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Ogmius Newsletter

Mother Gruesome’s Nursery
by Benjamin Hale

Early last month the British government approved plans to allow scientists to create human-animal hybridized embryos for experimentation.  The new policy will allow, among other things, creation of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos, a technique which involves the insertion of human DNA into empty animal eggs.

Many detractors find such experimentation ghastly.  They express a range of worries, from concerns that the resultant creatures will be mutant human beings, to concerns that they might gain consciousness or suffer from painful maladies.  Most such worries seem unwarranted, influenced more by science fiction than reality.  More theoretically, however, some have argued that such experiments blur the boundaries between human and animal.  Unfortunately, it is unclear from most of these arguments what the implications of blurry boundaries are.  Still others suggest that such research is horrific, and think that we should listen to our instinctive revulsion (the so-called ‘yuck’ factor) when setting public policy.  But neither is it clear that all have this instinctive revulsion, nor that all ought to.  Indeed, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority produced a study reporting that a majority of British people are ‘at ease’ with the creation of such hybrids; and it was apparently this report that spurred the government to go forward with approval.

On the flipside, advocates claim that the potential benefits of such experiments are too great to get bogged down in icky details.  They often also add that the only relevant difference between cell-level hybridizing and traditional animal husbandry is a matter of scale; suggesting therefore that scale oughtn’t to matter.

In previous articles I’ve argued against most of these common positions.  I’ve suggested, by contrast, that we can make good moral sense of this morass by appeal to constitutively embedded, but procedurally and socially validated, duties.  That view is a bit too complex to cover in an essay of this length, so I’ll take a shortcut.  I think we have significant and special duties to our hybridized creations, just as we might have significant and special duties to our own children.  Clumsy though this comparison may seem, I think there are important parallels. Consider the following:

Jones is an anonymous sperm donor.  A research team decides to accept and cultivate his sperm for use in an experiment.  Upon accepting his donation, they presumably exculpate him of responsibility for whatever eventuates from their experiment.  If the experiment works well, the hybrid result will neither suffer nor gain consciousness, and Jones will have done nothing wrong.  If the experiment does not work well, and the hybrid result is a hideous chimera stolen from the pages of an H.G. Wells novel, it will be the researchers, and not Jones, who have created such a monstrosity.  Bad for them; not so bad for Jones.  It is attractive to assume that Jones has done nothing wrong.  He has behaved responsibly by donating his sperm anonymously and to responsible researchers.  Presumably, under these conditions, the researchers assume responsibility for the outcome of their experiments.  Jones’s sperm is simply a resource, genetic material for the creation of a new creature.

What’s enticing about this view is that it doesn’t rely on mystical attributions of ethical value to genes or to human beings, and it also doesn’t depend on spooky attributions of consciousness to bags of cells.  Jones has provided genetic material and done little else, much like he might shed his hair or slough cheek cells while eating a cracker.  Responsibility is neatly passed along by fiat, much like we might transfer responsibility for an automobile or a record collection.

Suppose now this:  Smith is an anonymous sperm donor.  He carries a dread genetic disorder for which there is a 90% chance of genetic inheritance.  He is unaware of this disorder and so cannot inform researchers who hope to use his genetic material for a hybridizing experiment.  Suppose that the experiment goes poorly and that the hideous mutant human-animal chimera imagined above becomes a reality, partly due to the genetic disorder unwittingly carried by Smith.  Should we not ask whether Smith’s sperm, like Jones’s sperm, is simply a genetic resource?  Or can one reasonably say of Smith that he bears some responsibility to whatever creature eventuates as a result of the research?  I am inclined to think that Smith maintains some responsibility to that creature, or at least some responsibility for its creation.  To see this, it may help to take a few more steps back. 

Would we feel any differently if Jones and Smith had donated their sperm not to a research team, but to a prospective parental unit hoping to give birth to a human child?  I think we would.  In Jones’s case, we might argue that the prospective parents could cleanly assume responsibilities for the child.  In Smith’s case, I think matters are considerably blurrier.  If, through an unfortunate cascade of genetic events, the child contracts Smith’s genetic disorder, there’s a sense in which we would want to say of Smith that he owes something to the child, that he is the fallback caregiver, even though, by contract, he has done just what Jones has done.  If that’s hard to see, suppose that the child’s adoptive parents die, and that the child will be left to suffer in an institution for the remainder of its days.  Is Smith not the standout default person to approach here, if only at least to ask whether he can or would like to help?  I think he is.

What then cements Smith’s responsibility to his offspring but allows Jones to exculpate himself of responsibility to his, if anything?  Surely Jones passes along genetic information just as Smith does, and surely this genetic information provides just as many shortfalls to its recipient as it does windfalls.  Same goes for Smith, as we saw.  Surely, further, both Smith and Jones can enter into agreements with others in which they relinquish legal responsibility for their offspring.  There is an important sense, however, in which Jones and Smith both have a responsibility to their offspring, even though they may have signed away their legal rights and responsibilities as parents.  I mean so in this sense: they’ve both played a critical material role in a chain of events that eventuates in a morally indeterminate outcome.  To understand the far-reaching extent of this moral indeterminacy, and particularly how the moral indeterminacy is not restricted to an unpleasant biological outcome, suppose now Brown, who is also an anonymous sperm donor. 

Suppose that some malicious profiteer, Snidely Whiplash, decides that he will cultivate sperm in random sperm banks for the purpose of selling said children into sex slavery.  Suppose he doesn’t tell anyone his plans, but instead just randomly uses Brown’s genetic material for his own bad purposes.  Now, on some accounts of responsibility, there’s no sense in which Brown could be said responsible for whatever happens to his offspring.  The sex slave operation is clearly not of Brown’s creation or intent, and he could never have anticipated that Mr. Whiplash would be so base as to use his (Brown’s) sperm to create sex slaves.  But in another sense, Brown has clearly lost control of his genetic material, which he is responsible for. 

It is tempting to think that any of these gents—Jones, Smith, or Brown—can sign responsibility over to sperm banks, or to prospective parents, or even to research teams, such that those on the receiving end of the contract become responsible for the genetic material and its development.  But I think our cases of Smith and Brown demonstrate that this does not completely capture how responsibility is transferred from parent to child, or from donor to recipient.  Effectively, Brown has enabled the possibility that someone could breed his own children into sex slavery.  For this he is somewhat responsible.  True, he himself did not breed them into sex slavery and had not even the slightest malicious intent, but by relinquishing control of his genetic material, he creates the conditions necessary for this bad outcome.  He would be right to feel terrible that his biological children were put to this use; and we would be right to chastise him for not being more cautious with his sperm.  We therefore may not want to hold Brown ‘culpable’ for the unfortunate state of affairs, but this does not mean that he is at least somewhat responsible (meaning that he has a moral obligation to ensure that this state of affairs does not come into being) for having enabled it. 

It would be easy, given public coverage of this issue, to paint the hybridization policy question as a debate between the squeamish moralist and the cold, calculating cost-benefit analyst.  I think that’s too simple.  Despite the convenience of contract law and legal responsibility, we can’t just sign away our moral responsibilities to our children, or to our genetic material.  If we could, daddies and mommies could abandon moral responsibility to their children with the mere stroke of a pen.  And they can’t.

So the truly important observation is that our obligations aren’t tied into our sentimental revulsion, our genetic code, or our contracts with others; and they also don’t stop at the benefits or the drawbacks of such hybridization research.  They are tied to pre-existing commitments that are socially upheld but constituted by our identities as scientists, academics, citizens, and, in this case, parents.

Having said all this, nothing above should serve as an outright condemnation on human-animal hybridization.  It should only suggest that human beings have obligations to human-animal hybrids that extend over and above concerns about life, humanbeingness, consciousness, or harm.  If it turns out that the hybrid creations that emerge from this research develop into the nightmarish chimeras of Dr. Moreau’s island, that’s a hideous outcome that should make us more than blanch.  We will have done something deplorable; and most importantly, it will be we—researchers, donors, and advocates of this research—who have made the deplorable happen.

I don’t at all expect a deplorable outcome.  I don’t even think it’s a great possibility, given the stringent oversight requirements of internal review boards and the fact that there are termination options pretty early in the gestation of the hybrid.  But I do think it’s important for us to bear in mind that we are not building automobiles and we are not gluing atoms together in a beaker.  We are acting as parents to these hybrids, intent on creating genetic farms out of our offspring.

Benjamin Hale
Center for Science and Technology Policy Research
Center for Values and Social Policy