Human Embryos and Human Dignity: Differing Presuppositions in Human Embryo Research in Germany and Great Britain


  • *A first draft of this article was given on the occasion of a public lecture on the 5th May 2009 in Hatfield College, Durham. I am most grateful to some very helpful questions and comments, and I am also particularly indebted to Jennifer Moberly for her help with linguistic problems.


This article notes differences in legislation in Germany and Great Britain regarding human embryo research and looks for an explanation in their divergent intellectual traditions. Whereas the German Stem Cell Act invokes an anthropological concept of human dignity to ground its ban on using embryos for research, there is no definition of what it means to be human in either the British Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act or in the advisory Warnock-Report. After studying the differences and providing some philosophical background, the essay distinguishes two notions that are significant for understanding human dignity. It then proposes from a theological point of view a basic understanding within a relational anthropology, and comes to the conclusion that because of continuity in development and their relational constitution, humans embryos should be accepted as human from the moment of conception.