Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Human-Animal Embryos: Crossing the Great Divide?

Scientists in Britain have recently created human-animal embryos for the purpose of medical and scientific experimentation.1 Soon after, Parliament voted to give them a green light to continue with such experiments, despite public, and especially religious, opposition.2 My initial reaction to such news was shock and dismay. How could they do such a thing? Since then I've done some more research on what is actually going on, and now I'm not quite sure what to think, especially since different people are making conflicting (and often confusing) claims.

The procedure itself seems to be quite similar to cloning, except that it involves replacing the nucleus of an animal egg cell with the nucleus from a human cell. The resulting combination is then stimulated to start growing and dividing. The result is an embryo with human nuclear DNA and animal mitochondrial DNA. This is not a true hybrid, since it does not involve a combination of nuclear DNA from two organisms, sharing of chromosomes, etc.3 Eventually, the nuclear DNA takes charge the the embryo becomes "mostly" human.

The purpose isn't to produce hybrid human/animal monsters, since the embryo is unlikely to live more than a few days. In fact, British law does not allow the embryos to be developed longer than 14 days, and forbids them from being implanted in humans or animals. Rather, scientists hope to be able to harvest stem cells from the embryos to aid in research to produce treatments or cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

What are Christians to think about all this? Is this a "sanctity of life" issue? What about the human-animal hybrid angle? What about the potential to find cures for such dreaded diseases? I don't know that I have a solid answer for all aspects of this issue yet, so please bear with me as I think through this aloud here.

I think the most crucial question we can ask, the most important issue to decide, is whether or not this "embryo" is a human being with a soul. I'm not a doctor or a geneticist, so I don't know what, exactly, the procedure entails. From what I have read, it seems like it's the nucleus of an adult cell (such as a skin cell) that is implanted in the animal egg cell. Pro-life Christians believe that a person begins at conception, but can this process be called conception?

If the embryo is indeed a human being, it is created in the image of God, and to mix human with animal in such a way violates the natural order God set up at creation. Furthermore, to create such embryos purely for the sake of experimentation and to deliberately destroy their lives once they have served their purpose is nothing short of brutal murder. It is, if possible, even more ghastly than the horror of abortion, since it involves the creation of life for the express purpose of destruction. No amount of cures would justify such inhuman behavior.

If, however, the embryo is merely a combination of human and animal cells, then the answer is not quite as clear. Humans have often made use of animal cells and tissues for numerous medical procedures, and have genetically modified animals with human genes, etc. for purposes of experimentation. The question then becomes, where do we draw the line between what types of research are allowed and what types should be avoided?

I don't intend to answer that question fully here, but I would like to mention several concerns I have relating to this particular issue. The first one could be called a "slippery slope" argument. I get the distinct impression that scientists are pushing the limits hard, and will go as far as the public allows them (and quite possibly farther, without the public's knowledge or consent). Not to say that scientists are unethical in general, or that there is some conspiracy going on. But (and this is another point of concern) we need to remember that scientists as a group are far more accepting of evolutionary theory than the general public is. They believe that humans are nothing more than highly evolved animals, and that as such there is no real difference between them. They do not recognize humans as made in the image of God, and as possessing a dignity above that of animals. There is therefore little reason why they should not engage in research and experimentation that violates that dignity or bridges that gap, especially if it promises good for the human race as a whole.

Which brings us to another concern, namely the promises made about such research. I personally think it is very misleading and unethical to use such optimistic promises to win the support of the public for something that is not guaranteed to deliver on those promises. Especially when the promises play a large part in helping people overcome their perfectly valid ethical concerns. To promise cures for currently incurable diseases as the result of such research not only portrays as certain something that is far from sure, it also sets up people with great expectations that will most likely not be met. I also find it disturbing that scientists would mislead people as to the nature of the "cybrids", claiming a far greater percentage as "human" than the actual conditions warrant.4 Why would objective scientists doing valid research need to resort to empty promises and misleading terminology to gain the acceptance and permission of society? Something does not seem quite right.

Which brings me to two more of my concerns, namely the great trust the public places in scientists and their research, and their willingness to put aside valid ethical concerns as long as they believe that people will benefit from it. It is rather revealing to read through the comments on some of the articles that discuss the issue.1 People who oppose or disagree with the research are accused of standing in the way of science and hindering progress. Other people come across as having the attitude, "who cares what you have to do or who gets hurt, as long as my loved one can get access to a cure." While accusing others of being more concerned about a "blob of cells" than a person suffering from some incurable disease, they seem to think that the diseased person deserves a cure, even if it takes the death of another human being to get it. And the whole thing is, they are basing such statements, such faith, on a promise, and an empty promise at that.

It is questionable whether any cure will be found based on this research, and even more so that it will happen in the near future.4 At the same time, there are other areas of research that are far more promising, without the ethical concerns or scientific difficulties involved. Some of them have already provided cures, such as adult stem cells. If the real concern were for scientific progress and medical breakthroughs, such research should gain top priority in funding and public support. But much of the scientific community seems more intent on challenging the ethical and religious standards of society and pushing the edge in the name of science than actually helping people.

So, even though I am not quite clear on whether such embryos should be considered human beings, I still think such research is dangerous and unnecessary. Any way you look at it, there is a clear divide between humans and animals, one that should not be bridged or tampered with lightly.5

1. Mark Henderson; "'We have created human-animal embryos already', say British team"; The Times; April 2, 2008.

2. "Britain allows human-animal embryo research"; CTV.ca News; May 19, 2008.

3. Don Batten; "Human-animal Hybrids?"; Creation Ministries International; August 29, 2001.

4. "Cloned human-animal hybrid embryos"; Human Genetics Alert.

5. See the article, "Of mice and men—and the monsters in-between" by Alex Williams, for some general guidelines relating to this issue, from a Christian perspective.