A new development recently emerged from the science world. Scientists in China and the United States created a chimera, a monkey-human hybrid embryo. This experiment has a lot of people talking about new developments in medicine that these hybrid embryos could help us discover. And it’s also started some new conversations about ethics in biology (or bioethics).
A hybrid embryo like none other
Science Daily brings us the story of a new kind of hybrid embryo. Scientists injected human stem cells into the embryos of primates, specifically, cynomolgus monkeys, also called crab-eating macaques. In doing so, they created a chimera, or a hybrid of both types of creature. The resulting hybrid embryos survived for a surprising length of time.
The path to get here was a long one. Indeed, this type of research has been going on since the 1970s. That’s how long it took to get us to the point where this new experiment could even happen. First, someone had to figure out how to create these hybrids in the first place (and they did, with rodents). Then, someone had to figure out how to keep monkey embryos alive outside their mama monkeys’ bodies. And then, someone had to figure out a way to get the new cells to integrate properly with the embryo.
These aren’t even the first human hybrid embryos. Nature tells us that in 2017, these same researchers developed other chimera by injecting human cells into the embryos of pigs and cows. They also injected rat embryos with mouse cells.
For this study, scientists created some monkey embryos. Six days after the embryos’ creation, scientists injected each one with just 25 human stem cells. (The stem cells usually used for such experiments have an interesting story of their own). Then, scientists tracked how long the embryos survived. One day later, 132 embryos contained human cells. Ten days later, 103 of those embryos were still developing. By day 19, only three hybrid embryos still lived.
All through this time, the still-developing hybrid embryos still contained a lot of human cells, which means the embryos hadn’t rejected them or broken them down. They’d integrated properly.
So in a lot of ways, this experiment represents a major, maaaaaaaaaajor breakthrough.
Yes, but why make a hybrid at all?
These scientists aren’t really looking to make their very own Island of Dr. Moreau. They’re especially not trying to fill a Jurassic Park with “ugly little boys.” They have no plans to implant any hybrid embryos into any monkeys.
Instead, they want to learn more about how developing embryos’ cells talk to each other. It’s a lot easier to detect this communication in hybrid embryos, apparently. Embryonic cells talk to each other a lot as they develop, and we know very, very little still about how and when this communication occurs, or what messages the cells convey.
In this particular experiment, scientists weren’t just seeing if they could keep hybrid embryos alive. They also listened to the cells’ communication. In the doing, they detected a bunch of new communication pathways and learned more about ones we already knew about. They also hope that in the future, human hybrid embryos will help scientists learn more about prenatal development and diseases, develop new medicines, and maybe even grow transplantable tissues for humans in need.
There seems to be a lot that we can learn from human hybrid embryos.
This time around, though, monkey embryos had human cells injected. Many bioethics folks feel that monkeys are uncomfortably close to humans, evolutionarily speaking. That made the resulting hybrid embryos a little more “morally ambiguous,” as one bioethicist put it in Nature.
With that, the bioethics part of the hybrid embryo discussion began anew.
The bioethics of it all
Bioethics is the field of study of all those thorny ethical issues that crop up in the wake of advances in biology and medicine.
Many branches of biology touch on issues of human rights. I mean, consider just the field of medicine. How hard should doctors try to save someone’s life? How do hospitals handle requests not to use extreme measures to save a particular person’s life? Under what circumstances, if any, should any treatments or preventives be made mandatory? From transplant lists to vaccines, from assisted fertility to end-of-life concerns, from informed consent to patient privacy laws, and especially as touching experimentation on humans and the management of healthcare resources, medicine is rife with ethical concerns. It’s not just abortion and euthanasia!
Of course, medicine isn’t the only place in biology where these sorts of questions crop up. So bioethicists try to find the path between advances in biology and maintaining human rights intact. As one scientist, Kirstin Matthews, said in an NPR story about this experiment:
“Should [a human-monkey hybrid] be regulated as human because it has a significant proportion of human cells in it? Or should it be regulated just as an animal? Or something else? [. . .] At what point are you taking something and using it for organs when it actually is starting to think and have logic?”
By the way: nobody’s saying the researchers here did anything wrong. Far from it. The consensus seems to be that they followed all the existing guidelines for the ethical handling of their hybrid.
It’s just that maybe the guidelines need revisiting, that’s all. We already have extra protections in place for near-human primates and for humans. What happens when those two collide?
How scientists handle ethics discussions (about hybrid embryos)
International scientist groups handle these bioethics questions. They discuss things between themselves and issue guidelines for researchers to follow. In a lot of ways, these discussions are incredibly multi- and inter-disciplinary. They may involve input from a whole bunch of different professionals, including theologians, I’ve noticed.
Here’s one set of ethical principles from a bioethics department with the University of Washington. When ethical concerns crop up, health care professionals seek solutions that maintain their patients’ rights. First and foremost, physicians seek to uphold their patients’ autonomy. They have discussions about what options they can pursue while maintaining that autonomy.
In the case of this hybrid experiment, a group called the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) publishes guidelines for handling human hybrid embryos. Next month, they expect to revisit those guidelines. In particular, they expect to publish revised guidelines for handling embryos containing both human and non-human primate cells.
At the moment, the guidelines just say that nobody’s allowed to mate any human-animal chimera. Oh, and ISSCR suggests ways to prevent human cells from integrating too far with the host embryo’s central nervous system.
The ISSCR’s work is highly regarded. In 2015, for example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States stopped funding any studies involving human-animal hybrid embryos. They’re waiting to see what the revised ISSCR guidelines will say before they even think about changing their funding moratorium.
And now, how fundagelicals answer bioethics questions
Right-wing Christians (meaning fundagelicals and hardline Catholics) do not like the idea of hybrid embryos involving human cells.
Obviously, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) doesn’t like it. Hilariously, their writer came up with some misapplied Bible verses to explain his dislike of the idea:
[T]here are several compelling moral reasons to refrain from applying biotechnology to create chimeras or hybrid organisms that are partly human and partly nonhuman. For instance, we should not create intermediate or indeterminate species sharing human and animal genetic material (1 Cor. 15:38–40).
And what do those Bible verses say, one wonders? Well, they say this:
But God gives it a body as He has designed, and to each kind of seed He gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another, and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. But the splendor of the heavenly bodies is of one degree, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is of another.
Oh gosh, you might be saying right now. How how how did that ancient writer know that one day someone would inject human stem cells into monkey embryos?
He didn’t. The verses are about the future resurrection of the dead, not about creating hybrid animals. These verses aren’t prescriptive, meaning rules to follow. They’re very obviously simply descriptive. That writer came from a time when they had no idea what genetics even was. He’s just answering a strawman question from an imaginary critic of early Christianity about what sort of body resurrected Christians would get. I mean, verse 36 even has him calling his strawman critic “You fool!”
His point: if Christians die as humans, then obviously they get human bodies in the resurrection. That is all those verses mean.
Imagining having no way to answer a complex ethical question except cherry-picking verses from an ancient magic book to fling at any situation that seems vaguely appropriate. Ouch.
And how hardline catholics answer bioethics questions
I expect slightly better and more rigorous reasoning from Catholic leaders. I shouldn’t. What they produced isn’t much better than what the upstart Calvinists at TGC produced. In Crux Now, one of their news sites, we have an upset-sounding Catholic bioethicist declaring that the experiments were “deeply unethical.” He said,
“It is always wrong deliberately to create a being of uncertain and perplexing moral status. Even though these creatures were destroyed after 19 days, in their short life they raised questions about how we should regard them. Did these embryos have a share in human dignity?”
I find his reasoning disingenuous. If he’s a bioethicist at all, then he should already know what the guidelines are for these hybrid embryos. The ISSCR doesn’t sound like a closed mystery cult or anything. He could easily find out exactly what “share in human dignity” they had. Did he decide to skip leg day here?
(One wonders if he asks the same questions about the “share in human dignity” of nail clippings and cancer tumors. Or about all those little kids his fellow priests and leaders have abused, kidnapped, and/or allowed to die. Or the women his fellow priests and leaders have imprisoned, forced into labor, abused, and/or even killed. Catholic leaders’ estimation of “human dignity” seems to change dramatically when it’s their own ministers violating others’ rights.)
Overall, it doesn’t sound like Catholics have a real solution here, except to beat their favorite drum of “just asking questions” that already have answers. I thought they thought JAQ-ing off was immoral too?
In this corner: “Let’s find answers that respect human rights”
It’s astonishing to see the right-wing Christians’ responses compared to those of real live bioethicists. I can see why they’re so different, though.
Right-wing Christians generally refuse to accept the notion of human rights. They can’t live in ways that uphold and show respect to human rights, because those rights would invalidate a lot of their entitled control grabs. Instead, these Christians have a top-down monarchy model where their top-level spokespeople pretend that a god told them how to handle situations.
No no, we can’t talk to this god ourselves. We must depend on his self-appointed spokespeople to tell us what he totally said.
As for me, I’m not sure where we’ll land on the question of human hybrid embryos. I’m more than willing to see how secular bioethics groups handle the question, though. I trust them a lot more than I trust scandal-riddled right-wing Christian leaders. They’ve proven themselves meticulously careful in navigating human rights.
In the long run, robust protection of human rights, dignity, and equality results in better living conditions for everyone, and better protection for the most vulnerable members of our society.
In that corner: “Y’all need to shut up and let daddy drive”
Meanwhile, right-wing Christians have produced little more than abuses of power and authority — and the destruction of lives through centuries. They can’t even protect their own churches’ children from their priests and pastors. But they wanna tell everyone else how to live. Yeah, no thanks.
When the top leaders of these flavors of Christianity find out about atrocious violations of human rights and dignity within their own leadership ranks, their response has always been to respond with attempts to cover up the whole scandal and silence all the victims involved. (But we’ll talk more about that tomorrow).
Considering how far the decline of Christianity has progressed so far, I’d reckon I’m not the only one who no longer turns to right-wing Christians for answers to ethical and moral questions. I’m probably also not the only one who thinks they need to clean up their own houses before trying to set themselves up on moral high horses. Until they do that, they should not dare to open their mouths to let the word “morality” squeak out.
But I guess it’ll always be easier for authoritarians to thunder commands at the rest of us than address the question of why their supposedly-superior ethical systems have always allowed endless shocking scandals to erupt in their ranks.