Monday, January 30, 2017

Does a Pig-Man Have the Right to Life?
On the Genetic Modification of Human and Animal Embryos

Purported Human-Pig Chimera
(Andrew Taylor, Wikimedia Commons)
  “We all know interspecies romance is weird.”
Tim Burton

"I did not know yet how far they were from the human heritage I ascribed to them."  
H.G. Welles, The Island of Dr. Moreau

"Man," I cried, "how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!"
Mary W. Shelley, Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus.


Last Friday I read in my favorite source of science news, the Drudge Report, this headline from the Sunday Express:
"Human-pig HYBRID? Scientists hoping to create part man, part pig organs"
What a host of ethical questions this raises!  I won't attempt to answer them in this short post.

The Church has set its position on therapeutic genetic modification very clearly.  See a previous post, Designer Babies via CRISPR / Cas9.   Genetic modification is permissible if it is done to cure a specific malfunction or disease.    The quote below from the Charter for Health Care Workers, Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance says it all:
"No social or scientific usefulness and no ideological purpose could ever justify an intervention on the human genome unless it be therapeutic, that is its finality must be the natural development of the human being."
And what should a faithful Catholic say about intervention on an animal genome?   Where to draw the line?   Is growing a human organ in an animal, by whatever means, ethically permissible?  Or the converse, putting an animal organ into a human?


Hybrids between different animal species are termed "chimeras", from the ancient Greek legend of Bellerophon and the Chimera, a fire-breathing three-headed monster.    Reading a less sensational account
Chimera, Palac Czapskich, Krakow
in the National Geographic of the hybridization attempt of the Salk Institute scientists, I found that they were not attempting to make a "pig-man" or "man-pig", but to grow human organs for transplantation in the host pig.   The results were not entirely successful, since the embryos into which the human stem cells were injected did not survive to adulthood.   It seems likely that pigs and humans are not sufficiently similar genetically for such efforts to be successful.  Similar experiments transplanting rat organs into mice have worked, however.   It should also be noted that this type of experiment, growing a chimera, is ineligible for public funding, so the government has taken an implicit ethical stance on such research.


Is research into making chimeras, even for benefits such as growing transplantable human organs, the first step on a slippery slope?    I'm not sure.  On the one hand, I recall St. Thomas Aquinas definition of the human soul as the form of the body.    Certainly you couldn't say that a human liver, by itself, or a human pancreas, (or a human brain?)  would have a soul, if you agreed to that definition.   And the Church does allow genetic modification for purely therapeutic purposes.

On the other hand, once you start to make a hybrid will you end up, like Dr. Moreau (see the quote above), creating animals that are attempting to be human?

I'm still thinking about these questions.   What's your answer?

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