‘Artificial embryos’ first doesn’t cancel out fundamental human life questions

Because the creation of 'artificial' human embryos is an Aussie first, this doesn't make ethical questioning and concern irrelevant, writes Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP. We need to stop and take a long hard look at what's really important and right to do - and what status we accord these embryos. There are significant implications in every direction.

Reading Time: 4 minutes
A microscopic view shows a colony of human embryonic stem cells (light blue) growing on fibroblasts (dark blue) in this handout photo. Photo: CNS, Alan Trounson, California Institute for Regenerative Medicine via Reuters

This week the media celebrated the achievement, by Monash University scientists, of so-called “model human embryos” or “artificial human embryos”. There was unadulterated excitement about another Aussie first in the field. It promises to be a cure for infertility, miscarriage, you name it. And it all happened, we are assured, “by accident”! Hurray!

But hold on: even if we take at face value that this was ‘accidental,’ does anyone really believe it was unexpected? Or unlikely? Haven’t Monash researchers been experimenting on early human life for decades, pushing the boundaries on what’s technologically possible and legally permissible?

But is it ‘good’? And how do we know?

Accident or not, is this really such a good thing? Remember when embryonic stem-cells were going to cure almost anything, as long as enough restrictions on human embryo experimentation were removed, and enough government money was thrown at them: two decades later, there are no such cures. Indeed, the majority of the licenses granted went not to those institutions researching cures for disease or spinal cord injuries, as promised, but to the IVF industry that pulls in revenues of half a billion dollars each year in Australia alone. Remember when gene therapy was going to be the panacea, as long as there were no legal or ethical constraints: there’s not much to show for these promises either. So we should dial down expectations that these artificial embryos will cure disease or alleviate suffering.

Human embryos are pictured on the third day of development in experiments conducted by researchers in Oregon. Photo: CNS, courtesy of Oregon Health & Science University

Thirdly, it’s interesting that though the Embryo Research Licensing Committee says these are human embryos, the researchers are saying they are “not really” and calling them names like “iBlastoids”. Is this label just a matter of convenience, masking legitimate questions about their identity and making them sound more like the latest Apple product and less than a human being worthy of respect or protection?

Problem: assumptions about human ‘status’ outstripping the most important questions

As the saying goes: “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” So, too, with an embryo: if it has human genes, develops as a human being develops, and does the things a human embryo does, it’s probably an embryonic human being. Nature already provides for a significant variance in early human development. Those human embryos that do not develop exactly as expected because of some chromosomal abnormality or other genetic issues are still embryonic human beings, and it would be outrageous for anyone to suggest these were not human, just because their development did not appear ‘normal’. Until we know for certain, we must give these embryonic humans the benefit of the doubt.

A scientist places liquid in a petri dish. Photo: CNS, courtesy John Paul II Medical Research Institute

Fourthly, if these organisms do not have such a developmental trajectory, then they might not be bona fide embryos after all. In that case there might be ethical uses for them, and we would support and encourage such ethical use. That’s why for two decades now, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney has funded competitive research into the therapeutic potential of stem cells that are not human embryos, nor derived from human embryos, and perfectly ethical.

Healthy skepticism about a scientific goldrush

Fifthly, if these organisms are human embryos, they deserve the respect owed to early human lives. We should be suspicious of those who rush to characterise them as no embryo at all, particularly when they stand to benefit from this type of dehumanisation. This could just be an Orwellian way of ensuring no-one feels too queasy about the laboratory manufacture of human lives for experimental purposes or that no-one engages in much scrutiny of the project …

Ethics is not a town in England

Some people evidently think Ethics is a place in England. Or that ethics are optional when results, profits or prizes are in view. Or that everything that can be done should be done and inevitably will be done. Researchers are already pushing to lift the period for experimentation on early human life beyond the 14 day limit.

A mouse embryo formed with cells created through a process called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP, is seen in this image. As science breaks barrier after barrier, ethicists are urging caution – especially into developments around human life. Just because we can engineer something doesn’t necessarily mean that we should do it. Photo: CNS, Haruko Obokata, RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology handout via Reuters

Others think this sort of thing is playing god – or playing the devil – and just plain bad.

But we don’t have to presume the best or the worst of the embryo experimenters to be sceptical about the breathless celebration of every Aussie first in this arena as progress, or call for caution while more investigation is done. We should all take a deep breath and ask: what’s the moral cost and where is this taking us as a community. Has the ready expendability of early human life now become an acceptable social norm?

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP is the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney and holds a doctorate in bioethics from the University of Oxford.