So, how should we address the moral status of synthetic human entities with embryo-like features (“SHEEFs”)?
First, we should consider that these are human, as opposed to non-human, if they arise entirely from cells of human origin. Human/non-human hybrid creatures are just that, and partially human, biologically. But are any of these human beings, as in, in California the crime of murder is described as against a “human being?” Or as in, a being that natural rights, most fundamentally a right to life?
Scientists make human/non-human hybrids now that clearly do not have the same moral status as a human being, e.g., immune-deficient mice whose immune systems are reconstituted with human blood cells (SCID-hu mice). And, collections of human tissues that are far from a whole individual are still human, but not human beings. That’s easy.
Ultimately, the question at the top of this post will be irredeemably tangled if one holds, as many if not most in the West today do, that human life with the right to life begins only sometime after the conception of a new human being; if a human being’s moral status, privilege, or rights vary depending on how much that being is able to exercise common human capacities, like choice or conscious self-reflection; if all moral questions turn on calculi of benefits and harms that must weigh individual human rights against the rights of groups of humans; if there is no natural moral law and all moral principles are fluid depending on the shifting consensus of a community.
If one holds, as I do, that human life begins at conception and that there are at least some foundational moral laws, and that a right to life is not dependent on varying realization of human capacities, then it seems that any human entity that is capable of developing into an entire human organism bears a full right to life from the first moment it comes into existence; i.e., conception, whether in the lab or arising from that process accessible even to educated fleas; or first existence of a totipotent cell, be it cloned, from an extended pluripotent stem cell, from in vitro gametogenesis with induced pluripotent stem cells, or from a future “manufacturing” process. To name a few. The right to life of such human beings is more dependent on their ultimate capacities than on the passage through 14 days of embryogenesis, or, for that matter, even on whether it might prove capable of skipping certain day 14 markers like the primitive streak. In a sense, the “potential” or nascent human enjoys the right to life precisely because of what it (he or she?) is capable of becoming. Maybe to say this is to extend Louis Pasteur’s comment that when he saw a child he was filled with “compassion for who [s]he is and respect for who [s]he will become.”
This implies that SHEEFs that are engineered to be very like regular embroys—“embryos in a dish”—deserve the same protections that pro-lifers defend for embryos made the old fashioned way, or by the more new-fashioned approach, IVF. They should not be created or destroyed for research. If they are created it should be with the intent of bringing them to term after a gestation (still, and one hopes, forever, in utero). If that cannot be the intent and the extreme likelihood of a normal human being cannot be established, “embryos in a dish” should never be produced.
What about SHEEFs that combine features in novel ways, e.g., a human beating heart and a brain incapable of pain or sensation; or SHEEFs engineered to develop a nervous system without passing through a primitive streak? My current thought is that insofar as the development of a human nervous system is “morally relevant,” something that likely would enjoy near-universal agreement, then the SHEEF acquires a right to life at the point of conception. What is the point of conception? The design on the drawing board, in the laboratory. This would imply that such SHEEFs also should never be produced solely for research. It also seems to imply a difficult, counterintuitive conclusion that if produced, any such SHEEF must be brought to “birth,” if possible. But what would be the purpose of that except to create such SHEEFs solely for the purpose of some level of experimentation? So SHEEFs like this also ought never be produced—and, I would argue, should not be drawn up. The experiment should not be designed or pursued.
What about SHEEFs with recognizable human form and a beating heart but no brain? Here, I would argue that by “conceiving” of such things one intends an entity that is a severely disabled human being. Moral commitments would be similar to concerns raised by, for example, anencephalic babies. They should be cared for. If they are “created,” what is the purpose? Solely for research or observation? Why would we need to do this, in this way? Just to show we can really do it?
What about human/non-human hybrid SHEEFs? These, like pigs engineered with human hearts, may pose the most difficult cases. Here, the issues raised by human/non-human hybrids in general seem germane. I might suggest that prudence, guided by a concern for “where will it lead?” should pertain, rather than the instrumental question of “what benefits might I make of it?” and “how far shall I push the envelope?” We should decline to participate rather than embrace pieties about how a regime of regulation will “prevent abuses,” when the fundamental premise of the work is to enable said abuses.
I end this post confessing, as I believe I have in the past, that these are musings of a part-time, less-than-eminent bioethicist, offered to provoke reflection. I admit they are only partially developed, not fully argued, perhaps flawed. In invite others to offer constructive criticism and rebuttal, and suggest refinements. That’s what the comments section is for.