ProLifers’ Update on Genetic Engineering: ARTIFICIAL EMBRYOS

This is a disturbing topic for anyone who treasures human life.

Researchers are now “coaxing” human stem cells, in the lab, to grow into beings that are similar to a human embryo.

What? They are creating living beings out of human cells that have the ability to grow into any portion of the human body. Fully formed embryos were created in mice using this technique.

Why? So they can study and experiment on them (including genetic engineering) without worrying about government regulations intended to impose some moral sanity. Current regulations in countries where the research is conducted (the U.S. and Great Britain) do not allow funding for research that creates human embryos or studies embryos that are “allowed” to live beyond 14 days.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that researchers can’t proceed with private funding. And that’s what is occurring.

An article in MIT Technology Review is titled “Meet the ‘artificial embryos’ being called uncanny and spectacular.” This is a clear sign that the issues surrounding these new beings are already being distorted. I have seen “spectacular” sunrises and “uncanny” Halloween costumes. Jerry Seinfeld’s girlfriend was “spectacular” (remember the episode?), and Elizabeth Warren’s policy ideas are “uncanny”. But let’s use some more appropriate and sober words here, okay?

There are several ethical issues involved.

First, while these are not fully formed human beings, they are in fact human beings in fundamental ways. They are not merely human parts, tissues, or cells taken from a human body, but self-growing and complex beings that have developed from human cells. Do they not have substantial moral dignity – especially in the light of Christian wisdom on the dignity of the unborn?

One researcher said “We know that stem cells are magical in their powerful potential of what they can do. We did not realize they could self-organize so beautifully or perfectly.” Well, when you look at it like that, maybe they are spectacular. But nobody seems to be admitting that the new beings are beautiful or perfect.

Second, should researchers be playing with human cells in this manner? Medicine and therapy are great because they address the suffering and thriving of a whole person (or they are supposed to). In this research, there may be therapeutic purposes involved, but the focus is primarily on studying the little buggers. Should we create living beings, however defined, from the miraculously endowed stem cells of human beings, for the sake of more knowledge? Medicine is supposed to help people, not create, torture, and kill them.

Third, not “allowing” a being to live is another way of saying they are being killed. They may not live long, but should researchers be killing any being or organism, developed from human cells, before it naturally dies? Should they be deliberately forming such beings with handicaps that cause them to die early?

Fourth, government regulations that impose a 14 day lifespan for human embryos used in research is possibly even more barbaric and immoral than allowing them to live their full, divinely bestowed purpose through a natural death.     

Fifth, the stem cells from which these new beings are “coaxed” include both pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells. So human embryos are being harvested and killed in order to create these beings. (This is an appropriate time for quite a lot of swearing and pulling of hair.)

Before going further, I need to discuss some of the words being used for these “artificial embryos”:

  1. These are not embryos. They are composed of human cells, and they are some kind of being, but they do not have all the essential features of an embryo, such as the structure of a placenta that would enable them to be carried in a mother’s womb full term.
  • Whether these are human organisms is up for debate. They do have the capacity for growing on their own, but would probably die before a mother could give birth. Is being born a necessary characteristic of an organism? That is doubtful. A U.S. law called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment bans NIH funding for research on human “organisms” formed from human cells.
  • Something is usually called artificial if it is man-made and does not occur naturally. In this case, scientists are taking a human stem cell (natural) and manipulating chemicals (natural) to form some sort of living being (natural). The word “artificial” comes too close to suggesting that these beings are mere products like anything else.

These “artificial embryos” will not be mere subjects of study for long. One goal is to conduct genetic editing on the beings. Another possibility, over which some researchers salivate, is to develop fully formed embryos and babies without joining a human sperm and egg – essentially cutting the sexes out from the process. Perhaps the most likely outcome is forming new beings with living organs that can be harvested for other human beings.

Oh – in case you were wondering, researchers are excited to announce that they have invented machines that will form several of these “artificial embryos” in just a few hours. By running many machines at a time, they can create hundreds in that time.

Just what we needed: more to worry about.

Was there any better time for Christians to evangelize?

For more info on genetic engineering of human embryos, see