I was for some years the chairman of the ethics and law committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and the question that often arose was: at what point does human dignity attach to the embryo or foetus? Now, I take a developmental view of how personhood emerges in the early stages of life, but even if you take such a view, you still have to exercise the precautionary principle because you do not know exactly when there is a person. Is it at conception, at implantation or at the beginning of brain activity or the ability to feel pain? This is why the embryo is treated with special respect in legislation so that we, even unknowingly, do not violate human dignity. The notion that human beings possess dignity which can never be taken away cannot be justified in terms only of public opinion and even less of utilitarianism. It is, in fact, grounded in the biblical idea that humans have been made in the image of God and this gives them a dignity which cannot be violated or removed from them.
Equality is another leading value which we use in a just ordering of society. On the face of it, human beings are not equal: they are rich and poor, black and white, differently abled, male and female. So what is our basis for saying they are equal? During the period of white settlement in Australia, Christian missionaries, in the face of settler opposition, again and again referred to Acts xvii 26: “Out of blood hath he made all the nations of men” as the basis for the equality of the aboriginal peoples with the white and Asian inhabitants. Equality, then, is also rooted in the biblical world-view and extends to the whole of humanity. It is not restricted to those who may belong to a particular faith, ideology or ethnicity.
The idea of liberation is as fundamental in the Bible as that of creation. The freeing of enslaved Israel from its captors has inspired many other captive or oppressed peoples to struggle for their freedom. Freedom, however, has to do not only with political or social liberation. It also has to do with respect for conscience. Once again, this is rooted in the insight of Reformation times that everyone had the right to read the Word of God in their own language and to be formed by it. The freedom and the responsibility of such a citizen are closely related to the development of conscience in the light of the Scriptures.
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