The cow-man cometh

This story reports that the UK has given the green light to scientists to create human-animal ‘chimera’ embryos for research purposes (see here for a bit more background).

Essentially this involves combining an animal egg (cows in this case) with human genetic material to create an embryo from which stem cells can be extracted. The hope, I take it, is that these embryos will be close enough to human embryos for the resulting research to be of value.

Some opponents have objected to what they consider the blurring of the boundary between human beings and other animals. Researchers respond that getting eggs from animals is more efficient and less ethically troublesome than getting them from women, a process that is described as “invasive, painful and potentially dangerous.”

This research doesn’t remove the moral controversy over destroying the resultant embryos: though there may be some debate about whether such an embryo is “technically” human, it’s close enough for those who oppose embryo-desctructive research more generally. Ironically, this concern is somewhat at odds with the “blurring the lines” argument, but not outright inconsistent with it.

There’s also the question of whether it’s ethical to get the eggs from cows. If the process of getting eggs from women is dangerous and painful, how do the cows fare? None of the stories I read addressed this particular issue, but one can only assume that the well-being of the cows isn’t foremost in the minds of those who are using them in this way.

Of course, this touches on the issue of using animals in scientific research more generally. Is it permissible to use them, without their consent (obviously), and in a fashion that leads to pain, suffering, and/or death on the animal’s part?

I don’t have a settled view on this. I’m strongly inclined to say that routine product testing and experimentation sheerly out of curiosity or the desire to know aren’t sufficient justifications for most animal experimentation. It’s hard to see how, say, having another variety of deodorant on the shelves justifies subjecting animals to painful tests.

On the other hand, research aimed at curing serious disease has, at least on its face, a stronger claim. Surely saving human lives justifies sacrificing some animals?

Still, it might be worthwhile to at least examine a dissenting view. As it happens, I’ve been reading Andrew Linzey’s Christianity and the Rights of Animals. Among other topics, he examines the argument for animal research and ties it to concerns about research that destroys human embryos.

Linzey’s concern is that animal experimentation, justified as it is in terms of harms and benefits, or an essentially consequentialist moral framework, is intrinsically likely to lead to experiments on unwilling human subjects. If experiments on animals are justified by pointing to their prospective benefits, what stops us from experimenting on embryos or “sub-standard” human beings for the same reason? “Once our moral thinking becomes dominated by crude utilitarian calculations, then there is no right, value or good that cannot be bargained away, animal or human” (p. 120).

He goes on to ask: even if we can accept that these kinds of moral trade-offs might sometimes be justified, do we want to institutionalize them? That is, do we want entire industries whose products (and profits) are premised on treating both animal life and nascent human life as disposable commodities to be exploited for our benefit? Or do we want to somehow recognize that they have intrinsic value that must be respected in some way?

Like I said, I don’t have a settled issue on the matter, but I think it’s worth thinking about. Our tendency is to see the non-human (or even the marginally human) as essentially a resource. For a variety of reasons I don’t think this is a healthy, sane, or sustainable view. And yet it’s not easy to draw the line between abuse and legitimate use.

3 thoughts on “The cow-man cometh

  1. This reminds me of Michael Crichton’s “Next.” Somebody will, out of curiosity, decide to allow one of these embryos to develop. I worry less that it will be subhuman than that it will introduce genetic complications into the human race if it reproduces with others.

    I would tend to think it was human and had all the rights of other humans. So to try to control this would introduce dark questions. Better to avoid creating the problems in the first place.

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