On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

MIXING HUMAN AND ANIMAL GAMETES MAY BE NECESSARY

The UK’s leading medical research group says that creating hybrid embryos from empty animal eggs and human genetic material is “vital” for the fight against disease. As usual, media reports stressed that the resulting cell would be 99.9% human and only 0.1% animal. “There are no substantive ethical or moral reasons not to proceed with research on human embryos containing animal material under the [current] framework of regulatory control,” says Professor Martin Bobrow, a spokesman for the Academy of Medical Sciences.The Academy’s support for the Blair government’s overhaul of fertility legislation was essentially old news. However, astonishingly, Professor Bobrow also advocated creating true hybrids by mixing human and animal gametes. (These would be destroyed within 14 days, of course, as is currently the practice.) This scenario, when mooted by opponents of therapeutic cloning, has consistently been ridiculed as an absurd fantasy by science journalists and researchers. However, it is clearly on the Academy’s agenda.

“We found no current scientific reasons to generate ‘true’ hybrid embryos by mixing human and animal gametes,” the report said. “However, given the speed of this field of research, the working group could not rule out the emergence of scientifically valid reasons in the future.” This may be the first time that this controversial possibility has been flagged publicly by a leading scientist.

The report prepares the ground for these developments by dismissing ethical objections against human-animal hybrids. For one thing, it is not contrary to human dignity, because human dignity this does not exist. The Academy seems to have been paging through Peter Singer’s ruminations on “speciesism”: “On a more fundamental level, we judge it unlikely that ‘human dignity’… derives simply from species membership. If the concept of ‘human dignity’ has content, it is because there are factors of form, function or behaviour that confer such dignity or command respect.

“Either hybrid creatures would also possess these factors or they would not. If they do possess these factors, they would also have a specific type of dignity analogous or identical to human dignity that other creatures lack; if not, they would not. Either way, the distinction between creatures that possess dignity and those that do not remains as it is now,” says the report.

Dipping their toes into the “wisdom of repugance” debate, the Academy dismisses the notion of “unnaturalness” as a reason for banning hybrids. “Not only is it very difficult to specify what unnatural’ means, but it is not clear why ‘unnaturalness’ should be bad; IVF is an ‘unnatural’ process, but it has few contemporary opponents. Vaccination and antibiotic therapy, and nearly all of modern medicine, represent a scientifically informed intervention in nature.” ~ BBC, Jun 17   

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