Positive divine law
Amongst those that invoke Holy Scripture there are some who base the moral status of the embryo on a law held to be revealed, which in turn is based upon a specific translation of Genesis 9:6, that is to say: ‘whoever sheds the blood of man in man, his blood will be shed’, instead of the usual translation ‘whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed’ (my italics). Genesis 9:6, translated in the first way, implies a prohibition on procured abortion. In combining a literal exegesis of isolated Biblical texts with a biological criterion, as some groups of Orthodox Jews do, there is an affirmation of the licit character of scientific research with embryos created by means of in vitro fertilisation, but not transferred into the maternal womb, in order to develop therapies for illnesses which as yet cannot be cured by man. The translation ‘the blood of man in man’ requires, in fact, only respect for the intrauterine embryo and not for the extrauterine embryo. In this way, the creation of human embryos for the purposes of research and ‘therapeutic’ cloning is also assessed as being admissible.
Does Genesis 9:6 justify therapeutic cloning? The usual translation ‘whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed’ implies a general prohibition on the killing of human beings. The ‘by man’ in Hebrew is ‘ba’adam.’ The prefix ‘be’ can have two meanings: ‘in’, as a preposition to indicate a location, or ‘by’ in a causal sense. Which is the more correct translation? First of all it is necessary to observe that the original text allows, in principle, both translations. The translation ‘by man’ in the context of Genesis 9:6 is, however, more evident and is used by practically all the versions of Holy Scripture. Two arguments in favour of this interpretation are the following: 1) The phrase ‘ba’adam’ is found nineteen times and nowhere does it mean ‘in man’; 2) secondly, Genesis 9:6 is constructed in the original Jewish text with a chiasm, a rhetorical device that involves the crossed arrangement of two words that are connected, like a mirror image: whoever sheds the blood of a man; by man shall his blood be shed. The words ‘blood’ and ‘man’ are used in an upside down way. This implies that the second part of the word ‘man’ does not apply to the relative, as appears in the translation ‘bled of man in man’, but to the principal sentence ‘by man shall his blood be shed’.
A second point, which is more important, concerns the use of Holy Scripture in theology in general and in moral theology and bioethics in particular. Even if the translation ‘man in man’, and thus the unborn human being in the maternal womb, were correct, Genesis 9:6 would not anyway constitute a justification for the killing and the exploitation of human embryos outside the womb:
1. Genesis 9:6 would then say explicitly that it is not licit to kill human embryos outside the maternal womb. But the fact that this is not explicitly said does not mean that it is licit to kill embryos outside the maternal womb. Such a conclusion is a logical error: one cannot draw a positive conclusion from a negative premise.
2. However much the human authors of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Bible is not a source for the natural sciences. For the authors of the Bible the possibility did not exist of creating embryos and saving their lives outside the maternal womb. In Revelation it was not realised that biotechnology would arrive at the point of generating humans outside the womb, in a laboratory. To make a comparison: the principles of the social doctrine of the Church are formulated on the basis of the social questions and issues of the nineteenth century which were characterised by industrialisation and the emergence of the proletariat. These principles without doubt have a Biblical foundation but as they are they were not formulated in Holy Scripture.
3. Biblical texts cannot be interpreted on their own – they must be interpreted in relation to the whole context of the Bible. Holy Scripture does not give a univocal answer to the question of what the status of the human embryo is. Given that within the Bible we do not find explanatory criteria, supplementary criteria are required for a sound interpretation. In the Catholic Church the most important criteria are offered by Tradition and by the documents of the Magisterium.
The choice of giving an embryo created through in vitro fertilisation the possibility of further development
An embryo conceived through in vitro fertilisation which is not then implanted in the womb but which remains in the laboratory will live for at most nine or ten days given current technical possibilities. Only if the embryo is transferred into the womb will it have a possibility of developing. The decision not to implant it has important consequences for the status of the embryo, as Tauer observes: The question of ‘normal conditions’ for a zygote in a test tube, if one does not intend to proceed with the transfer of the embryo and its implantation, raises doubts. If the normal conditions of a zygote in a laboratory are essentially the same as the oocyte before fertilisation, something that appears to be true, then the zygote will never develop as a person. Thus it would be better to classify it as a ‘possible’ person, a person who could become such only on certain conditions that are possible from a causal point of view.’
If the embryo were destined to be transferred into the uterus it would have a higher status. This means that it should be classified as a ‘potential person’ because it has a real possibility of developing. It would then have a value that is greater than a purely instrumental value.
After concluding that a human embryo in a test tube, given that it is not able to feel and to act and is not conscious, has a weak moral status, Meyer and Nelson conclude that the status of the embryo is determined by the gametes from which it comes, that is to say from its genetic parents. These last have the exclusive right to decide whether the embryos are to be used for the procreation of their own children, of the children of other people, for research, or whether they must be simply thrown away. The use of embryos created in a laboratory for more than fourteen days must be avoided because some people consider this moment as constituting the morally significant beginning of the individuation of the embryo.
The status of the embryo, understood in this way, is determined according to the will of people, that is to say in a way that depends on the choices of others, first and foremost the researcher and the parents. One could argue that this choice can be made only during the stage prior to the implantation of the embryo and that in this case the intrinsic possibilities of the embryo are taken into consideration. However, an extrinsic criterion, that is to say the arbitrary decision taken by others, conditions judgement on the question as to whether the embryo has the same status as a gamete or whether it has a superior status. The intrinsic possibilities are thus decidedly denied.
The extrinsic criteria are not suitable for indicating the moral status of an embryo because they are secondary to what an embryo is. Only on the basis of intrinsic criteria can one have an objective judgement on the respect due to an embryo. Apart from this and apart from the criticisms expressed above, there is yet another fundamental objection: in the extrinsic criteria biological factors either have no role or have only a marginal role. However, this is inadmissible given that a human being is a substantial unity with a spiritual and material dimension. The material aspect is an intrinsic dimension of a human being and thus it is impossible both to identify a human being with this dimension and to conceive of a human being in a way that leaves aside his or her physical/biological dimension and does not attribute to that dimension an intrinsic role.