All we like SHEEFs, Part 2

Carrying on with last week’s musings…

In thinking further, I think my attempt was confused by conflating the moral status of a SHEEF—a synthetic human entity with embryo-like features, something more than a clump of cells of human origin, but less than a human being—with reasons why I might want to hold that nobody should ever make certain sorts of SHEEFs.

Again, SHEEFs are human, not non-human.  But they may not command a “right to life” in every instance.

I would return to a statement I made last week, that any totipotent human entity, that is, any human entity capable of developing into a full human being under the right circumstances, should be accorded a full human right to life from the moment he or she comes into existence.  We other humans ought to give him or her a chance to live, care for him or her as one of us, grant him or her any research protections extended to human research subjects in general, and so on.  So-called human “embryos in a dish” would be in this group.

The same cannot be said for individual human cells, including human gametes formed from cells like induced pluripotent stem cells.  There may be arguments why those ought not to be produced, but that is for another time.

I would not say that a laboratory-created or sustained human heart, for example, ought to be protected from instrumental uses, including destruction for the research enterprise.  I think I would want to argue that we humans ought not make such a thing as part of a human-non-human animal hybrid, but again, that’s a different argument.   Such a hybrid would not make human moral claims on us to be preserved and cared for as humans.

It seems to me that a moral boundary is approached when a human nervous system is brought into the plan.  Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I have written that I believe there is a human, immortal, non-material soul, and that I am most convinced by J.P. Moreland’s position that such a soul should be understood in a broadly “Thomistic” fashion, after Thomas Aquinas, and that such an understanding construes the soul to be the full set of ultimate human capacities, actualization of which can be, and often is, impaired.  Such impairment does not negate, diminish, or compromise the moral privilege of the human being.

That said, the clearest marker of the presence of a human soul is the human apparatus associated with feeling sensation, including pain, progressing ultimately to higher human capacities.  So it seems to me.

So, then, under my line of reasoning, a SHEEF with even a rudimentary human nervous system ought not be solely the subject of experimentation, ought not be created or destroyed solely for research, and would, if created, obligate its creators and caregivers to sustain it as humanely and completely, and for as long, as is reasonably feasible.  I confess that further definition of “rudimentary” in my formulation may still be needed.

Should such a thing be created?  I would say no, but that is a different question.

A “nervy” SHEEF, if you will, would carry its moral status immediately upon being brought into being, something that I think should weigh heavily, by necessity, on its would-be creators at the design phase.  Upon further reflection, we might even say that to draw up the design is to cross a moral boundary.  That is where I was trying to go last week, and I need to think about that further, but it again is a different question, as the comments on last week’s post pointed out.

Finally, what about a would-be SHEEF with human form and organs, but no brain or nervous system—a “headless human,” as it were?  By my reasoning, this would not have a moral claim to life or protection.  The notion of creating such a thing is creepy.  To consider it seriously is to raise, I think, a strong presumption of transgression: “Why on earth would this ever be done?”  To have to ask the question is almost to render a verdict, it seems.

To go further and ask what boundaries ought to be placed on biotechnologists would then seem to require raising the sort of concerns raised by cloning, for example—concerns about altering human procreation fundamentally, committing, as it were, “crimes against the human race.”  (Maybe I shouldn’t use quotation marks there.)

And what if, to go fully sci-fi about it, we were to imagine a full, or nearly full human created synthetically, a “Frankenstein in a lab,” as it were?  I hope everyone would object.  Grounds would seem to follow the line of reasoning C.S. Lewis took when fretting about “conditioners” in The Abolition of Man, or the thoughts of some contemporary ethicists on the European continent, who fret that pushing synthetic biology too far into humanity essentially violates the fundamental equality of human beings by making some the “objects” of technologists who are the “subjects.”

Further comments?

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Mark McQuain
Mark McQuain
4 years ago

I have been thinking about “the headless SHEEF” and moral claims. When I was a medical student back in the early 1980s, I participated in the birth of a child with anencephaly. The obstetrician was prepared that something might be wrong based upon the prior OB exams but was frankly shocked at the severity of the condition. The child died within two hours of birth. The child’s face looked perfectly normal but there was simply nothing from the top of his forehead to the back of his head. Otherwise, he appeared to be a normal human baby.

I have difficulty imagining a SHEEF with absolutely no nervous tissue (and perhaps this entity would be so horribly malformed that it would not appear “human”). I admit that I struggle not to attach some moral human claim to these entities.