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The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo by Calum MacKellar

13 October 2017

Abortion was legalised on 27 October 1967. Robin Gill considers an argument against

DR CALUM MACKELLAR trained, and once worked, as a medical biochemist, but is now an elder within the Church of Scotland and a fellow of Trinity International University. The latter identifies itself “as an institution committed to inerrant Scripture”. He also works closely with the conservative Roman Catholic bioethicist David Albert Jones.

In this clearly written book, he argues throughout for “the full protective position” on human embryos, namely, that from conception onwards they are full human persons/souls, created in the image of God, and thus deserve our complete protection.

In the first part, he traces the British parliamentary debate over 50 years about the moral status of the embryo, contrasting this with a biblical perspective of human beings created in the image of God (largely drawn from Genesis), and theological understandings of personhood. In the second, he contrasts theological doctrines of creation and incarnation with utilitarian notions of personhood, and with what he regards as misguided theological defences of the so-called gradualist position (according to which our moral responsibility towards embryos increases with their development in the womb).

His own full protective position (once you buy into it) allows him to make effective criticisms. He is particularly scathing of those secular philosophers, such as Peter Singer, who believe that infanticide should be legalised for seriously disabled babies (on the grounds that they are not fully persons). He is also sharply critical of the philosopher Mary Warnock, and theologians who have followed her, allowing embryonic research up to 14 days.

This is all familiar territory, but Calum MacKellar engages it with passion and knowledge and, pleasingly, without much jargon. He is, however, a polemicist who is not always fair to dissenting theologians. The Anglican moral theologian Gordon Dunstan (1917-2004), who was instrumental in the development of British medical ethics, is accused of faulty historical research on Christian responses to abortion, when he was actually using the earlier work of the Roman Catholic theologian Enda McDonagh.

MacKellar also blames the gradualist position of Augustine of Hippo, Aquinas, and others on their dependence on the Greek Septuagint rather than Hebrew Old Testament (especially on Exodus 21.22-25), but overlooks the high dependence of most New Testament authors upon the Septuagint.

At several points in the text, he writes as if his full protective position represented that of the Church of Scotland, while noting differences mainly in footnotes. In reality, lay and clerical opinions within the Church of Scotland are as divided as they are within the Church of England, albeit with a majority (if opinion polls are trusted) supporting legalised abortion and embryonic research under certain conditions.

He also underplays pastoral sensitivities that have persuaded many of us to conclude that not all of the numerous spontaneous early abortions are tragedies, and that first-trimester induced abortions (however regrettable) are not actually murders.

Canon Robin Gill is Editor of Theology and Professor Emeritus of Applied Theology at the University of Kent.


The Image of God, Personhood and the Embryo
Calum MacKellar
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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