Researchers are now “coaxing” human stem cells, in the lab, to grow into beings that are similar to a human embryo.
There are innumerable questions that such a practice raises – both moral and legal. Is this a human being? A human person? What dignity does such a being have in the eyes of God?
There are so many feelings to be processed – disgust and despair primarily come to mind.
Yet consider the headline from a recent article in MIT Technology Review: “Meet the ‘artificial embryos’ being called uncanny and spectacular.” The use of such grand descriptors for an extremely prideful scientific project is a clear sign that the issues surrounding these new beings are already being distorted by researchers’ reckless enthusiasm.
As Christians, we need to be clear about what is really going on here, and what we should be doing about it. We need to educate our society about the implications of “creating” artificial embryos.
Neither “artificial” nor “embryo” but human
Before going further, I need to discuss some of the terms being used for these “artificial embryos”:
- These are not embryos. They are composed of human cells, and they are some kind of being, but they do not have all the essential features that define an embryo, such as the structure of a placenta that would enable them to be carried in a mother’s womb full term.
- Whether these are organisms is up for debate, but it seems clear to me that they meet the definition. They do have the capacity for autonomous grow, but would probably die before a mother could give birth. Is being born a necessary characteristic of an organism? That is doubtful. It is important to note that a U.S. law called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment bans NIH funding for research on human “organisms” formed from human cells.
- Something is usually called artificial if it is man-made and does not occur naturally. In this case, scientists are taking a human stem cell (natural) and manipulating chemicals (natural) to form some sort of living being (natural). The word “artificial” comes too close to suggesting that these beings are mere products like anything else.
Whatever term we use for it, scientists are creating living beings out of human stem cells that have the ability to grow into any portion of the human body.
These beings are human. They grow and develop on their own. They are alive.
While these are not “fully formed” human beings, neither are human embryos, fetuses, or even born children and adolescents. We are all on a biological journey that is continuously developing from conception to death. Some human beings have the capacity for a longer lifespan, but those with a disease or affliction that leads to an early death are no less human persons.
It is clear that these “artificial embryos” are not merely human parts, tissues, or cells taken from a human body, but self-growing and complex beings that have developed from human cells.
One researcher said “We know that stem cells are magical in their powerful potential of what they can do. We did not realize they could self-organize so beautifully or perfectly.”
There is a lot of material – and need – for prayer here.
What is the point?
Researchers have long wanted to unlock the mysteries surrounding the genetic composition of human embryos and the process of reproduction and embryonic development. Their “problem” is that most research institutions will not allow research on human embryos past fourteen days.
Let us be clear about what this means. Researchers already experiment on and destroy thousands of embryonic human beings every year. Current regulations in countries where the research is conducted (the U.S. and Great Britain) do not allow funding for research that creates human embryos or studies embryos that are “allowed” to live beyond fourteen days.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that researchers can’t proceed with private funding. And that is what is occurring.
Using human embryos for research and destruction is apparently not enough for researchers. They are creating these “artificial embryos” so they can get around the fourteen-day restriction. Their hope is that, because these living human beings (of some sort) are not technically embryos, they can go on studying them right up until the point it becomes difficult to distinguish them from a full-fledged embryo.
These “artificial embryos” will not be mere subjects of study for long. One goal is to conduct genetic editing on the beings. Another possibility, over which some researchers salivate, is to develop fully formed embryos and babies without joining a human sperm and egg – essentially cutting the sexes out from the process. Perhaps the most likely outcome is forming new beings with living organs that can be harvested for other human beings.
The ethical implications of these practices are overwhelming.
Should researchers be playing with human cells in this manner? Medicine and therapy are great because they address the suffering and thriving of a whole person (or they are supposed to). In this research, there may be therapeutic purposes involved, but the focus is primarily on gaining knowledge. Should we create living beings, however defined, from the miraculously endowed stem cells of human beings, for the sake of more knowledge? Medicine is supposed to help people, not create, torture, and kill them.
Not “allowing” a being to live is another way of saying they are being killed. They may not live long, but should researchers be killing any being or organism, developed from human cells, before it naturally dies? Should they be deliberately forming such beings with handicaps that cause them to die early?
Also, the stem cells from which these new beings are “coaxed” include both pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells. So human embryos are being killed in order to get the stem cells that in turn develop into these beings.
Where does this go from here?
Fully formed embryos were created in mice using this technique.
Researchers are also excited to announce that they have invented machines that will form several of these “artificial embryos” in just a few hours. By running many machines simultaneously, they can create hundreds in that time.
There may be a silver lining in all this. “Artificial embryos” may become widespread substitutes for full-fledged human embryos in biological experiments. We might then spare the deaths of many thousands of actual human embryos (human beings). I do not have an answer for the obvious question: is this a better scenario from a moral point of view? This is a very complex moral issue on which the Church will no doubt weigh in at some point.
Is there any better time for Christians to evangelize?
Is there any better time for us to pray for our society that is mesmerized with new technologies?
I pray that our society can turn its eyes toward the heavens rather than toward the ground we so proudly (and foolishly) cling to. We might then find peace – and less compulsion to stretch our technical capacity toward the morally absurd.