The primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, Archbishop Peter Carnley, has argued that a human embryo should not be regarded as a living person with a soul in the first 14 days after fertilisation.
Speaking to a conference of Anglican bishops in Perth in March, Archbishop Carnley urged the church to take into account recent scientific research which showed that fertilisation is not the same as conception.
His speech is part of a push to persuade the Anglican Church to reconsider its opposition to stem cell research.
The distinction between fertilisation and conception would mean moral objections to stem cell research and in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) technology would largely “fall away”, Archbishop Carnley said in his paper to the conference.
Collecting embryonic stem cells would become morally permissible because of its potential to help find cures for human disease. This is so even though the harvesting involved the destruction of the embryo.
He argued that the question about when human life begins is not only a theological issue, but also a scientific one. It should not be “arbitrarily decided on the basis of the level of scientific knowledge as it stood in the middle of the nineteenth century”.
The growth of reproductive technologies since the early 1980s had been dominated by moral debate about when life begins, and whether human beings should meddle with conception.
“Some may urge that we should adopt an attitude of conservatism and reverence, like Moses at the burning bush, in relation to our entry into the world of genetic engineering,” he said.
Some theologians see reproductive technology as usurping of the role of God, and as essentially dehumanising. But others argue that technology is part of the human spirit – endlessly experimental and curious. Reproductive technology could be seen as part of a process of co-operating with God in an exercise aimed at perfecting all things.
Archbishop Carnley said it is wrong for Christians to adopt a fundamental attitude of suspicion and fear, let alone condemnation, to the application of human reason and research to reproduction. “The simple answer at this stage to the moral and ethical question of ‘are we intruding improperly into the province of God?’ is: ‘No. We are exercising our God-given abilities to act as stewards, and to complete and perfect the work of creation.'”
He said that to try and answer the question of when life begins is “a little like trying to answer the question of when middle age begins.” Sperm and eggs are already alive before fertilisation.
“All that can be said is that a genetically novel kind of cell comes into existence at fertilisation. The question is, at what point should a new creation of this kind be accorded the status of a human individual or a human subject?”
Theologians had tended to speak of the embryo resulting from fertilisation as being endowed with a human soul by God at that moment, he said. This view has recently been restated by Pope John Paul II, and by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell.
But scientific research shows, Archbishop Carnley said, that fertilisation is not the same as conception. Conception is not a moment, but a process taking about 14 days.
Up to the 14-day mark, he said, the embryo is human genetic material which “should be treated with respect, and certainly not frivolously”, but not as though it was a conceived human individual.
This made stem cell research “thinkable,” so long as it is conducted under license and cells are collected before the fourteenth day. “We may think of this in terms of a radical form of contraception, but not in terms of the killing of an already conceived human individual.”