Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made is 86 pages that will change your life.

Readers of Mere-O know my ongoing fascination with O’Donovan, whom I regard as the best living theologian in the English-speaking world.  After slowly digesting his trilogy on Christian ethics, I have finally turned to what is perhaps his most influential book.

Begotten or Made is a sustained critique of the eradication of nature in favor of technological mastery.  This isn’t a full review–the book simply must be read and re-read in its entirety.

But in my favorite section, O’Don0van highlights that one of the central features of our age is that man is that the notion of ‘transcendence’–the mastery of matter by spirit–has allied itself with the scientific enterprise, such that when we make things the object of experimental knowledge “we assert our transcendence over them.”

But this notion of transcedence has expanded in our contemporary age to become a project of self-transcendence.  Here, man is both the subject and object of scientific inquiry.  We simultaneously look through the microscope, but look at objects that are us. He muses that the contemporary fascination with the brain is driven by this paradoxical relationship, by the desire to identify the material basis for the free subjective consciousness of the knower–the “spirit,” if you will.

It is in this context that the practice of embryo experimentation (i.e. embryonic stem-cell research) occurs.  “The embryo is of interest to us,” writes O’Donovan, “because it is human; it is ‘ourselves’.  On the other hand, it is considered a suitable object of experiment because it is not like us in every important way.  It has no ‘personality’.”

At this point, O’Donovan is worth quoting in full.  This may be my favorite bit of writing of his from anything I’ve read:

“I do not wish to complain that this ‘human subject’ is really all the time a person, because I think…that both such a claim and its denial are in principle undemonstrable.  It is enough to point out that the ambiguity of the status of the embryo research subject is precisely what is intended.  It is what the task of self-transcendence needs, that it should be ourselves and yet not ourselves.  If we should wish to charge our own generation with crimes against humanity because of the practice of this experimental research, I would suggest that the crime should not be the old-fashioned crime of killing babies, but the new and subtle crime of making babies to be ambiguously human, of presenting to us members of our own species who are doubtfully proper objects of compassion and love. The practice of producing embryos by IVF with the intention of exploiting their special status for use in research is the clearest possible demonstration of the principle that when we start making human beings we necessarily stop loving them; that that which is made rather than begotten becomes something that we have at our disposal, not someone with whom we can engage in brotherly fellowship.”

If O’Donovan is right, then it is intrinsic to the witness of the Church to point to the order of creation and declare unequivocally and boldly that the human person is not ambiguous, and hence should not be subjected to experimentation as though he were.    It is a matter of justice, of extending compassion and giving voice to those whose status has been posed as a question.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. O’Donovan himself thinks that the personhood of the embryo is “undemonstrable.” Neither unequivocal denial nor affirmation of the personhood of the embryo is therefore available within O’Donovan’s logic.

    The direction O’Donovan seems to need to move in, given the quoted text, is to say that even the “ambiguously” human, those objects which are and are not *us*, must be treated as beings whom we both can and ought to love.

    But why think this? I can imagine someone chiming in and applying some utilitarian rigor on behalf of the embryo-experimenter: We *need* the data collected from such experimentation, one might suppose, if we are to make breakthroughs which will lead to increased human health and happiness. The ambiguously human are the ones who should suffer on behalf of the many, precisely because that they suffer at all is itself ambiguous, is part of what constitutes the ambiguity of their humanity.


  2. TMW,

    I think that earlier in the text O’Donovan argues that personhood is akin to an article of faith. He’s not denying their personhood–just saying that it’s indemonstrable. Hence, I think it’s consistent with the proclamation that they are persons.

    I think you’re right about the direction of the utilitarian argument. But would your shift toward grounding personhood in the conscious experience of pain open up the possibility of similar experimentation on non-fetal humans who may lack certain pain receptors?



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