World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Respect for life

15 January 2002

By Wolfgang Huber

Will human life soon exist in Germany, as it does elsewhere, which has been produced only for research purposes? According to Bishop Wolfgang Huber, respect for human life prohibits its use in such a way, as a tool.

The decision has come home to us, and is now before our parliament: should research on embryonic stem cells be permitted in Germany? The law of 1990 on protection of the embryo forbids production of such stem cells, since this requires that embryos be killed. But an embryo must be regarded as a human life - from the very moment when the egg cell and the sperm cell fuse together. Human life desrves our respect from the beginning. To believe this means that we cannot approve the importation of embryonic stem cells either, since they have been produced in a way which is ethically indefensible and not within the law.

The opposite view is deferended just as seriously: embryonic stem cells are those which can still develop into, say, skin cells, nerve cells or heart muscle cells. When we have understood how this works, perhaps one day we can learn to make adult stem cells develop into nerve cells or heart muscle cells. This means the prospect of opportunities for healing of which we cannot be certain today, but which are nevertheless full of promise. Therefore the embryo in its early stages must be exempted from protection as a human life. Proponents say that in any case pregnancy only begins when the embryo implants itself in the womb. Many embryos are conceived naturally and lost before they are implanted, without anyone's knowing it. Biological material which is treated so extravagantly by nature itself can therefore surely be used for research purposes.

This way of thinking overlooks a crucial point. The embryo which takes shape in the womb is beyond anyone's protection in the first few days; the mother herself is often completely unaware of it. However, the embryo produced in a Petri dish has been created consciously by us. Now it is under our protection - as a human life, which is not just something with which we can do anything we like. In this way, what is at stake is our respect for human life as such.

Can there be a compromise between such fundamentally different viewpoints? If it is to be a sustainable compromise, it must accomplish one thing above all: it must express our respect for human life even in its early stages. It must continue to exclude the production of human life for research purposes, as something which is regarded merely as a means to an end. The National Ethics Council has tried to come close to such a compromise by setting strict conditions for the possible importation of stem cells. Would these conditions hold up in the long run? Or would they only make it possible to cross the Rubicon with a lighter conscience?

The issue is respect for human life in its early stages. Certainly it is threatened just as much by other developments as by research on embryos. If we are uneasy about a hundred thousand embryos deep-frozen at the earliest stage, then surely we cannot keep quiet about 160,000 abortions a year either. If we are serious about the protection of human embryos, then we cannot be resigned to the fact that abortion is sometimes practised as if it were a last-ditch form of contraception.

Dr W. Huber is Bishop of the Evangelical Church in Berlin-Brandenburg and editor of Chrismon Magazine. This article appeared in the January 2002 issue of Chrismon