On Bioethics, Rome Sends Mixed Messages


Yesterday, Pope Francis addressed the Italian Committee on Bioethics, saying that they should take up the challenge of

countering today’s “throwaway culture” which “takes on many forms, including treating human embryos as disposable material, as well as sick and elderly people approaching the end”. The Pope also asked them to harmonise standards and norms in the biological and medical fields.

I’m not a fan of the “throwaway culture” language. I think it creates a false equivalency between things and people. Just because a culture wastes resources, it does not automatically follow that it will kill its own young, or the elderly. These issues are on entirely different moral planes. But I sense that in his own strange way, this is the pope reiterating the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life. Fine.

But then there was this sentence:

Everyone is aware of how sensitive the Church is to ethical issues but perhaps it is not clear to everyone that the Church does not lay claim to a privileged voice in this field…

That’s really, incredibly wrong. The Church has been imbued with the authority to loose and bind on behalf of Christ and has been given the Holy Spirit as a guarantor against error in faith and morals. This means that she truly is the supreme arbiter of morals and ethics in the world. Always has been. Always will be.

Why is this even being called into question, if not to further weaken the position of the Church as the teacher and moral compass of mankind?

There was a less widely-known story on the question of papal bioethics this week. Last night, a friend sent me an article from MIT Technology Review about an alleged papal blessing on research into human/animal chimeras. What are those, you ask? Exactly what they sound like: lab-engineered hybrids of human and animal genetic material. Though the development on such hybrids is still in the early stages, one of the major goals for this technology would be growing human organs in animal surrogates for later transplant. The possibilities of such hybridization are theoretically endless. As are the ethical landmines.

The MIT piece cites an interview with Dr. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte — a developmental biologist engaged in such research — that was published last week in Scientific AmericanHere’s a relevant excerpt from the interview:

Scientific American: How far along have these human-animal chimeras developed?

JCIB: We are entering into an ethical [area]. Because there are some people who think that we shouldn’t mix human cells with other animals and there are others who don’t care, so to speak. Here in California, we have gone through the different committees and they allow us to have a pig embryo develop for a month. Which is one third of their gestation. At that point you can see already all of the major organ primordia.

There are other countries.  I’m from Spain and Spain has been quite open to this field of stem cell research. And they have allowed us to go until the animal is born. So in theory we could have a pig born with the human organ. It was not easy. Even though Spain is quite open to this stem cell research area, at the same time, Spain is a very Catholic country, so we had to go through the Pope. He very nicely said yes. This is to help people.

Scientific American: The current Pope?

JCIB: Yes. The current Pope. So the Vatican is behind this research and has no problem based on the idea is to help humankind. And in theory all that we will be doing is killing pigs.

One problem and the major problem is that these cells could colonize the brain of the animal in which you put them. And obviously it would not be appropriate to have an animal with neurons from people. Or these cells could colonize the germline so that the sperm or the oocytes of that pig would be human. So to avoid that the government of Spain allowed us to have the pig be born and then immediately after to be sacrificed.

But I was not happy with that. People will think that still you will have an embryo maybe with some neuron contribution. And even though the pig is not born, there are people who believe that that should not be done. So we are devising genetic engineering technology so that if a cell becomes a neuron it is just destroyed in the embryo. Any cell that starts to be taught okay you are going to become a neuron at the moment of the first stages of neurogenesis, we are putting a toxin construct in it so that it will be destroyed by itself. So that will prevent any pig embryos from having human neurons so to speak

For their part, MIT Technology Review reports that they’ve placed an inquiry to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to verify this claim. They have not received any answer. They also indicated — without sourcing the assertion — that

While the Catholic Church has opposed research on human embryos, it endorses evolution and generally takes a liberal view on scientific matters. In fact, the Vatican’s position on “human-animal chimeras,” as the mixtures are known, may be more liberal than that of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which in September instituted a ban on funding chimera research until it can weigh ethical questions associated with it.

Attempts to make this sort of human-animal chimera began only recently. Previously, any added human cells would simply die or the embryo would not live. That changed when Belmonte’s lab and that of Israeli scientist Jacob Hanna each developed new ways of cultivating human stem cells to take on a more “naïve,” primitive state that is able to contribute to the animal embryo.

In 2013, Hanna’s lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot showed these naïve cells could contribute to the bodies of fetal mice, resulting in animals with as much as 15 percent human tissue. Scientists predict many other reports discussing human-animal chimeras soon.

This is a field that is wide open for bioethicists to explore. When do human/animal chimeras become a serious moral problem? What door is opened here when mixing human and animal tissue in the creation of a hybrid embryo? At what point in such a process is ensoulment a possibility? If scientists discover that their genetic tinkering has led a test subject to develop a majority of human tissue, rather than a minority, what does that mean? Clearly, that’s an embryo they would destroy before it could finish development. But would it be human?

I’m not a scientist. I don’t know the answers to these questions. But we’re going to need such answers, as this research is moving very rapidly, and is beginning to appear with increasing frequency in mainstream publications, which will no doubt usher in a wider societal acceptance.

In the mean time, did the pope give these researchers his blessing? It’s impossible to say for certain, though it isn’t out of the question. I’ve put in my own inquiry to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, but honestly, I don’t expect a conclusive answer – if I receive an answer at all. My gut, however, is telling me that there’s more to this story (or perhaps less) than we’re being told. Something about this claim — which is pretty brazen — seems out of character even for Pope Francis, my other concerns with his bioethical statements notwithstanding.

I’ll update you when and if I find out more.

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