On 15th April 2021, a team of scientists from the United States, China and Spain made history by creating world’s first hybrid human-monkey chimeric embryos. A chimera is a single organism generated from two or more individual organisms. It contains two sets of DNA– one which is inherent and conferred genetically during the formation of embryo; and the other, where the second set of DNA is artificially infused into the embryo. Chimeras have the genetic code to generate two separate organisms and are used to create “hybrids”. In the present instance, these hybrids were created by injecting 25 human pluripotent stem cells into each of 132 six-day-old macaque monkey embryos. While the embryos were never implanted into a uterus, they were kept alive in laboratory dishes for 20 days, after which they were terminated. The purpose of this project was to gain a better understanding of human development, disease, and potential methods for producing human organs in animals for transplantation purposes. This article analyses the legality of conservation of hybrid embryos through the lens of speciesism. I argue that human-animal chimeric embryos must be perceived as organisms in their own right and be granted the legal and moral status they have been deprived of.
Legality of chimeric embryos
No uniform international code governing embryo research exists, thus, each state has its own set of rules and regulations regarding the legality of human-chimeric embryos. For example, while some states such as the UK, Canada, South Africa, India, China and Spain prohibit any human embryo research after the embryo is 14 days old, other states including Austria, Turkey, Germany, Italy and Russia prohibit all research involving human embryos.
These laws are backed up by potential judicial pronouncements as well. For instance, in 2016, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights examined the scope and validity of Italian Law No. 40/2004, which restricts research using human embryos in order to safeguard the embryo’s “of life”. Here, the court acknowledged the prohibition of exploiting human embryos for scientific purposes as falling within the scope of Italian law. It stated that human embryos could not be reduced to mere possessions because of what they would eventually become. The Tennessee Supreme Court reached a similar decision in Davis v. Davis, holding that while human embryos are not individuals, they cannot be treated as property either.
Speciesism in Chimerism
A common component in laws governing embryo research is that they are only applicable to human embryos. The object of most of the aforementioned laws is to warrant consideration and respect to human embryos due to their potential for human life. Thus, full moral and legal status is preserved for humans solely on basis of the species to which they belong.
The practice of preserving unconditional moral status to humans and granting non-humans with a conditional status depending upon the will of humans is called speciesism. This term was first defined in 1970 by Richard Ryder as a practice of treating humans as morally superior to non-humans. It was further expanded by Peter Singer who stated that speciesism often percolates into legislative thought and boosts morally dubious actions that result in the suffering of a non-human under the garb of human well-being and development. This legislative bias is apparent in the case of human-chimeric embryos. While it is barred for any human embryo to be treated as property, researchers are free to utilise animal embryos as property for any purpose perceived as beneficial to the human species. Thus, while scientists are prohibited from conducting research on a human embryo post 14 days of its fertilisation, the same prohibition is not extended to animal embryos. This has resulted in scientists doing indirectly what they cannot do directly – that is, creating part-human/part-animal embryos, which are not protected by any legal framework.
Being “human”: When can an organism be granted a full moral status?
At this juncture, it is essential to define the term “human” since it determines the moral and legal status of a being under the current legal framework. From a strict perspective of biology, a human is an organism with “human DNA”. However, this definition creates significant ambiguity in the case of human-monkey chimeric embryos, which have the genetic code or DNA of both humans as well as monkeys. In case of such ambiguity, should humans then be defined as organisms which display human behaviour– in terms of usage of language, appearance or problem solving abilities? In light of technological advancements which have blurred the lines between species, a better solution seems to be removing the importance placed upon biological humanness entirely while granting legal rights. In that case, should moral status be granted to organisms on the basis of their moral capacities such as agency, autonomy, rationality and self-awareness? This would be dangerous as human beings who do not exhibit these characteristics (such as embryos, infants, patients laying comatose, or individuals who are intellectually or developmentally disabled) would not be granted a full moral and legal status. I argue that human-animal chimeric embryos should not be seen as part-human, but as organisms in their “own right”. As such, they must be provided with moral and legal status in a similar manner as all other organisms (including humans).
The creation of human chimeric embryos raises several questions regarding the rationality of reserving legal and moral status exclusively for biological humans. The most pertinent question raised is – what rights should be guaranteed to a part-human/part-animal embryo considering that, if given a chance to develop, the resultant organism would be partly biologically human? These questions ultimately force us to rethink the importance placed on biological humanness to be granted legal status. If biological humanness is not considered sufficient or necessary to bestow legal rights upon an organism, human chimeric embryos will not be treated as “part-human” or a fallacy of composition but as complete organisms that deserve rights just like other organisms.
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