Embryonic stem cell research has been debated since its creation, the controversial issue heated by the underlying topic regarding the beginning of life. The debate remains unresolved and is becoming increasingly complex, however, as new technologies are presented. Most recently in the United Kingdom, legislation has been passed to allow a new form of technology for deriving embryonic stem cells. With the legislation, stem cells can be acquired by fusing the e-nucleated eggs of cows with the somatic nuclei of humans. These human-to-animal embryonic chimeras often referred to as human-cow hybrids, have a genetic composition that is approximately 99% human and 1% bovine. The techniques, developed to evade a shortage of human eggs, are promising to researchers hoping to make advances in regenerative medicine, and therefore, harness the potential to lessen the suffering of millions around the world. Given this context, I will be arguing that there is currently, no concrete argument for limitations on embryonic stem cell research via human-to-animal embryonic chimeras, and in the following, hope to shine a light onto the common misconceptions instilled in many by societal constructs and norms.
When considering human-to-animal embryonic chimeras, it is important to note that the debate no longer revolves around what people believe to be the beginning of life, but instead on the morality of combining genetic material of humans with that of other animals. Interspecies chimeras are not a new practice, however. Animal-to-animal embryonic chimeras are regularly created within the laboratory setting, so the issue at hand is not that of simply crossing genetic material between different species, but specifically crossing human genetic material with another species. Those who oppose this new technology do so on the grounds of repugnance and fear, neither of which hold any valid weight in ethical debate.
The commonly held Western view, known as the Great Chain of Being, establishes a hierarchy at which God is at the top, followed by angels, human beings, animals, and lastly plants. While this view is declining in popularity with time, it is still deeply engrained within our culture, and clearly sets humans apart from all other organisms. Along these same lines, human beings are often given a privileged place based on our higher cognitive capabilities, such as language and reason. But are such abilities truly grounds to make this distinction? To make such an argument, one would have to establish guidelines for species identification. Many assume species boundaries to be determined by fixed characterizations. Evolution being a fluid process, however, debunks this misconception. (Robert, 2003) With evolution discrediting the notion of fixed species boundaries, one cannot argue against interspecies hybrids based on categorizations that, in reality, don’t exist.
Another common objection is based upon the moral confusion introduced by creating a being with no defined moral status. Just previously we established that, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as fixed species boundaries. Regardless of this fact, however, we still rely on this notion in a moral context when making decisions on how to treat creatures that differ from us, whether from what we eat to what we experimentally manipulate. It is a generally held worldview that human beings have a heightened moral status over other animals. When creating a being that mixes two organisms of different moral statuses, however, we are faced with defining how human a being has to be to accredit it with full moral status. Individuals who oppose human-to-animal embryonic chimeras, based on this uncertainty, do so out of fear because such a being would force us to revisit our current behaviors towards certain human and nonhuman animals. This is not the first time we have been faced with having to determine the moral status of a being, however. Just as we resolved the moral status of beings that are undeniably human (women, African Americans, and the like), we can rest assure that the same will be resolved for any beings we create. (Robert, 2003)
There are a multitude of other objections that appear to be variations of the ones discussed above. Accepting that species boundaries are social constructs rather than scientific truths, however, refutes the majority of these objections. By recognizing evolution as a fluid process in which species are ever changing, we have no reason to limit technology that harnesses potential to lessen the pain and suffering of all beings around the world.
Robert, Jason Scott. (2003). Crossing Species Boundaries. The American Journal of Bioethics, Volume 3, Number 3, Summer 2003, pp. 1-13. Retrieved on March 31st, 2009 from http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/journals/american_journal_of_ bioethics/v003/3.3robert.pdf