Bioethics @ TIU

All we like SHEEFs (?)

Posted May 4th, 2017 by Jon Holmlund

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.


6 Responses

  1. John Kilner says:

    Thanks, Jon, for thinking out loud regarding these vexing matters, to help us think too. So much here is helpful. I just want to raise one basic question for further thinking. I wonder if you can have it both ways–saying that at conception we have a “potential” human being based on anticipated “capabilities”–but also claim that at conception we have something with actual personhood (or human) status even if they are severely disabled by not having an altered or no brain (i.e., even if they lack capabilities). If you want to maintain a status for humans that is not dependent on degree of development or capability, might it be necessary to ground human significance somehow in being human per se? (People’s creation in the image of God is one way, but there are others.) In that case you wouldn’t speak of “potential human beings” but rather of (actual) “human beings with potential.” And their significance wouldn’t be rooted in their present or even future capabilities but in their humanity–signaled by their genetics and how that is operative, but of course consisting in far more than that.

    • Jon Holmlund says:

      Yes, I agree. Thank you for this clarification; it really states better what I was trying to get at. But what I am looking for is a way to handle the sort of human beings that are more than cells but not fully totipotent, yet troubling. Certainly more than genetics; I think we would not say that a synthesized full human genome, absent necessary other development structures, is a human being. I would, and have, objected to that project on other grounds. I guess my key points are to consider ultimate capacities and construe “conception” of a syn-bio construct to occur at the point of “design” in the mind of the bioengineer. Does that sort of tack seem to make sense?

  2. John Kilner says:

    Your caveat about genetics is important. I was trying to reference that by not just referring to genetics but “how that is operative”–to insure that we are talking about an actual organism/being. But the wording of that does need to be carefully worked out. Design/intention is indeed morally relevant as far as the culpability of the designer is concerned. Nevertheless, won’t it also be necessary to identify the point at which the entity requiring protection first physically exists, since that is when intention becomes manifest to others and subject to public action?

    • Jon Holmlund says:

      I think so but also think more is needed, and that identifying the relevant “points” is problematic. Take the comment Mark McQuain posted in the interim. The “repurposed” cell that deserves moral protection is the totipotent cell, not the gamete or skin cell or adult stem cell. And we ought not create such a (totipotent) cell. We ought not PLAN to create such a cell, but it is worse to create it than to “just” think about it. In an entirely different context, I have argued on this blog that there is something monstrous about seriously arguing that infanticide could be morally acceptable. But that of course is not the same as actually killing a baby.

      But consider a SHEEF that has a (human, by definition) nervous system. Even dualists like me will likely confess that the brain more than other biological human “stuff” is, if not “the seat of the soul,” as close as we can get. I think we can imagine that this, or other “non-totipotent SHEEFs,” if you will, might, once brought into being, be enough of a human being to have a right to life immediately upon being brought into physical existence. And to press that argument through to its conclusion strikes me as absurd–if we build it, it must be “born?” That doesn’t sound right. But neither does, “if we build it just for the lab, or for growing organs, that’s OK.” And I am trying to hold that this very absurdity itself implies that the entity in question should not be brought into existence.

      Now, can one draw a line? I don’t know. We surely would not say that a disembodied human heart–e.g., a donated cadaver heart–has itself a “right” to be transplanted. But would a SHEEF with a heart have any rights, and if so, at what level of complexity?

      And so further, how does that inform what sort of SHEEFs ought not to be brought into existence in the first place? And what does that imply about the proper limits of lines of experimentation (design) that lead to that? Might certain entities acquire rights “in cerebro,” as it were?

      I fear my thinking out loud is not entirely helpful…

      • Jon Holmlund says:

        Maybe I should amend my last bit of sophistry in this respect–if I’m trying to argue that certain entities should not be created at all, and that even the conception of them in the mind of the “designer” is problematic, we certainly would not say that they could have “a right not to exist.” I should have realized that!

  3. Mark McQuain says:

    Another line of thinking that arises now that we are on the cusp of taking any cell and “repotentializing” it is the following:

    A simple skin cell does not require/demand moral protection despite the fact that it is clearly human as it lacks independent potential to be anything other than a skin cell. However, artificially cause it to become a human induced pluripotent stem cell (hiPSC)and place it into an environment that permits development to its full potential, and one eventually has a (cloned) human being, arguably deserving moral protection(s) akin to any zygote. Convert that hiPSC via IVG such that it becomes a gamete (egg or sperm) and it loses moral protection (it is now a sperm or an egg without independent ability to develop into a human being). Use IVF to combine that IVG converted hiPSC gamete with any other opposite gamete and we are back to a zygote deserving moral protection.

    That is a busy bioethical road to follow for a simple skin cell. We have a lot of moral ground to cover with these techniques, and as usual, the technology is rapidly outpacing the bioethics.

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