Partly-Human Chimeras: Fearfully And Wonderfully Made?

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A Chimera, from Greek mythology, is a single organism composed of genetically-distinct cells.  Recently, research scientists have been proposing the idea of inserting human stem cells into nonhuman, animal embryos, in hopes of one day growing human organs for transplantation.  Debates are raging regarding the ethics of such a proposal, and whether governments ought to be in the business of funding such research.  Although the use of animals for human medical research is not new, what is new is the introduction of human stem cells into the embryos of other animals, opening the possibility that animals could become “humanized,” consequently blurring the line between humans and animals.  Bioethicists are quoted as saying that “the existence of such beings would introduce inexorable moral confusion in our existing relationships with nonhuman animals, and in our future relationship with part-human hybrids and chimeras.”  From a psychological perspective, we see increased confusion respecting the nature of the human person, which is already being challenged and confused socially and politically, particularly in the area of human sexuality. (See several of our previous posts on this topic here: 1, 2, 3.)

Historically, the distinction between “man” and all other creatures has been relatively unchallenged, being established in religious texts as well as borne out in science and experience.  With all due respect to dolphins, chimpanzees, and even “man’s best friend,” with their seeming intelligence and valuable companionship, that which makes a human person distinctive remains: a body-soul unity capable of conscious thought, reasoning, understanding emotions, free-will and intimate relating.

The Loss Of Humanity

Although researchers reassure us that the likelihood of animals developing human mental capabilities or consciousness is small, and can be prevented with proper engineering, it is acknowledged there are no guarantees.  Similarly, we are told not to worry about the possibility that two animals grown with human cells might mate and create a human embryo.  Yet, all this presumes a complete understanding of the science, that future scientists will adopt a similar ethic, and that the experimentation itself is necessary and good.  Those are significant assumptions given that the stakes are so high.

At The Heart (Liver, and Kidney) Of The Matter

The purpose of this experimentation is said to be an increased ability to provide compassionate relief to those who are in need of organ transplants.  Waiting lists are long and the number of potential donors pales in comparison to the number in need.
And so well meaning and kindhearted people ask, what’s the harm?  If we accept the mutilation of the human body (cf., sex change operations) to provide relief from psychic/identity distress, why would it not be acceptable to create organs for donation?

Recovering Humanity: Beautifully Made

What man and science have accomplished has done much to benefit humankind: diseases have been cured, life-spans lengthened, quality-of-life increased, and the list goes on.  Yet, we seem to have reached an age where satisfaction with our state in life as fallen human persons who suffer and eventually die, has become untenable.

The rise of transhumanism pushes the envelope even further, as some try to stretch the human condition, in the name of progress or healing, into realms which transcend our design.  In the face of such efforts, I would argue that embracing that which makes us most fully human, including suffering and limitations, yields far more promise for psychological health and flourishing than the alternatives being advanced or explored.  Try as we might, the truth and goodness are written into us, such that we should experience cognitive dissonance when actions that are dehumanizing are suggested as “therapeutic” (e.g., abortion, genital mutilation).   Though cultural changes and legal perspectives are making this less obvious than heretofore, the truth remains intact—our own self-image is attacked when humanity is approached without due dignity.  At this time when everything in our culture tends to demean the dignity of human life—from population control, to environmentalism, to using man as an amenity or source of spare parts for others—it is more important than ever to defend what is true and good about human nature: that we are, indeed, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (Psalm 139:14).

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Frank J. Moncher