Views, Opinions and Insight from The Catholic Transcript's Columnists and Guests.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak
Q. I’m just becoming aware that in Great Britain a degree of authorization was given recently to proceed with biological research involving animal-human embryos, which are described as animal-human “hybrids.” Doesn’t this raise serious ethical questions?
A. Of course the prospect of manipulating animal-human hybrids raises serious ethical questions. What is actually being “authorized” in the United Kingdom (through the agency of the recently established Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority) is the creation and manipulation of human-animal embryos known as “cybrids.” According to Bishop Elio Sgreccia, President of the Pontifical Academy of Life, fertilization, artificial fertilization, occurs by virtue of the same procedure as that used for cloning: combining the nucleus of a somatic cell. In the process, “99 percent of the genetic patrimony is human,” and “the animal egg-cell also provides the cytoplasm that must stimulate and develop the nucleus.” (L’Osservatore Romano, 17 Oct.)
Bishop Sgreccia’s moral assessment of research with cybrids is too incisive and compelling not to be quoted verbatim:
“If artificial fertilization deprives human procreation of its dignity because of the absence of personal relations between husband and wife, if human cloning itself, relying on the genetic patrimony of a single parent, is marked by a further loss of humanity and dignity; then by getting rid of this additional barrier to the creation of hybrids for cloning, dehumanization touches the threshold of monstrosity and takes a further step down the slippery slope, as happens every time a fundamental ethical requirement is discarded.” (ibid.; italics added.)
Curiously, attempts to create “cybrids” have occurred elsewhere than in the U.K., all without what the researchers would call success. For example, experiments in 1999 in Massachusetts were questionably “successful”; likewise in China and in South Korea, both in 2003. In 2006, human-bovine embryos were reportedly “created.”
“In all these experiments the percentage of successful fertilization was very low,” Bishop Sgreccia notes, “and the percentage of embryos that developed to the blastocyte stage was even lower… In almost all cases, in fact, the embryos rarely contain traces of animal mitochondrial DNA…” (ibid.)
Fundamentally, the ethic used in “cybrid” experiments, the Bishop concluded, can be seriously faulted in at least three ways: (1) they are crassly utilitarian in that they assault human dignity; (2) they violate the principle of attempting to justify the end by immoral means; and (3) they add up to “an indisputable crime [creation of embryos plus their destruction] committed today with a view toward gaining a hypothetical advantage tomorrow.” (ibid.)