Dr. Calum MacKellar, is a Visiting Lecturer in Bioethics at St Mary’s University in London, UK, and a Fellow with the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International University in Chicago, USA. 


Discussions concerning biomedical developments relating to the human embryo never really leave headline news. Even very recently, new debates have arisen concerning the possibility of lifting the 14 day limit during which it is possible to undertaken destructive embryonic research in the UK. This is because scientists are now able to grow embryos beyond such a limit and some believe that doing so may be in the interest of biomedical research. But this would mean reevaluating, yet again, the moral status of early human embryos as if it was something that changed over the years.

In other words, because of new utilitarian demands, the ‘special moral status’ of the human embryo, which is recognized in UK legislation, is continually coming under pressure for change.

For example, in 1984, Lady Mary Warnock (one of the main architects of the UK embryology legislation) commented, in her report that led to the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990, that the embryo ‘ought to have a special status’ under UK law. [1] But in December 2002, her position had significantly changed indicating instead: ‘I regret that in the original report that led up to the 1990 legislation we used words such as ‘respect for the embryo’ … I think that what we meant by the rather foolish expression ‘respect’ was that the early embryo should never be used frivolously for research purposes’. [2] Adding: ‘you cannot respectfully pour something down the sink – which is the fate of the embryo after it has been used for research, or if is not going to be used for research or for anything else’. [3]


This example demonstrates how an entity, which was understood as having a special status in the 1980s, may no longer be considered as having such a status and, in fact, is seen to have completely lost all moral status. From this perspective, it is apparently only the biomedical research (and not the embryo) that should now be respected in the UK.


This example demonstrates that there is a real need for clear understanding about what gives human embryos moral status. Moreover, from a Christian perspective, this would mean seeking to understand whether they reflect the image of God and thus can be considered as persons. The Church of England ethicist, Brendan McCarthy, explains: ‘This concept of the dignity and status of humans being fundamentally determined by the image of God is an important one in our attempt to evaluate the human embryo. If it can be demonstrated that the image is to be found in the human embryo, then any destruction of it or experimentation on it ought to be opposed.’ [4]


Interestingly, however, this approach has not really been developed to any significant extent and there is still a great need to study how the image of God can be reflected in a very small human being who does not have a brain or even any developed organs.


In order to address this challenge a new study entitled ‘The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo’ [5] was written based on an extensive theological analysis and the very rich arguments from different Christian denominations on the concept of the image of God in the embryo. Material that could be used by all the different stakeholders in helping this important conversation move forward in a constructive manner while being informed by the latest scientific results.


In this study, it was first recognised that the image of God can only be better defined but never completely understood since it reflects something of God. But it is still possible to examine prevalent arguments about how the image of God may be reflected in persons including:


(1) Substantive aspects and the way the image of God may be reflected in Homo sapiens from the standpoint of the very essence of humanity or substance;

(2) Functional aspects and the capacity of human beings to do or be something specific; and

(3) Relational aspects and the way these enable loving relationships to exist giving value and meaning.


Each time, the topic of the image of God, the associated notion of personhood and how both these concepts can be applied to the arguments concerning the moral status of the embryo, were considered. But this eventually showed that these three common perspectives were insufficient, on their own, to adequately discuss whether the image of God can be recognised in human embryos.


To address this problem, the study went on to investigate two relatively new angles, namely: (4) The creation of humankind by God and (5) The incarnation of the Word of God. As such, a discussion was presented indicating how both these perspectives could better inform the image of God and personhood while being more relevant in seeking to discuss and understand the true value and worth of human embryos.


Of course, it will never be possible to scientifically prove that the image of God is reflected in the human embryo. Indeed, it is only because of the Christian faith in God that a belief in the image of God in persons is possible which then enables a belief in the image of God in embryonic persons.

As already indicated, moreover, because this image reflects the mystery of God it will always remain a mystery. But this does not mean that deliberately destroying an embryo with this mysterious image of God is no unimportant matter. This is because, as the American theologian John Kilner explains: ‘Destroying someone in God’s image, in light of God’s connection with humanity, is tantamount to attacking God personally.’ [6]


In addition, if human embryos may be considered to reflect the image of God and they are deliberately being destroyed by society, then this may represent just another front in the destruction by human beings of God’s creation. But it is also a front in with which Christians should engage with God’s help, love, compassion and wisdom.

In this regard, it should be remembered that one of the moral measures of a Christian church is how it considers the smallest, weakest and most helpless individuals with the most vulnerable claims of personhood reflecting the image of God.


Calum MacKellar is the author of The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo published by SCM Press, London, in 2017.


[1] Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1984, p. 63.

[2] House of Lords Hansard, Volume 641 Part 14, Column 1327, 5 December 2002.

[3] House of Lords Hansard, Volume 641 Part 14, Column 1327, 5 December 2002.


[4] Brendan McCarthy, 1997, Fertility & Faith, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, pp. 126-127.

[5] Calum MacKellar, The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo, 2017, London: SCM Press.

[6] John F. Kilner, 2015, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 319.


The book flyer can be downloaded with the following link:


The Image of God Personhood and the Embryo – Flyer –


The book can be purchased on Amazon using the following link: