Can the creation of model human embryos lead us to ask deeper questions?

Reflections on iBlastoids and the discourse of science, ethics and religion.

Scientists at Monash University have just announced the creation of ‘artificial human embryos’ or iBlastoids.

Announcements such as this tend to bring extreme reactions: either they are praised for opening up wonderful biotechnical possibilities, or they are damned for bringing on a biotechnological apocalypse.

iBlastoids


Researchers at Monash university have created iBlastoids an “accurate three-dimensional model of a blastocyst, or the cellular structure that becomes an early human embryo.” The University says that they are not “human’ embryos” but dealing with material grown from human cells raises some fundamental questions.

Unsurprisingly, the research has already provoked contrasting responses from Christians. Given its gravity, it will no doubt continue to do so. Here are the responses Eternity has covered so far.

Instead of buying into one side or other of the argument, I’d like to open up actual conversation about this technology and its possibilities and perils. Even more, how can we promote a fruitful public conversation about thorny matters at the intersections of science, technology, society, ethics, and faith?

There are, indeed, difficult questions to negotiate here: Does research such as this trespass on sacred territory, or does it open us up to worthwhile scientific possibilities and technological advances? How can we engage in meaningful conversation without just shouting at each other?

I think that Christian faith has something to offer beyond the ‘boom’ view of uncontrolled technical advance, or the ‘doom’ view that sees biotechnology as evil.

The Scriptures remind me, on the one hand, of the goodness of the world and the possibilities of human knowledge and culture. On the other hand, they remind me of the moral fallibility of human beings and the self-interest that so often drives our strivings. At times like this, my faith prompts me to ask a deceptively simple question: ‘for whom?’

A question like that asks, who gets to benefit? Who pays the price? Who will control the kinds of questions that are asked and the ends and uses of the technologies which will be developed?

These questions point out some of the difficulties that need to be teased out.

Difficult scientific and ethical questions

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For I know that many of my fellow Christians would see fundamental problems with the very creation of iBlastoids. They believe that a human person’s life begins at conception, and so from the moment of conception this new being is invested with all the dignity and worth (and rights and privileges) of a human person. These views are so evident in debates about the ethics and legality of abortion (at times, abrasively, even offensively so), and they also come into play here. Or at least, they might.

However, things are a little tricky here. iBlastoids are not human embryos and will not grow into human embryos. These blastocyst-like structures do not have all the features of a human blastocyst (which will become an embryo). Nor are iBlastoids the product of conception—there is no fusion of egg and sperm to produce a new organism. So what, then, are they?

What are the moral questions?

For those who hold a ‘right to life’ perspective, this is the crucial question. Indeed, they would argue that the moral problem still exists even if the status of the iBlastoid is unclear. They might say it is irresponsible to create something that might or might not be human, or even an intermediary between human and non-human. The very existence of iBlastoids transgresses a moral boundary.

Surely it matters to us who ought to be included in our moral community?

Some other people might dismiss these concerns as the qualms of religious conservatives who seek to control society and limit the possibilities of technical advance. But that would be mistaken. For while this very conservative view might be wrong — and I think it is — it picks up on basic questions that we ought to be able to discuss in a liberal democracy that seeks to understand what it is for our society to flourish and how to foster the good of all who live in it.

Surely it matters to us who ought to be included in our moral community? Surely it matters to us whether our fellow humans have inherent value and, if so, what implications this has for us and our social policies? Surely it matters to us that those who might pay the price for any social or technical advance must be those who might also benefit from it? Simply rejecting the extreme conservatives as ignorant or as ‘religious control freaks’ doesn’t further meaningful conversation.

The moral status of iBlastoids

So, how then should we think about iBlastoids?

As I’ve said, I don’t share a traditional ‘right-to-life’ ethic on the status of the embryo. Texts such as Exodus 21:22-23, Psalm 51:5, Psalm 139:13 and 139:16, and Luke 1:39-45 are often taken to prove that the human person comes into being at conception. However, I do not believe that sound exegesis justifies that claim.

The moral issues raised by some abortion practices are not relevant in this case.

Nor do I believe that there are convincing philosophical or theological arguments for the view that human personal existence begins at conception. That is not the kind of value we ought to ascribe to the early human embryo. Their value lies in the role they play in the normal story of a human life, and our retrospective recognition of God’s scrutiny and care in all the stages of our life and its antecedents and development.

But iBlastoids are a far cry from that. The cells that make up a blastocyst-like structure fit neither into the story of human procreation, nor as the beginning of the story of a new human life. So, the moral issues raised by some abortion practices are not relevant in this case.

Bigger questions are at stake

Other questions are relevant. The scientists see the creation of these blastocyst-like structures as opening up fruitful lines of research. They might contribute to our understanding of human fertility and so the development of IVF treatments. They could be used in the study of stem cells and their possible use in treatment or research. They might even lead to genetic manipulation of human embryos (even if for strictly ‘therapeutic’ ends). These issues ought to prompt us to ask some very hard questions.

  • We need to think about IVF and its social and human cost, equality of access and the like.
  • Which kinds of diseases will be researched, and what kinds of therapy? Who stands to benefit from them?
  • We need to consider the role of technology in shaping human futures (and future humans).
  • But more than this, we need to ask questions not just about the limits which ought to be placed on this technology, but about what kind of community we ought to be, what kinds of futures we ought to imagine, and what role technology should play in that.

I dare to hope (and pray) that this new announcement might prompt us to quieten the shouts of praise or condemnation so that we can start having a meaningful conversation.

Andrew Sloane has training in medicine and theology and is a Fellow of ISCAST – Christians in Science and Technology. He lectures at Morling College. A longer version of this article, with references, can be found on the ISCAST website here.

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