Crossing Lines: Breaching Human-Animal and Left-Right Boundaries

The British Parliament is considering a bill this fall that, if passed, will allow scientists to produce chimeras, composite embryos that are part human and part nonhuman animal, and to create hybrid, part-human organisms by inserting the full set of human genes into animal eggs. While France, Germany, and Canada are among the nations banning production of chimeras and other human-animal embryo mixtures, Belgium, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore permit some or all of these procedures. Animal-human hybrid embryonic stem cell (ESC) research is already underway in the United States. What are the unexamined implications of this research? Why is there less public awareness about genetically modified human and animal species than about genetically modified plants and crops?

Part of the answer lies in how public discourse about these technologies is framed and in the select venues where most of the substantive discussion takes place. Discourse is dominated by calls for cures by patient advocates, promises of cures by researchers and financial backers, and objections to the use of embryos on the basis of religious belief. The current framing of the discussion suggests that little stands in the way of medical breakthroughs with ESCs except pro-life abortion politics. Secular liberals, the reasoning goes, should have no objection to genetically modified embryos. With scant federal backing from a pro-life administration, research in the United States proceeds privately or with state funding. A hodgepodge of guidelines has emerged from discussions in disparate venues such as the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, the National Research Council, the Institute of Medicine, and the President’s Council on Bioethics. Elite and institutional, such deliberations limit popular awareness. Research proceeds in a manner inconsistent with democratic control or scrutiny.

The constricted nature of public discourse is intensified among liberal, pro-choice observers, where worries over appearing to align with the Right on the valuation of science and abortion rights have limited robust critique. Yet supporting the right to end a pregnancy doesn’t translate into supporting a commercial prerogative to create genetically altered embryos. When curing disease is the only regulative value, as it has been, every step enables the next, with harvesting tissues and organs from late-stage chimeric fetuses and newborns (where the most useful stem cells may be found) the logical consequence. There are many reasons why pro-choice liberals should support transparency and limits concerning human-animal hybrid biotechnologies.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1980 decision in Diamond v. Chakrabarty, the lure of riches from biotech patenting has created intractable conflicts of interest for researchers. The motivation of science-entrepreneurs to inflate promises of cures, downplay risks, and reject the desirability of barriers, warrants public skepticism. And while genetic alteration of embryos may or may not bring cures, it does bring us closer to production of individuals tailored to a specific purpose. The prospect of eliminating “flaws” and enhancing “virtues” of offspring (“designer babies”) is attractive to some, though it is considered an experimental morass by many scientists. But there will also be incentives to produce human-like creatures that don’t make the cut for membership in our species.

Suggested twelve- to fourteen-day limits on hybrid embryo development aren’t based on any sharp scientifically mandated boundary and are, therefore, inevitably provisional. The impetus to develop hybrid embryos beyond guideline limits will be inexorable and there will be no obvious stopping point. Some will encourage development of hybrid embryos to late term or even birth because, not being entirely human, they would be available for experimentation. It will be difficult to resist their arguments when long-held compunctions are weighed, as they will be, against promises of cures. But might not commodification of such entities erode the socio-biologic integrity of the human species itself and with it the values of a liberal society?

Finally, while promises of cures are inflated, so are claims of safety. It simply isn’t possible to know that human-animal hybrid embryos, even those constituted with “only” 1 percent animal genetic material, will yield stem cells, tissues, or organs that will carry no virus or other infectious agent harmful to humans. The existence, for example, of prions–the biological agent that causes “mad cow disease” in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans–was entirely unanticipated.

The risk of appearing “anti-science,” heartless concerning the need for treatments, and in league with those who would undermine reproductive autonomy, discourages speaking out against hype, “techno-eugenics,” the erosion of liberal values latent in some technological applications, and lack of caution concerning human safety. Yet, cultivating public awareness and meaningful participation necessitates taking the risk. When the issue is crossing species lines, crossing political ones shouldn’t be taboo. We have a right to demand accessible, comprehensible information from biotechnological institutions–and a duty to reach beyond the abortion divide.