Human-Animal Cybrid Embryo

Human Animal Cybrid Embryos is a new phrase for students of genetic ethics to get to grips with. The Bill going through parliament will allow for the insertion of a nucleus of a human cell into a hollowed out cow’s egg. Permission has already been given for such experiments to take place. Scientists are very interested in understanding the development of embryos at the molecular level finding and believing that treatments for degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and motor neurone disease will come from such research.

What are the religious objections? Some religious traditions, such as the Roman Catholic Church, are traditionally opposed to the destruction of an existing human embryo and this will come about as the human-animal embryo will not be allowed to live past 14 days, and indeed in most cases will not be allowed to live past 5 days. In addition religious opponents argue that there are alternative ways of producing adult stem cells for such experimentation. This ultimately comes from the belief that the point of conception marks the start of the human person. While it does not look like a human being, at the point of conception all the necessary genetic ingredients are there and a unique human being can emerge. The Catholic Church has decided that it is at that point that the dignity of the human person is to be recognised. The person begins when the embryo begins.

The counter argument then is that at 14 days the Cybrid has very little that is recognisably human. At 14 days the cells have flattened out to a disc. It has human chromosomes but arguably it is not a human person. If it is not a human person then it is not a moral person that should be taken into account. Some argue that rationality and the emergence of other features such as the possibility of having relationships need to be present in a human person. The early embryo has no consciousness and no nervous system.

Some religious traditions have a less strict and absolute view seeing the emergence of a human life as developmental. For instance Muslim traditions see 120 days or 40 days as the point at which the soul  is present in the embryo. It is then that the dignity of the human person is recognized.

It is arguable that taking the absolutist position of conception at the start of the person is incoherent. If an embryo is equal to a born human being, then how should we view the 30% of all conceptions that do not succeed? Should there be funerals for these unsuccessful pregnancies?

An additional argument is that taking the absolutist position places the interest of a potential person over the interest of a suffering human being who needs help now.

A counter argument to this is that early life is fragile and should be protected and that we protect many things that are not human beings, such as animals, and the environment. Arguably the Christian ethics is not based on recognising what a human being has achieved, but protecting the vulnerable. While there is little in the bible to support the view that the human person begins from conception, there is clearly a powerful ethic of protecting the weak, from the writings of the prophets, through to the actions and teachings of Jesus who associated with the marginalised, healed the sick and had a concern for the poor.

Further reading:

Catholic Culture – Looking at ‘Cybrids’, Human-Animal Hybrids:

New Scientist – Scientists hit back at Catholic church over ‘cybrids’:

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