January 2020 Pulse

In the spring of 2017, MIT Technology Review reported that a team of scientists from the University of Michigan discovered that they had made an embryo-like entity from human embryonic stem cells (ESCs). The team was attempting to make organoids – cells clusters grown in the lab that resemble tiny organs – when they discovered that one of the clusters was self-organising and began to display the features of a developing human embryo.

These ‘embryoids’, as they came to be called, were unable to develop beyond a certain point because they lacked key cell types. But because of their startling similarities with early embryos, the team destroyed them before the fourteen-day limit, in compliance with current guidelines.

The entity that the Michigan team created has generated considerable debate among scientists and bioethicists. What are we to make of these ‘synthetic human entities with embryo-like features’ (SHEEFs), as some scientists and ethicists have described them? Are they merely human tissue? Are they organoids? Or are they developing human embryos?

Scientists are not quite sure how these questions can be adequately and responsibly answered at this point. They recognise that merely adjusting the fourteen-day rule that currently govern research on human embryos may not address the ethical issues related to SHEEFs.

In an article published in eLife in March 2017, researchers working in this field state: ‘Here we argue that these and related experiments raise more foundational issues that cannot be fixed by adjusting the 14-day rule, because the framework underlying the rule cannot adequately describe the ways by which synthetic human entities with embryo-like features (SHEEFs) might develop morally concerning features through altered forms of development.’

Thus, they propose ‘that limits on research with SHEEFs be based as directly as possible on generation of such features, and recommend that the research and bioethics communities lead a wide-ranging inquiry aimed at mapping out solutions to the ethical problems raised by them.’ Assessing the enormity and seriousness of this conundrum, Harvard geneticist John Aach asserts: ‘We’re going to have to get a lot of input from a lot of quarters. The problems are just too big.’

From the perspective of the Christian faith, however, there can be no question that the organism that the Michigan scientists have created through the use of ESCs and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) is a human being, albeit a severely compromised and disabled one. This is because these embryos are made from human pluripotent stem cells that can for manipulated (induced) to become embryos.

All embryos constituted of human genetic material must, from its earliest stage, be considered as a human being. The way in which these embryos were created is in many ways immaterial. Thus, whether the human embryo came into being as the result of natural conception, artificial insemination, IVF, cloning or gametogenesis, it must be regarded as a human being.

In time, these embryos will exhibit a line of cells called the primitive streak, indicating directionality and the beginnings of body formation. Just because an embryo lacks certain cell types needed to form placenta, a heart or a brain – as was the case with the embryos created by the Michigan team – does not imply that it should not be regarded as a human being. It must be seen as an extremely damaged human being.

Now, if these embryos are indeed human beings, then, regardless of how compromised they may be, they must nonetheless be valued as persons created in the image and likeness of God, possessing of an inviolable dignity and deserving of our respect and protection. From the perspective of the Christian faith, therefore, the moral status of these embryos is clear.

This means that their creation and subsequent destruction is morally and ethically reprehensible and unacceptable. In fact, the intentional creation of embryos that lack the necessary cell types to develop and survive beyond a certain stage so they can be used for experiments can be said to be doubly reprehensible. It is tantamount to intentionally creating persons with severe disabilities, using them for scientific experiments and subsequently discarding them.

Perhaps some lessons can be drawn from the ethical debates surrounding the creation of chimeras that have the potential to be ‘humanised’. In their excellent 2003 article published in The American Journal of Bioethics, Josephine Johnston and Christopher Eliot delineate the kinds of chimera research that would be ethically unacceptable from the standpoint of human dignity:

    1. Intentionally creating compromised human beings or part-human beings is cruel to the creature created (it is, for example, a laboratory subject created for the purposes of experimentation, able to exercise only compromised human facilities, likely to be kept in a cage, and perhaps not able to fend for itself).
    2. Intentionally creating compromised human beings or part-human beings reflects badly both on those who create the chimera and on those societies or governments allowing its creation. What kind of an institutional intention do we exhibit when we create compromised human beings or part-human beings for our laboratory use?
    3. Finally, intentionally creating compromised human beings or part-human beings might appear to ‘all the world’ to be using another human, or a part-human, as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself, a use that has been confirmed as morally unacceptable since at least the Declaration of Helsinki

To create a human being for the purposes of experimentation that will result in its destruction is to see the human being merely as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. To deliberately create a human embryo with disabilities so severe that it has no potential to develop into an adult or even to survive beyond a certain point is an act of extreme and unconscionable cruelty.

To create a compromised or disabled human embryo for laboratory use is a gross violation of human dignity. It is to devalue human life itself.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.