Human-animal hybrids? Church teachings on cutting-edge genetic experimentation
LOS ANGELES, Calif. (The Tidings) - Dr. Adams enters the room of her patient with good news. A heart has become available for a transplant for Robert, whose life-expectancy is limited to only months without such surgery. Dr. Adams explains that the heart that is available is not from a human donor but from a pig. The pig was conceived and raised at a “medical farm” for pigs that have received human stem cells at an embryonic stage, thus allowing their hearts to be compatible for human transplantation.
On Nov. 19, 2004 the Washington Post published an astonishing article that told us, among other things, “In Minnesota, pigs are being born with human blood in their veins. In Nevada, there are sheep whose livers and hearts are largely human. In California, mice peer from their cages with human brain cells firing inside their skulls.”
Less than a year later (June 27, 2005), Scientific American followed up with a more in-depth story on the same issue, human-animal chimeras, individuals who are composed of two genetically distinct types of cells, e.g. human and mouse):
“In Greek mythology, the chimera was a monster that combined the parts of a goat, a lion and a serpent. With such a namesake, laboratory-bred chimeras may sound like a bad idea born of pure scientific hubris. Yet they may be unavoidable if stem cells are ever to be realized as therapies. Researchers will need to study how stem cells behave and react to chemical cues inside the body. Unless they are to do those risky first experiments in humans, they will need the freedom to test in animals and thereby make chimeras.”
The same article further notes that Weissman of Stanford University pioneered chimeric experiments in 1988 by creating mice with fully human immune systems to study AIDS. Later he also transplanted human stem cells into the brains of newborn mice as models for research. Also, Zanjani of the University of Nevada at Reno has created adult animals with human cells integrated throughout their body.
The Church weighs in
What does the Church have to teach us about xenotransplantation and chimeric research?
Is someone breaking the natural law by receiving an animal transplant? Are we playing God when we create a chimera? Even if a mouse is not granted “human” status because it has a brain made of human cells, does it acquire a greater innate dignity than a regular mouse? What percentage of human cells would be necessary for an animal to “become” human? Fifty-one percent?
These are important questions for all of us who are Catholics and struggle to bring our pro-life vision into a society that all too easily reduces persons to commodities and moral methodology to a revived form of utilitarianism.
Regarding the first issue, xenotransplantation (receiving organs from animals), the Church’s response is clear and makes sense. There is nothing inherently immoral with transplanting animal organs into humans, assuming all aspects of good medical care and bioethics have been followed.
The Pontifical Academy for Life, in Prospects for Xenotransplantation (2001), addressed this issue specifically:
From our point of view, supported by the biblical perspective that asserts that every person is created “in the image and likeness of God” (cf. Gen 1: 26-27), we reaffirm that humans have a unique and higher dignity. However, humans must also answer to the Creator for the manner in which they treat animals. As a consequence, the sacrifice of animals can be justified only if required to achieve an important benefit for society, as is the case with xenotransplantation of organs or tissues, even when this involves experiments on animals and/or genetically modifying them (Prospects, n. 9).
The point should also be made that Catholic theology does not have preclusions, on a religious or ritual basis, in using any animal as a source of organs or tissues for transplantation to man. The question of the acceptability of an animal organ --- once it has been established that personal identity is not affected by xenotransplantation, and once all the general ethical requirements of transplantation have been met --- becomes one on the cultural and psychological level (Prospects, n. 10).
Regarding the Church’s teaching regarding developing animals with “human” genes or cells that may enhance the effectiveness of xenotransplantation, the Pontifical Academy for Life addressed the issue in the same document (n. 15):
As we have already observed, the possibility of working out such genetic modifications, using genes of human origin as well, is morally acceptable when done in respect for the animal and for biodiversity, and with a view to bringing significant benefits to humanity … recognizing that transgenesis does not compromise the overall genetic identity of the mutated animal or its species, and reaffirming humanity’s responsibility towards the created order and towards the pursuit of improving health by means of certain types ...
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