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Are Chimeras People Too?

Catholic bishops oppose human-animal hybrids but say that if one is created, it should be considered a full human.

As Britain prepares to debate a provision in Parliament to allow the creation of chimeric hybrids of humans and animals (see blog of May 24, 2007), the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have told a joint committee in the British legislature that these chimeras should be allowed to go to term and be born.

What these Catholic prelates object to is the proposed destruction of chimeric embryos after 14 days. They believe that embryos that are partially human should be implanted in human mothers, and that they should be afforded all the rights of a 100 percent human. According to a recent article in London’s Telegraph,

The bishops, who believe that life begins at conception, said that they opposed the creation of any embryo solely for research, but they were also anxious to limit the destruction of such life once it had been brought into existence.

In their submission to the committee, they said: “At the very least, embryos with a preponderance of human genes should be assumed to be embryonic human beings, and should be treated accordingly.

“In particular, it should not be a crime to transfer them, or other human embryos, to the body of the woman providing the ovum, in cases where a human ovum has been used to create them.

“Such a woman is the genetic mother, or partial mother, of the embryo; should she have a change of heart and wish to carry her child to term, she should not be prevented from doing so.”

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, astronomers sanctioned by the Catholic Church, such as Christopher Clavius, labored to create a scientific cosmological framework that conformed to both church dogma and the latest observations and data coming from astronomers, such as Nicolas Copernicus, that contradicted the dogma that the earth was at the center of the universe. Attempts to reconcile the two positions led to convoluted and bizarre justifications that were eventually abandoned by nearly everyone.

Arguing that hybrid species with human components deserve to be born requires similar leaps of logic. For instance, if one truly believes that a partially human embryo is a full human, then what about all the animals that share a preponderance of DNA with us humans already, such as other primates, dogs, and mice? What percentage of “human” DNA, which is not exclusively human anyway, makes an organism truly “human”?

Figuring out what is human and what is not is an intriguing question as scientists begin to create human-hybrid embryos, but that’s a separate issue from what the bishops are discussing. What they really oppose is human embryos being used for research or treatment, and then destroyed. For now, almost no one wants these bundles of inter-species DNA to go to term. That’s not the point. The idea is to develop therapies using hybrid embryos to treat and cure disease. Creating a dog-person is not on anyone’s agenda.

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