If life begins at conception, and it is at the point of conception that personhood is inaugurated, is there ‘ensoulment’ of an embryo made from human and monkey cells? If man is made in the image of God, and this being is partly human, is it also made in the image of God, or only partly? What does it mean to be formed partly in the image of God? Is 4% human sufficient to make it human? Is it not then humanly unformed? May this being (if it be) be terminated from a moral point of view with a different evaluative process from that which may be applied to fully human abortions?
Is it a monkey-human embryo, or a human-monkey embryo? Does the humanity embrace the simianity, or does the simianity nullify the humanity? Either way, does it have borderline personhood, given that monkeys and apes are generally accorded a different moral status to (say) rodents and birds? If this embryo is being ‘knitted together‘ (cf Ps 139) in a fabricated womb in order to alleviate the current shortage of human organs for transplantation, does that moral intention justify the freedom and responsibility for its creation?
The creation of chimeras is not new science, but the Times reports that this one has been “kept alive for an extended period for the first time”. They say this poses “significant ethical questions”.
Indeed it does.
What happens when this embryo may be kept alive for a much longer “extended period”?
Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, said: “This research opens Pandora’s box to human-non-human chimeras. These embryos were destroyed at 20 days of development but it is only a matter of time before human-non-human chimeras are successfully developed.”
Instead of hours, days or weeks, what if it (/he/she) is kept alive beyond the threshold of total dependence, and may gain a degree of agency? If the being comes to have a heartbeat or breathe, what is the moral status of that novel creature?
Anna Smajdor, associate professor of practical philosophy at the University of Oslo, said that their very existence posed a conundrum.
“This breakthrough reinforces an increasingly inescapable fact: biological categories are not fixed — they are fluid. This poses significant ethical and legal challenges. Many of the frameworks we rely on to govern our behaviour are based on false assumptions, for example that there is a biological answer to the question ‘what is a human being?’ ” she said.
Christians will differ of course in their ethical deliberations: some will find it repugnant and unnatural (“playing God”), and demand an outright ban for the abuse of life and/or ignorance of the sanctity of life. Others will be essentially content and resigned to the fact that scientific endeavour progresses inexorably, and provided that the ethical framework by which the research is robust, there is nothing to fear. And still other Christians (and probably most) will glance at the story, mull the ethical issues for a few minutes, and then go and have a cup of tea.
But this chimera merits some serious theological deliberation, and even more ethical-moral evaluation, because transgressing the natural species boundaries is likely to cause moral confusion. If human and monkey cells may ethically be combined in a laboratory, why should it be unlawful for a human to have sex with a monkey or ape? You may consider the very thought to be an affront to human dignity, but if no life can possibly come of the union, may not the absence of any ‘product’ in the womb be ethically more ‘acceptable’ than the creation of a novel creature in a test tube?
If biological categories are fluid, as Professor Smajdor avers, what ethical framework justifies the erection of the fixed boundaries between human beings and other animals? If crossing species boundaries is repugnant because it transgresses God’s created order, what of all those new creatures which have appeared from time to time in the evolution of life?
Is the creation of this chimera immoral simply because you happen to hold to a literal six-day creation and repudiate utterly or refute reasonably Darwin’s essential thesis in his On the Origin of Species? Why should Christian concerns (or, indeed, any religious concerns) be entertained at all? Nature is forever changing and adapting: the whole planet is an organism of perpetual mutability. Perhaps, as TS Eliot observed: “The Lord who created must wish us to create, and employ our creation again in his service, which is already his service in creating.”
If we are content to breed pigs for heart valves, and are content to ignore their immense suffering in the process, what exactly is wrong with chimera creation to help develop human organs with a non‐human animal? If there is no harm caused to an insentient chimera, why should this technology not supplant that which abuses sentient creatures for human healing?
But back to the question: does an embryo made from monkey and human cells have a soul?