In a disturbing but not unpredicted development, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) last Thursday announced its support for expanded tax-funding of experiments in which human genetic material is combined with animals.
NIH will take public comment on the matter until Sept. 4 but—sadly– the agency has never changed directions based on negative public input.
For decades, researchers have engaged in ethically-noncontroversial mixing of human and animal cells such as growing human cancer tumors in mice to study disease processes and evaluate treatment strategies. Also ethically-noncontroversial are therapies that utilize animal tissue, for example, using a pig’s heart valve for human heart repair, or other use of mammalian tissue in humans.
Stem cell research, however, is fundamentally different. “Pluripotent” stem cells can turn into any cell in the body, and when injected into animal embryos (as the new NIH proposals would allow) scientists don’t know what kind of new species will result. (See KFL post on hybrid creation controversy.)
UC-Davis stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler, told the New York Times,
“we lack an understanding of at what point humanization of an animal brain could lead to more humanlike thought or consciousness.”
David Prentice, board member of the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center in Kansas raised concerns about the results of injecting stem cells into animal embryos:
“[N]ew forms of life—human-animal hybrids—could then be in view, or even the development of an animal with a largely human or fully human brain. NIH’s answer to objections like these seems to be to preclude such animals from breeding (this would likely not be 100 percent effective—just ask anyone who has run an animal facility)…If human-animal chimeras are allowed to be intentionally created for research, the door is also open to reproductive experiments, creating part-human organisms or designer animals to, say, carry out dangerous or degrading tasks human beings do not want to perform. Or donate organs these creations sacrifice for their human betters.”
Research into creating animal–human hybrids is ongoing with private funding. Last September, NIH looked around at what was developing there and issued a moratorium on government funding of such projects. But after holding a November 2015 workshop, apparently all questions of acting responsibly have been abandoned and NIH is ready to plunge into this ‘brave new world’ of interspecies experiments.
Bioethics author Wesley J. Smith is not optimistic about these developments:
“If we had a science sector that believed in the intrinsic dignity of human life, we could explore these potentially beneficent avenues of biotechnology with little concern that scientists would begin to blur vital distinctions or cross crucial ethical lines dividing human beings from fauna. Alas, we don’t live in that milieu and we can’t trust our regulatory bodies–which can be more controlled by the sectors they are supposed to regulate than the other way around–to maintain strict boundaries.”
DESTRUCTION OF EMBRYOS
Beyond the moral quagmire of mixing species, this kind of experimentation would destroy many human embryos. Read our KFL fact sheet about animal-human hybrids (also called chimeras), which includes reasons why pro-lifers should be opposed:
- The research on these procedures would destroy many human embryos. No matter what we might learn from watching cells grow in the conditions created by a chimera, the fact remains that researchers would be killing human embryos to get their cells.
- If the purposeful creation of human-animal chimeras is allowed for research purposes, it opens the door to abuse of the technique for reproduction, as well as creation of part-human organisms as bizarre designer humans or animals.
- It could produce an animal that produces human sperm or eggs.
- It could produce an animal with a human brain.
NIH should be halting these ethically-unmoored manipulations of the human-animal boundary. Instead, this agency is moving to sanction them and promote them with our tax dollars.
God help us.