Chimeras: The Next Moral Battle You’ve Never Heard About

human_embryonic_stem_cells_only_aIn Greek mythology, a chimera was an animal to be feared. Homer and Hesiod described chimeras as fire-breathing hybrid creatures composed of a mixture of animal parts – part lion, part goat, part dragon.

The federal government is now considering whether it will fund medical research that would create part-human, part-animal chimeras – research that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops calls “grossly unethical.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the federal agency charged with funding and promoting biomedical research, issued a temporary moratorium on funding human-animal chimera experiments last September until it could consider the potential ethical ramifications of such research. Although NIH had not funded human-animal chimera research before issuing the moratorium, other agencies have funded similar research, including the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, California’s state stem cell agency.

NIH recently proposed lifting parts of its moratorium, and it expects to decide before January whether it will begin funding human-animal chimera research. Among the proposed changes include limitations on the types of chimera research it will fund, as well as establishing a steering committee dedicated to providing input on research proposals and monitoring experimental designs.

The proposed changes suggest NIH is creating “a much more permissive environment” when it comes to researching human-animal hybrids, according to one neuroscientist quoted in Science.

But many scientists and ethicists are concerned about the ethical ramifications of creating human-animal hybrids.

“The effort to incubate organs in farm animals is ethically charged because it involves adding human cells to animal embryos in ways that could blur the line between species,” said Antonio Regalado, senior editor for biomedicine for MIT Technology Review.

According to Regalado, chimera research utilizes “advancements in stem-cell biology and gene-editing techniques”:

“By modifying genes, scientists can now easily change the DNA in pig or sheep embryos so that they are genetically incapable of forming a specific tissue. Then, by adding stem cells from a person, they hope the human cells will take over the job of forming the missing organ, which could then be harvested from the animal for use in a transplant operation.”

Some scientists believe that the research might also lead to breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s or cancer treatments.

There exists the possibility, however, that once human stem cells are added to animal embryos, the human stem cells may affect the hybrid animal’s development – possibly even giving hybrid animals some degree of human consciousness or cognitive abilities.

Researchers cannot guarantee that human stem cells intended to create a human pancreas in a pig, for example, will not end up in the chimera’s brain or endow it with human eggs and sperm, enabling it to reproduce part-human offspring.

In its proposal, NIH concedes that “there could be either a substantial contribution or a substantial functional modification to the animal brain by the human cells.”

One year after NIH issued its funding moratorium, ethicists are still wrestling with moral dilemmas like whether these cross-species chimeras should be given legal rights if they develop some form of human cognitive abilities.

“You’re getting into unsettling ground that I think is damaging to our sense of humanity,” said Stuart Newman, professor at New York Medical College.

Some of the human tissue and stem cells used in creating human-animal chimeras are harvested from aborted fetal tissue and human embryos, raising other moral questions.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) says that chimera research results in the “creation and manipulation of new beings,” neither fully human nor animal, “whose very existence blurs the line between humanity and animals”:

“For if one cannot tell to what extent, if any, the resulting organism may have human status or characteristics, it will be impossible to determine what one’s moral obligations may be regarding that organism.”

Human-animal chimera research is currently being performed in labs that receive funding from sources other than the federal government.

Editors for MIT Technology Review estimate that “about 20 pregnancies of pig-human or sheep-human chimeras have been established during the last 12 months in the U.S.” One lab profiled by MIT Technology Review allows its chimeras to grow only to 28 days of gestation because researchers do not yet know how the human cells would contribute to the animal’s development.

Human life deserves to be protected in all stages of life, but human-animal chimera research creates animals that are partially human to be experimented upon or harvested for organs. NIH should realize the enormous risks to human dignity associated with this type of research and rescind its proposal to lift its moratorium.


This post was originally published by the Family Policy Institute of Washington.

AMA Reconsidering Position on Physician-Assisted Suicide

american_medical_association_logoThe American Medical Association (AMA) will soon decide whether it will drop its stridently held position against physician-assisted suicide.

In June, the AMA asked its Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs to reexamine the association’s disapproval of the practice. It plans to make a final decision during its 2017 national conference.

The AMA has long opposed physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, believing these practices to be “fundamentally inconsistent with the physician’s role as healer.” It most recently reaffirmed its opposition to physician-assisted suicide in the newest edition of its Code of Medical Ethics, which was adopted earlier this summer.

Other medical associations – including the California Medical Association, the Oregon Medical Association, and the American Medical Students Association – take a neutral stance on the issue of physician-assisted suicide.

A majority (54%) of American doctors support physician-assisted suicide, according to a 2014 Medscape survey of 21,513 American and European doctors.

Five states (Washington, Oregon, Montana, California, and Vermont) currently allow some form of physician-assisted suicide. In Washington State last year, there were 176 “participants” who received lethal medication from doctors to end their lives under the authority of the Washington Death with Dignity Act, according to state records.

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide are often motivated by misguided compassion. Arguments for physician-assisted suicide fail to recognize other more humane forms of treatment, as well as the inherent dignity and value of the terminally ill.

Instead of prescribing deadly drugs to end a patient’s life, physicians can more aggressively work to alleviate a patient’s pain and suffering through better palliative and hospice care.

Patients seeking physician-assisted suicide often suffer from depression and loneliness. This provides families and ministries with the opportunity to care for the dying, fulfilling intergenerational and communal duties by giving emotional support to terminally ill patients.

Physician-assisted suicide creates the perception that the terminally ill and elderly are burdens on their families and the medical system. It denies the most fundamental of rights – the right to life – and violates the basic principles of natural law and human dignity.

Life is an invaluable gift. Society looks to doctors for lifesaving medical care. The Hippocratic Oath, taken by physicians for millennia, dictates that they “do no harm.”

The American Medical Association should remain faithful to the oath taken by its members and reject efforts to change its position on this critical issue.


This post was originally published by the Family Policy Institute of Washington.