the moral status of human embryos?



Are we opening up this forum to the political discussion of abortion now?

Negatory. But this is acknowledging that there is complexity around embryonic status and that there are a range of opinions by believers here, especially as it pertains to other bioethical considerations such as genetic editing.

Given the preponderance of the biblical data, and the inability of biology to provide absolutely clean dividing lines about watershed moments in development, causes me to fall back to a more conservative position. This is articulated really well by the great Lutheran bioethicist, Gil Meilaender. He says, “If we’re genuinely baffled about how best to describe the moral status of the human subject, we should not go forward in a way that peculiarly combines metaphysical bewilderment with practical certitude by approving even limited (use) for experimental purposes.” So Meilaender is saying we should be careful, and I call that the wisdom of reluctance.

This, I think, is wise. I will admit that I do have a hard time envisioning a different position. Given the Christian belief about the inherent value of human life and the image of God generally, how can we not take a conservative and fervently cautious position on the when?

The UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 contains

Research on early human embryos

Research on human embryos can only be performed for specifically defined purposes that must be considered ‘necessary and desirable’ by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

Research can only be performed on an embryo for a maximum of fourteen days or until the primitive streak appears.

The genetic composition of any cell within the embryo cannot be altered during the embryo’s formation for research.

The act defined several purposes:
Innovations in infertility treatments
Increasing knowledge regarding miscarriages
Increasing knowledge of congenital disease
Developing more effectual methods of contraception
Generating methods for detecting and identifying gene or chromosomal irregularities in embryos before implantation.

Unfortunately this all seems more than reasonable to me. What am I missing? That an actual person will not arise in each case? Anything else? Seriously. I don’t know what being in the image of God could mean apart from be reflections of love.

Open question if I may.

As I say above, embryos terminated - killed - at 14 days stop a theoretical individual, person from developing.

They would not have been conceived otherwise. But one way or another they are never going to exist in the material world.

For every person that develops, there will be approaching an order of magnitude that don’t, from miscarriage, abortion, perinatal death, brain damage and now embryo research (and of course IVF).

Who, what will be resurrected?

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A lot of in vitro fertilization procedures involve freezing embryos for implantation later, some of which are never implanted. Do we keep them on ice forever, wait for a willing surrogate, use them for research, or destroy them?

I am also curious if anyone has had discussions within the Christian community surrounding IVF, or if there are procedures that have been developed to negate some of these ethical questions.

I wonder this as well, as I know many people who have used this method as a fertility solution.

i do know that people do ponder this, some people only extract as many as they are willing to implant to reduce excess.

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I have a young relative who is the result of embryo adoption. (I believe they chose this method due to ethical concerns with standard IVF.)

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Thanks for the replies!! It is great to see that people are finding solutions that meet their ethical standards, especially those that are willing to adopt embryos.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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