Ethical frontiers of humanizing animals in the lab

Mice with human-language DNA? Goats with human-like organs? They already exist. A British report raises anew the dilemma of creating animals with human characteristics for the sake of medical science.

The report’s title was enough of a jolt to grab anyone’s attention: “Animals containing human material.”

Unfortunately, the July 22 report from Britain’s Academy of Medical Sciences received far too little public attention for what the title really means: the humanizing of animals in lab experiments.

Before the academy’s report gathers dust on scholars’ shelves, it’s worth keeping a spotlight on this latest contribution to an ongoing debate over what it means to be human – a topic not to be left to scientists or government.

Rapid advances in research are allowing more cases of animals being given human characteristics. Mice have been injected with the human DNA for language, for example – and they squeak differently. Goats implanted with human stem cells have blood and organs similar in DNA to humans. Several scientists have proposed implanting apes with human brain cells – one of the more troubling frontiers.

Mixing up species through cell, gene, or embryo transfers has long been the stuff of science fiction – think of the novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau” by H.G. Wells. In real life, today’s research is aimed at creating animals with enough humanlike parts to test new drugs or medical therapies – so humans don’t need to be test subjects.

While that purpose is laudable, transhumanism raises ethical and religious dilemmas that go far beyond those for cloning, gene therapy, genetically altered food, and other recent bioscience advances.

Imagine, for example, if a human uterus is transplanted into an animal, allowing the birth of a child. It’s not implausible.

The United States tried to sort out the ethical boundaries for such research nearly a decade ago. The result was a set of federal voluntary guidelines, such as not injecting apes with human brain cells.

The British report goes further in recommending clear legal boundaries, international standards, and strong oversight for the most ethically challenged research – the type called “human lineage specific” – such as brain-cell transfers to apes or the creation of embryos that are “predominantly animal” but contain human cells.

The report reflects a healthy humility about potential consequences. “Current scientific knowledge often does not permit precise prediction of the effects that modification of an animal’s organs might produce,” the report states.

Creating a creature that is partially human, for instance, could result in it likely not being accepted by either humans or its own species. Lacking a social group for support, it could suffer a cruel future.

Equally challenging is the presumed threat to common assumptions about human dignity, or inherent qualities such as self-consciousness, a capacity to recognize the mental states of others, or a sense of “fairness.” The report leaves open the idea that consciousness is not physical but perhaps something beyond the sum of material parts.

Qualities of thought are shared among all species, with humans tending to have more or higher levels of qualities. The fact that humans even debate the ethics of creating humanized animals helps set them apart.

As science further blurs the boundaries of the human-animal divide, the public needs to join this debate. The essence of being human is, after all, a constant striving to express higher qualities, especially in thinking.

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