By David Prentice, PhD
Editor’s note. This appeared in the journal of the Christian Medical & Dental Association and is reposted with permission.
What defines our humanity and what it means to be a human being? Put another way, who counts? Every human life has value, no matter the age or stage of development, size, genetic or acquired characteristics or circumstances of the individual. Our intrinsic worth comes from the fact that we are a human being, an organism of the species Homo sapiens. Yet we continue to be drawn to misapply scientific and medical knowledge to divide human beings, denigrate our own humanity and exert power over others.
The most recent proposal to use artificial intelligence (AI) for in vitro fertilization (IVF) is a good example. In theory, the AI tool will help select high quality embryos, leading to higher rates of pregnancies and births. Yet the language itself betrays the eugenic nature—if you “select” some embryos as “high quality,” you are also judging other human embryos to be low quality, lower grade beings, even unworthy of life. That embryonic attitude toward other humans can persist into other areas of life as well. Another example previously pointed out is the gymnastics to justify abortion-derived fetal tissue research, a failed science that exploits the bodies of the millions of aborted children, while truly life-saving alternatives exist.
Millions of young human lives have been destroyed in the last 50 years, and millions more could be exploited in the near future. Moreover, newer laboratory techniques now press on the question of what it means to be human, or who counts as an embryo. For example, how many ways exist, besides fertilization, to make an embryo? How many human embryos have been created and destroyed in experiments? Is a “synthetic” embryo a real embryo or not, and do they count? How “human” is a human-animal chimera? Would growth in an artificial womb (ectogenesis) mean you are less than human? What is a gastruloid, and would you recognize an embryoid if you met one?
These are questions you may never have asked or considered, but there will soon come a time when you must be aware of the answers as well as their ethical significance, as this is another step in the instrumental use of human beings. One estimate is that around 50 million human embryos have been created and destroyed in laboratories over the last 50 years. These deaths are in addition to the millions of lives destroyed by abortion.
Tragically, some in science have gladly led in the exploitive, destructive ideology. We’ve heard repeatedly that if only we’d submit to the latest woke genius concept, give them money to implement their ideas and control the agenda, there would be abundant cures. But it’s simply not true. And the only ones who benefit are the purveyors of the ideology, while millions of lives are destroyed and real human progress is hindered. We must end the destruction and exploitation of nascent human life.
The crucial first step down the road is understanding the facts, the real biology. The Voyage of Life provides a highly-visual, thoroughly-documented tour of human prenatal life.
The Carnegie Stages of human development have been the accepted embryological standard describing early human life since 1942. Ronan O’Rahilly, who completed the standards, notes the straightforward biological fact:
“Prenatal age begins at fertilization, postnatal age at birth.”
Science does acknowledge the reality of a human being’s beginnings, even if the politicized science nonsense often misleads. The journal Nature, one of the two leading scientific journals in the world, titled one 2002 article on human development “Your destiny, from day one.”
The Handbook of Nascent Human Beings by Dr. Tara Sander Lee and Dr. James L. Sherley is meant to serve as a visual reference guide for understanding how humans come into being, the mechanisms of creation and biological properties of young human life, and the growing usage of nascent human beings and their cells as experimental fodder. This handbook has a complementary second volume: A Handbook of Bioethical Considerations Regarding Nascent Human Beings and Their Cells (Handbook II) provides in-depth discussion of the ethics and morality regarding the creation and manipulation of nascent human life. Dr. Sander Lee and Dr. Sherley have even made a convenient chart that summarizes at a glance the debate about the permissibility of the scientific experiments with nascent human beings and their cells.
Why should anyone take the time to read through Handbook I and II? For one, they provide basic information on how a nascent human being comes into existence and how we all develop. The visual format and explanations translate the scientific concepts in an easily readable format. They also highlight the ever-widening pool of methods to make an embryo, as well as how human embryos and their cells are exploited. In addition, the handbooks provide an ethical touchstone to evaluate the ethical and moral significance of nascent human beings and biomedical research.
Some of the material sounds like science fiction—clones, three-parent embryos, genetically-engineered babies, human-animal chimeras, synthetic embryos—yet the pressure to create and experiment on nascent human beings is only increasing. Some scientists ignore or disdain the ethical implications, which leaves those of us who do consider bioethics to speak up for those who have no voice. Human beings conceived by scientific bioengineering are no less human than those conceived by natural processes. Therefore, they have the same moral significance, and they require the same bioethics considerations before use for biomedical experimentation.
The increase in the challenges to embryonic human life has escalated in recent years. As just one example, let’s consider the “14-day rule” regarding human embryo laboratory research. This rule of practice in some countries, legal restriction in others, was derived decades ago to prohibit in vitro growth of human embryos beyond 14 days. For those desiring to experiment on embryos, it was an easy ethical rule to follow, since no one was able to keep human embryos alive in the laboratory for nearly that long. Until a few years ago, that is, when two labs reported they could grow human embryos right up to the brink of 14 days. Suddenly the ethical rule was constraining science, and the need for a 14-day limit was questioned. In early 2021, an Israeli group grew mouse embryos in laboratory bottles for extended periods up to halfway through gestation, and they proposed doing the same with human embryos. Their experiments with mouse embryos included using them for toxicity tests, gene editing mutation experiments and adding human stem cells to the mouse embryos to form human-mouse chimeras. Next would be experiments with human embryos. The lead researcher noted: “I would advocate growing it [a human embryo] until day 40 and then disposing of it.”
By 2021, the pressure to break the rule led to the promotion of new guidelines by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), which recommended not just an extension, but no limit whatsoever, as long as the scientific objectives could be justified (read “rationalized.”)
The ISSCR’s new guidelines also recommended that creation and gestation of three-parent embryos be allowed. The promises made for this technology, actually a form of cloning (nuclear transfer), were that it would treat mitochondrial genetic mutations. However, no treatment is actually involved; rather, new human beings—replacements—are created to be genetically free of the mutations. Despite the lack of evidence, the UK Parliament approved these risky experiments in 2015, with the first license granted and cases approved in 2018. Yet, it took a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from a news organization to uncover the fact that up to this time “less than five” babies had been born via this technique. A question tabled in Parliament revealed that those few births were the outcome of 317 three-parent embryos created, and 24 transferred to the womb. Why so few and why no trumpeting of the technique’s successful genetic engineering? It’s likely the technique did not produce the promised results. Other experiments creating three-parent babies have shown the embryos show genetic reversion and do not effectively remove the mutation. These children have simply been experiments.
Similar problems keep cropping up with proposals for heritable gene editing using CRISPR. One recent result of experiments showed that the gene-editing technique was ineffective when used with early human embryos, with the researchers noting these techniques “may have unwanted and potentially dangerous consequences if they are applied to human embryos.”
While there are many more instances of exploitation of nascent human beings that could be discussed, one more recent example will be enough for now: so-called “synthetic embryos.” In point of fact, the embryos are not synthetic, but the techniques used for their creation are synthetic and not the usual way embryos come into being. The techniques with the most far-reaching implications create embryo-like constructs by mixing together various stem cells. Whether called synthetic, replicas, models or embryos, the constructed entities are becoming more and more like authentic embryos made the old-fashioned way, with egg and sperm.
In 2022, the same Israeli group mentioned above that grew authentic mouse embryos half-way through gestation, used mouse stem cells to create embryo-like entities that could also be grown for extended periods of time in their rotating bottle system. The principal investigator discussed using human cells to grow “synthetic organs” in a similar manner as for the mice. What wasn’t said was that the constructs don’t just grow isolated organs; instead, they grow embryos that produce organs for harvest. The Israeli group has already formed a company with the goal of growing human parts to order, in their created embryo-like organisms. The idea would be to take some cells from a person, revert those cells to embryonic-like cells, then create “synthetic” embryos and grow them to a stage appropriate for organ harvesting. The scenario is very much like the science fiction story in the movie The Island. The most recent reports from five different laboratories (one being the Israeli lab) are that they are getting closer and closer to a perfect mimic of a human embryo, including growing to the stage of a beating heart. What do you call something that looks like an embryo and functions like an embryo? An embryo.
In his book The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis warns:
“It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it. The pain and the shock are at most a warning and a symptom. The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his dehumanized Conditioners.”
May we choose not to see any human as raw material, but to see every human as precious.