Argument about the ethical possibility of the therapeutic use of embryonic stem cells depends critically on the evaluation of the moral status of the very early embryo. Some assert that at the blastocyst stage it is only potentially human, not yet possessing the full ethical status of personhood, while others assert that from its formation the embryo possesses all the moral rights of a human person. It is shown that a decision on this issue is closely related to how human nature is to be understood. The idea of a person as a dual combination of body and spirit correlates naturally with the assertion of absolute personhood from conception, while an idea of human psychosomatic unity encourages a development picture in which the embryo only grows gradually into personhood. The latter view is seen to be encouraged by new advances in science which emphasise the importance of the concept of information in the discussion of complex systems. Other ethical issues related to human genetics are also briefly reviewed.
- CNR, cell nuclear replacement
- IVF, in vitro fertilisation
- PGD, preimplantation genetic diagnosis
- PND, prenatal diagnosis
- genetic engineering
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The Rev Dr Polkinghorne was knighted for distinguished service to science, religion, learning, and medical ethics, served for nine years on the BMA medical ethics committee and has just completed three years serving on the Human Genetics Commission. He is the 2002 winner of the Templeton Prize for Religion. This paper is based on a lecture given at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, under the auspices of the John Templeton Foundation.