Last month the NIH released proposed rules to use taxpayer dollars to fund certain human-animal chimera research. The rule would lift the current prohibition of any federal funding of biomedical projects that inject human stem cells into mammal embryos or brains. Unfortunately, this significant rule proposal and shift in NIH bioethical policy has been mostly met with confusion from Pro-Lifers and the public at large.
On one hand, the Pro-Life community should be the first to praise efforts to develop cures, study debilitating diseases, and develop new medical interventions. One of the goals of this abnormal research is the hope to “grow” organs in animals suitable for transplant into human beings. Given the ethical complications and injustices occurring in the field of organ donation and procurement, this should be a development all can celebrate. However, medical promises aside, there are several reasons we must oppose this specific NIH rule change.
The most obvious and clear-cut reason that the Pro-Life movement must oppose this research is because of the use of human embryonic stem cells. The NIH guidelines clarify this will not fund the creation or destruction of additional human embryos to extract embryonic stem cells. However, the guidelines allow what President Obama authorized in 2009 when he rescinded a previous Pro-Life executive order. Since 2009, taxpayer dollars are regularly spent on some anti-Life research that uses stem cells taken from unwanted embryos donated from IVF. Now this NIH proposal would expand the type of embryonic stem cell research that taxpayers fund. Since all embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of an individual human being, Pro-Lifers cannot endorse these projects.
Human Dignity and “substantively human”
However, there is a more basic and deeper problem with the NIH’s proposal to fund human-animal chimera research. At the heart of the Pro-Life movement is the fundamental principle that every individual human being has an immense dignity and incalculable worth. We see elective abortion as an abhorrent injustice because the practice represents the stronger and more powerful causing the death of the weaker and powerless. Similarly, euthanasia introduces the cause of a patient’s death instead of dealing with his or her medical condition or even attending to the basic needs of the dying. We reject ending the Life of others because they are a burden on society or live in a tragic condition. We have a deep commitment to provide for, and not abandon, these vulnerable individuals. These positions all stem from the core commitment to protect and properly value human Life.
This very issue is at play in this NIH proposed rule change. The goal of chimera research is to scientifically “humanize” animals to a degree that testing cures and studying diseases would provide greater insight into how these potential cures and diseases respond in natural humans. The NIH and chimera-proponents have argued that guidelines will be adopted that prohibits researchers to produce “substantively humanized” organisms. Researchers want to have laboratory subjects human enough to receive reliable data from, yet animal enough to avoid ethical concerns about harming or adversely affecting natural humans.
These rules articulating the ethical fine line the NIH will try to walk have not been published, yet they will be critical to the Pro-Life movement. Who will define how human is too human in these “non-substantively humanized” chimeras? What will count as substantial human capacities and features and marginally human ones? Remember, the refusal to answer exactly when human Life begins was a turning point in the destructive Roe v. Wade decision. These questions are just a few of the critical inquiries and discussions that have not occurred in a manner to justify forcing millions of taxpayers to become financially complicit this research.
Debating Funding, not Legality
The biggest take-away from these proposed NIH rules is that this serves as an excellent snapshot of the state of bioethical policy in the United States. This debate is about whether researchers will use taxpayer funded grants in creating chimeras, not whether we should ban all chimera research from occurring in the United States. Hundreds of billions of dollars of private funding are spent on medical and biotechnological research every year in the United States outside of government oversight. For example, Texas ranks fifth in the nation in government funded medical and biotech research ($1.1 billion), yet we rank fourth in the nation for total biotech research and development funding ($17.9 billion). With embarrassingly few Pro-Life protections on privately funded cloning, stem cell research, genetic editing, and human-animal chimera projects, the United States is the ‘Wild West of Biotech Research.’ Although the debate over NIH funding is important, we must realize how far our country is from having a legitimate debate about whether we should allow this research at all, not just who pays for such a thing. This point is clear when we realize these rules are being discussed and drafted under the NIH that conducts research and awards funding rather than by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, the advisory panel created to examine the ethics and relevant questions in controversial areas of medical and research ethics. Until we have leadership in Washington D.C. that is willing and able to grabble with what these types of research affirm or deny about humanity and human dignity, the responsibility to restore common sense in the ‘Wild West’ of biotech research falls on individual state legislatures and locally engaged Pro-Life activists.
NIH is accepting public comment on the proposed rules until September 6, 2016. Click here to submit your opinion.