| BioEdge | Sunday, March 26, 2017
Both in the US and UK, growing human embryos more than 14 days in a laboratory is banned. Recent developments suggest that it may be possible to grow them for longer and a number of scientists are lobbying to extend the limit. They contend that the limit is out-of-date and too restrictive.
But what if they could create embryo-like structures without creating complete embryos? This possibility is completely unregulated.
This is why John D. Aach and George Church and others from Harvard Medical School say that ethical guidelines for synthetic human entities with embryo-like features (SHEEFs) are needed. It might be possible to create a human heart and a rudimentary human brain, for instance. What if the brain is conscious, or could feel pain?
Research limits designed for embryos will not work for SHEEFs because “it will soon become possible to generate SHEEFs that can bypass canonical embryonic stages through the use of completely different laboratory operations”.
The 14-day rule was a hard-fought compromise between different ethical views of the embryos but at least the participants in the debate understood what an embryo was. “SHEEFs might present novel combinations of such features that are very unlike those of embryos, and are so new and unfamiliar that traditions may be puzzled and unable to offer articulated opinions about them.”
In an article in the journal eLife, Aach and his colleagues call for a wide-ranging discussion about the ethics of creating SHEEFs. They compare the 14-day rule to a stop sign at the end of a research road. What scientists need now is a perimeter fence surrounding experiments on SHEEFs to prevent researchers from straying into unethical territory.
“I absolutely support this,” Cambridge University biologist Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz told NPR’s Shots. “The time is right to begin discussion of these issues in a forum that includes scientists and has a wide representation of society.”
A number of the eminences of Silicon Valley are besotted with immortality. Google, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are a just a few names amongst the many who want to do away with death, or at least add a few decades, or even a few hundred years, to their lifespans.
Even if this is achievable, is this desirable?
British sci-fi author and futurist Paul Graham Raven has written a blistering demolition of the transhumanist project. (Hat-tip to Wired.) It is basically a philosophy for selfish (and mostly white) rich guys, he suggests.
it turns out that technologies which extend, augment or otherwise improve human life are already here! You may have heard of some of them: clean water; urban sanitation; smokeless cooking facilities; free access to healthcare; a guaranteed minimum income; a good, free education. There are more – and you’d be surprised how many of them have been around in one form or another for decades, even centuries! But they’re unevenly distributed at the moment, so the first agenda item for all transhumanists should be looking for ways to get these technologies to everyone on the planet as soon as possible
But that is unlikely to happen. In their single-minded focus on maximising their own welfare, dedicated transhumanists are deaf to the needs of the society: “You look after yourself, I’ll look after me; what could be fairer than that?” Raven writes caustically. Come to think of it, this critique of personal autonomy could be applied to a number of other areas in bioethics.
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