The stem-cell debate raging in the U.S. these last six years has hinged on a question of life and death—that is, whether destroying a human embryo should be permissible. But it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ethical quandaries in the age of biotechnology. The kind of debates waiting for us just past the next turn will be far more subtle and complex, and directed to questions of human dignity as much as human life.
To get a hint of the mind-boggling issues to come, consider the debate over human-animal hybrids in Britain. Scientists in the UK have asked for government permission to use cloning techniques to produce a new entity that is almost entirely human, but not quite. In human cloning, a human egg is emptied of its nucleus, and in its place scientists insert the nucleus of another human adult cell (like a skin cell, for instance). The result is a developing embryo—a clone—with the genetic identity of the skin-cell donor, along with small amounts of DNA remaining from the egg donor.
The British scientists propose to use an animal egg cell—say, from a rabbit—in place of the human egg cell in this process, to avoid the risks and difficulties of obtaining eggs from women. The other adult cell would still come from a human being, so the resulting embryo would be human, but with some lingering animal DNA. No one quite knows what this would mean for its development, but the researchers propose to destroy the embryos to use their cells in research, rather than allow them to develop, so they argue there is nothing wrong with the concept. No clones would be born, and no human-animal hybrid would develop past about two weeks after conception.
The issues this raises go far beyond the “life question.” What should we make of the effort to muddy the human-animal boundary? And what of the cloning process involved? Should society abide the asexual production of a mostly-but-not-quite-human creature? The British government at first said no. But the predictable pressure from researchers soon came, with promises of cures and claims of therapeutic benefits. After a political and press campaign of several months, the hybrid advocates seem to have won the day: the government today signaled it will rethink its opposition. Welcome to the future.