Communications Manager Paul Huxley comments on the recent news that scientists in California have started research on new animal-human hybrid embryos.
Last week, researchers announced the creation (and subsequent destruction) of monkey-human hybrids. How did we get to a place where this kind of news is here today, gone tomorrow? Why are we desensitised to these issues and what do we need to do about it?
Last week, researchers in California announced the creation of monkey embryos that had been grown with human cells. Called chimaeras, they injected monkey cells with human stem cells and grew them in a dish for up to 19 days. Researchers are hoping that these hybrids could be a source for better testing of drugs and potentially for growing replacement organs for humans.
Is this legal?
This kind of research has been taking place in the UK since 2008, when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) first granted licences to researchers at Newcastle University.
Like other forms of embryonic research, great hopes were expressed at the time that such research would lead to great breakthroughs in the treatment of human diseases. At the time, the Guardian reported the news saying:
“Britain’s first human-animal hybrid embryos have been created, forming a crucial first step, scientists believe, towards a supply of stem cells that could be used to investigate debilitating and so far untreatable conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease.”
13 years on, embryonic stem cells (including animal hybrids) have not led to significant medical treatments. This is partly because they may trigger the receiving person’s immune response, attacking the cells as foreign invaders. Meanwhile, research on adult stem cells (which doesn’t involve the destruction of a life) has led to breakthroughs in understanding and treatments.
The moral problems of embryonic research
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was the Chairman of the Ethics and Law committee of the HFEA from 1997-2003. He commented on the development:
“Embryonic cell research has not produced much by way of medical benefits. Such was its original justification. Producing hybrids, even within this field, is an extreme step and to produce hybrids with primates even more extreme!
“It appears that these embryos were destroyed after 19 days but what if they are allowed to come to term? Will the resultant creature be human or animal? Would it be justifiable to harvest it of organs for transplanting into conventional humans? Is it ever justifiable to produce creatures of any sort simply for human benefit, without regard for their quality of life?
“In any case, organ transplantation must remain a strictly intermediate provision limited to the exchange of organs among humans. Xenotransplantation, that is the transplanting of organs between species, is full of the danger of transferring viruses across the species barrier, as well as raising questions about animal welfare. During this pandemic we have become all too aware of the danger of cross species infection.
“Rather than pandering to scientific egos, should precious research funding be allocated to the reprogramming of adult cells to produce better treatments and, eventually, even organs for transplanting?”
Does the end justify the means?
Bishop Michael raises a number of important and fascinating questions. These are weighty ethical issues with far-reaching consequences. But how many of those involved in such research – let alone the politicians and civil servants who authorise it – would be able to give an adequate answer to them?
This kind of research goes ahead because ethical problems are given no weight in our decision making. The voices that opposed animal human hybrids (including Christian Concern) also tend to oppose abortion. When over 200,000 much bigger, more recognisably human lives are taken each year, mostly for social reasons, at taxpayers’ expense, who has the energy to speak up against this kind of research?
The Bible tells us that governing rulers have a moral responsibility – they are to approve good conduct and punish wrongdoing (Romans 13:3-4). But ethical questions escape modern governments that are ruled by popularity and pragmatism. If a policy is popular, it will find its way into law unless politicians deem it impractical. Precious few MPs would oppose a popular and practical policy on the grounds that it is morally wrong.
This is why research into animal human hybrids will continue for the foreseeable future. Society won’t think about – or care about – the ethical questions raised by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali until, perhaps, they are someday shown animal-human hybrids grown solely for the purpose of harvesting their organs.
Before then, the only likely end to these kinds of experiments is if they don’t work. If this research continues to bear no, or little fruit, money will likely be diverted to other fields. If this research leads to some Covid-19-like cross species infection, wreaking havoc on public health, authorities will likely be quick to stop it.
Indeed, the ethical issues raised about animal-human hybrids are primarily about practicality and popularity. The Nature article explains how this most recent study has raised ethical questions for some:
“But the latest work has divided developmental biologists. Some question the need for such experiments using closely related primates — these animals are not likely to be used as model animals in the way that mice and rodents are. Non-human primates are protected by stricter research ethics rules than are rodents, and they worry such work is likely to stoke public opposition.”
By and large, the ‘ethical opposition’ to this research isn’t truly ethical – it’s about preserving the reputation of the field.
Treated no differently to vegetables
When the Abortion Act was passed in 1967, it recognised the ethical considerations around abortion. Abortion remained illegal unless criteria were met. The humanity of the pre-born baby was still recognised and protected, just not deemed significant enough to stop its life being ended.
Now, like with embryonic research, abortion policy is largely run in England and Wales by those who are only concerned with practicalities, not ethics. When DIY abortion was put in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, no policymaker even considered the effect on the baby’s right to life. Even though the law still implies that the unborn child has rights, there was no civil servant responsible for considering whether removing nearly all checks on abortion would impact the baby’s right to life.
The unborn baby and the human embryo are treated as just material, stuff, no different to carrots grown in a field or silicon used in computer chips. The question is never ‘should we?’ and always ‘can we?’ Embryos and tiny babies have no voice and no one with the authority and courage to defend them.
Changing these policies won’t just take a big enough and loud enough campaign. It will take the recovery of moral government – authorities not concerned simply with the practicalities of staying in power or balancing competing interests, but with the ethical rights and wrongs of policies.
Until then, human life at its tiniest and most vulnerable will continue to be a plaything for scientists.