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Further Reading

Special Forces: Foreign Intel

Soft Cell

How Scientists Are Easing Away Opposition to Animal-Human Hybrids

by Michael Cook

Four years ago, one of Australia's leading newspapers, Melbourne's The Age, ran an article I had written under the following headline: "Has experimenting on human life lost its power to disgust?" To me, the news that a US-trained scientist at Shanghai Second Medical University, Dr. Huizhen Sheng, had created hybrid human-rabbit embryos was utterly repugnant. Yet there was hardly any comment in the media.

To be fair, Dr. Sheng had no intention of creating carrot-loving babies with floppy ears and big front teeth. Instead, she removed the nucleus of a human cell and placed the genetic material into an empty rabbit egg, using technology developed for cloning. The resulting hybrid contained 99.9 percent human DNA and only 0.1 percent rabbit DNA. From these hybrid embryos she wanted to extract embryonic stem cells that could be used for studying diseases, researching genetics, or testing drugs. Researchers elsewhere were impressed. Harvard University cloning expert Douglas Melton commented: "I'm glad to see [her work] published, as it will encourage others to try it."

Since then, no one has repeated Dr. Sheng's experiment, perhaps because countries such as the U.S., the U.K., and Australia have been busy debating therapeutic cloning. However, now that the public has become accustomed to the idea of cloning human embryos, hybrid embryos are the next logical step.

Stem-cell scientists would prefer to study cloned embryos that are 100 percent human, but there is a huge obstacle. Thousands upon thousands of eggs will be needed, and women happy to donate their eggs for research are hard to find. The alternative is to use animal eggs, even though the embryos will contain the mitochondrial DNA that floats in the cells' cytoplasm. That's why these entities are also called "cybrids" rather than hybrids. (Strictly speaking, hybrids result from combining animal sperm with a human egg, or vice versa, an even more controversial step.)

Even though it is difficult to articulate it, there is something terribly disquieting even about cybrids. For someone who accepts the uniqueness of human dignity, mingling human genetic material and animal genetic material to create an embryo is a kind of surrealist blasphemy. Personally, it reminds me of Andres Serrano's controversial photograph "Piss Christ," which depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine. To envelop all that makes us human, our genetic inheritance, in an animal carapace is creepy and repugnant. This is the traditional response to reducing humans to an animal level. From Circe's swine in the Odyssey to the bizarre beasts in H. G. Wells's pioneering science-fiction novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, bestial humans have always evoked pity or repugnance. Perhaps that is why demons have been depicted with cloven hooves and bat wings.

No one expects sensitivity to human dignity or subtle ethical discourse to flourish in China, a country that mandates abortions to enforce its one-child policy, among a host of other human-rights abuses.

But now British scientists have been given a green light to follow in Dr. Sheng's footsteps and create cybrids. Americans should take note. The ethics of China, exported to the U.K., will soon be repackaged and exported to the U.S.

How did this come about? Unlike scientists in China, those in Britain live in a democratic society with a tradition of respect for human rights. Decades of abortion and IVF have weakened opposition to experiments on embryos, but for most Britons, hybrid embryos did seem a "yuck" too far. Scientists had to overcome this repugnance. They succeeded—and how they did so is a textbook case of manipulating public opinion.

When the idea was first mooted, the Blair government was far from enthusiastic. It had embarked upon a major review of its fertility legislation, but•apparently•hybrid embryos were to be banned. The scientists responded by persuading the House of Commons science committee to hold an inquiry. The committee is dominated by technophiles, and it unanimously backed the creation of both cybrids and hybrid embryos. But the most important step was to secure the approval of the body that regulates fertility clinics and embryo research, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). And here the scientists succeeded brilliantly.

Under pressure from patient groups and scientists, the HFEA conducted an extensive inquiry, with focus groups, a public meeting, and an opinion poll. The result? Britons weren't thrilled about hybrid embryos. However, "when further factual information was provided and further discussion took place," the HFEA reported, "the majority of participants became more at ease with the idea, although as one participant observed, "The gut reaction is hard to overcome.'"

In other words, it was only after extensive re-education by the mandarins of a guided democracy that average Joes could stomach the thought of mingling human and animal genetic material. Furthermore, the HFEA must have been wearing earplugs during its public consultation. The view that all embryo research was wrong was "overwhelmingly represented" in written comments to the HFEA and "dominant" at its public meeting.

Even the opinion poll involved some creative fudging. True, 61 percent were in favor when told that the hybrids would help scientists to understand diseases, but 22 percent had never even heard that such a thing was possible. And to pick one among many figures, only 32 percent were unconcerned about what scientists might do next if they were allowed to create hybrids. Those who were most concerned, in fact, were those who were best informed. Not for nothing is the chairwoman of the HFEA, Shirley Harrison, a lecturer in public relations with two books on the art of spin-doctoring to her credit.

If the results of its own "public dialogue" required such vigorous verbal gymnastics in order to interpret them as public "ease" with human-animal hybrids, how about its ethical analysis? Well, research on human embryos has been legal in the U.K. for some time, so objections on that score were effectively irrelevant. Blending human and animal genetic material introduced the "yuck factor," but simple disgust was not a genuine moral objection, said the HFEA. In any case, it sniffed, excessive sensitivity to primitive taboos might stifle scientific progress.

How about human dignity? I suspect that neither the HFEA nor stem-cell scientists believe that "human dignity" is a meaningful concept. "Moral rejections tend to rely upon a species distinction between animals and humans, but it is unclear whether such a distinction can be maintained," said the HFEA. Skepticism about human dignity sounds odd in a government document, as most people in a democracy regard this as the foundation of human rights. Surely a bright line between humans and animals is what keeps guinea pigs from voting.

Finally, what was never made clear in the British debate was whether the creation of hybrid embryos would work. In fact, no one has yet derived stem cells from cloned embryos. And there is only one peer-reviewed report, Dr. Sheng's, of stem cells from hybrid embryos. Some stem-cell scientists are very skeptical. Dr. Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts company that has been working on human and animal cloning for years, told the magazine New Scientist that his company had failed to produce embryonic stem cells from hybrid embryos: "They grow to the 16-cell stage, then just before going on to become blastocysts, they block."

All in all, British arguments to support the radical step of authorizing the creation of human embryos contaminated with animal DNA just didn't stack up. The public didn't really support it; the ethical reasoning was flawed; and no proof was given that it was even possible.

Which leads me to conclude that ethical standards are being exported from China to the U.K. along with cloning techniques. A study of the HFEA's track record shows that its guiding principle has always been adamant opposition to all violations of human dignity that are not currently on scientists' shopping lists. No scientists have sought permission to extend the lives of their embryos beyond fourteen days, so the HFEA opposes it. No scientists have sought permission to mingle animal sperm with human eggs, so the HFEA opposes it. No scientists have sought to implant a hybrid embryo in a woman's womb and bring it to term, so the HFEA opposes it.

But scientific inquiry may someday take these paths. That's the way science works. As Dr. Moreau explained in Wells's novel:

You see, I went on with this research just the way it led me. That is the only way I ever heard of true research going. I asked a question, devised some method of obtaining an answer, and got a fresh question. Was this possible or that possible? You cannot imagine what this means to an investigator, what an intellectual passion grows upon him! You cannot imagine the strange, colourless delight of these intellectual desires! . . . To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter.

No British scientists have sought permission to reproduce Dr. Moreau's experiments, thank goodness. But when they do, the HFEA is sure to announce that the public is "at ease" with them. It's a policy framework with which Chinese scientists would feel very comfortable. 

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