In his late 19th century novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, H.G. Wells tells a chilling, futuristic story about a doctor on a Pacific island who is performing horrific experiments to craft animals into human beings.
While Dr. Moreau’s world might be far-fetched for now, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a federally-funded medical research agency, wants to start funding research on human-animal chimeras that could move us in that direction.
On August 4, 2016, the NIH announced that it will begin spending taxpayer dollars on the creation and manipulation of new beings whose very existence blurs the line between humans and animals. We’re not talking about using a pig’s heart valve to fix a human heart. Nor are we talking about growing human cancer tumors in mice to study disease processes. These non-controversial practices have been going on for decades and don’t pose any serious ethical problems.
The research NIH wants to fund is fundamentally different and ethically problematic for several reasons. First, it relies on the killing of humans at the embryonic stage to harvest their stem cells. Second, it involves the production of animals that could have partly or wholly human brains. Third, it involves the production of animals that could have human sperm or eggs (with a stipulation that precautions are taken so such animals are not allowed to breed).
Finally, introducing human embryonic stem cells into very early animal embryos will make it very difficult to know the extent to which human cells contribute to the final organism. This is another key moral problem with the NIH proposal: If researchers can’t know for certain whether the resulting being has human status or characteristics, they won’t know what their moral obligations may be toward that being.
Furthermore, the NIH proposes to transcend this very serious ethical boundary apparently having given little, if any, consideration to the ethical and moral implications. When the NIH issued a moratorium on funding human-animal chimera research last September, it pledged to “undertake a deliberative process to evaluate the state of the science in this area, the ethical issues that should be considered, and the relevant animal welfare concerns associated with these types of studies” (emphasis added).
Yet in announcing its intention to rescind the moratorium on August 4, 2016, the NIH mentioned holding only one workshop, in November 2015, in order “to review the state of the science and discuss animal welfare issues.” It mentioned nothing about any discussion of the “ethical issues” involved in creation and manipulation of partly humananimals.
The public needs to contact the NIH and strongly object to the use of our tax dollars for this grossly unethical research. But we need to do so quickly. The NIH has only allowed 30 days for comments. The deadline is Tuesday, September 6th. Comments can be submitted online or they can be mailed to: Office of Science Policy, National Institutes of Health, 6705 Rockledge Drive, Suite 750, Bethesda, MD 20892.
By Greg Schleppenbach
Greg Schleppenbach is Associate Director for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.