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Science And Ethics: Who’s Afraid of Human-Animal Embryos?

Essay: From centaurs to werewolves, people have long created human-animal hybrids in their imaginations. Biotechnology is now making that possible in the real world. But there are reasons to draw a line between what science can and should do.

Christina Berndt

When news came out of China eight years ago that scientists had created embryonic rabbit-people, the size of German newspaper headlines was as huge as the public outcry. The very idea of embryos that were part human, part rabbit, was over the top, like something straight out of Dr. Frankenstein's lab. Many saw the Chinese experiments as an attack on human dignity, while others defended them saying that they were an important step on the road to finding new ways of treating illness.

Germany's National Ethics Council deserves credit for not only tackling the issue of using mixed human-animal beings for research, but also for coming up with a nuanced, fact-based position on the subject. Only facts allow the general public to come up with informed opinion about the pros and cons of such research. The knee-jerk alternative would be to focus only on the gruesome aspects of such research.

The Council proved its preference for nuance by giving the thumbs up to certain practices involved in such research and a clear no to others. It supported the creation of lab animals with human genes, but not implantation into human or animal wombs.

The fundamental otherness of humans and animals has always been held as incontrovertible. And yet for thousands of years, art has consistently blurred the boundaries. Still, in all cultures humans consider themselves to be on a higher level than animals, which helps explain why many are shocked at the idea that scientists are breaking down the borders.

What people tend to ignore, however, is that scientists have been bridging the human-animal divide for decades, well before the Chinese experiments with the rabbit embryos. And in most cases it's by no means as shocking as it initially sounds. What is created in today's laboratories is far less scary than the fire-breathing chimeras that emerged from Homer's Iliad.

Biological findings have a way of unsettling the understanding humans have of themselves. And yet the barrier that humans have erected between humankind and the animal world is not, from a scientific standpoint, sustainable. Protein, sugar, fat, nucleic acid are the building blocks of life, whosever life it is.

Looked at objectively, the building blocks of human life can be mixed with those of any animal. Labs have yet to produce centaurs and chimeras – because researchers are still working at the level of genes or cells. But they have injected rats with the cells of human illnesses so scientists can find cures. And researchers have injected mice with human cancer cells in order to develop new methods of treatment.

Creative embryo designers?

Animal welfare aspects aside, there is little to be said about such research. A few human cells in its body is not going to turn an animal into a human, not by a long shot. Countless human patients today have heart valves taken from pigs, and this in no way subtracts from their humanity.

Even single projects involving injecting human brain cells into the brains of apes are not as over the top as they are often perceived to be. The experiments will not cause apes to have any new ideas, because there's nothing human about their nerve cells.

Spirit and consciousness are the result of a large number of brain cells and the way they are connected. Researchers seeking to develop replacement cells for those suffering from Parkinson's, for example, will not be successful if they experiment only with mice. Some seriously considered experiments with apes will be necessary because, ethically, direct human experimentation cannot be justified.

In their research with mixed beings, serious scientists are not trying to create centaurs and are also not out -- just for the sake of curiosity -- to see what happens when a rabbit has the genetic make-up of a human. Any scientist thinking along those lines must be blocked, because soon enough the creation of living man-animal chimeras will actually be possible.

There may be creative embryo designers without scruples here and there who are seriously trying to create man-animal combinations. So it is important to legislate against the implantation of such embryos into wombs. In the end, legal means are the only way to uphold the separation from the animal world that humans so deeply desire. Biotechnology can overcome that sacred dividing line all too easily.

Read the original article in German

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