Brave New World is Closer Than You Think

Wesley J. Smith
Human Life Review
March 15, 2017
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If you had told me back in, say, 2003, that biotechnology would not be an incendiary subject of political and cultural controversy in 2017, I would have thought you lived in an alternate universe.  Those were the days of the great embryonic stem cell (ESCR) debate, during which President George W. Bush and pro-lifers were angrily accused by scientists in the biotechnology sector, politicians, various patient advocacy groups, and the media of wanting to thwart CURES!, stifle science in the name of religion, and usher in a new “endarkenmet” (as I was once accused of seeking by a prominent bioethicist).[1]  Moreover, given the speed at which biotech was, even then, advancing in its knowledge and sophistication, I would have thought that the field be explosively controversial at all levels of society.

            The stakes could not be higher.  As the eloquent moral philosopher and medical ethicist Leon Kass wrote back in 2002:

As we gain the capacity for genetic screening and for precise genetic modification of embryos, fetuses, and those already born, it becomes easy to imagine the host of disconcerting moral dilemmas in store for us as we come to manipulate our own DNA: questions about the individuality and identity, freedom and limitation, nature versus nurture, respect for live versus the search for cures, procreation versus manufacture, the meaning of having a child, relations among the generations, the definition of “normal” and the standards of “improving” upon it, and the ultimate goals—and limits—of science and medicine. These are no longer questions just for philosophers. Biomedical science and technology have made the questions for all of us, as human beings and as citizens.[2]

In other words, almost everything that truly matters in human society—all that we have commonly understood about our physical, social, and cultural natures—could be profoundly affected and impacted by our growing biotechnological prowess. 

All of that is more true today than then.  Yet, despite exponential advances in biotechnology in the intervening years, the issue generally has faded from public discussion and concern.  That needs to change.  The stakes for our children’s future and free society demands that we reengage with these issues, not merely passively drift with the tide.  Through democratic deliberation, society needs to meet its responsibility to fashion wise ethical parameters around the science sector that are, as Goldilocks put it, “not to hot and not to cold, but ju-u-u-st right,” e.g. sufficiently open to permit innovation and derive new knowledge, while also sufficiently protective of the sanctity and intrinsic dignity of human life enough to avoid the dystopian perils we face.  It will be a tricky business.

 

The Great Embryonic Stem Cell Debate

 

Understanding history as prequel, it is worth taking a moment to recount the ESCR debate as a means of preparing ourselves to effectively counter the apologetics for a radical biotechnology that could dismantle our common understanding of the purpose and meaning of life, family, and society.  In 1998 Dr. James Thomson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin in Madison announced that they had successfully isolated stem cells from human embryos.  (Embryonic stem cells were first isolated in mice in 1981.)  Thomson’s announcement marked the point of a crucial pivot.  Human embryos were no longer to be viewed only, or even primarily, as potential babies.  Now, their tiniest body parts had become potentially valuable sources of medical treatments and biological data—the raw material that could lead to vast riches for the biotechnologists and capitalists in the emerging field of regenerative medicine.[3]

Almost as soon as Dr. Thomson published his research, the scientific community began to clamor urgently for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to open its funding spigot to pay for ESCR.  (The NIH is an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.  One of its primary purposes is to issue government grants to help fund scientific and medical research.)  But those yearning for federal research grants faced a serious legal difficulty.  It was (and as of this writing, is) illegal for the federal government to fund research that destroys embryos, a policy put in place before the discovery of ES cells, commonly known as the “Dickey/Wicker Amendment.”[4]

President Bill Clinton found a way to circumvent the spirit, if not the letter, of Dickey/Wicker.  The Department of Health and Human Services promulgated regulations that made federal funds unavailable to pay for the relatively inexpensive process of destroying embryos and extracting their stem cells.  But once the cell lines were created, however, all further research upon them would be eligible for full NIH funding.  In other words, Clinton encouraged scientists to destroy embryos for research—not funded—with the promise of bountifully funding research on the cells of the dead embryo once the deed was done. [5] 

That plan never went into effect.  President George W. Bush believed it was morally wrong to destroy human life, even at its earliest stages, for the purposes of conducting experiments.  He had run on that issue in his campaign.  As soon as he was inaugurated, the new president suspended—but did not rescind—Clinton’s ESCR funding plan, and entered a time of deep pondering about whether and how to replace it. 

Bush’s action kick started what I call the Great Embryonic Stem Cell Debate, a tectonic moral, scientific, ethical, and political struggle that consumed most of the Bush presidency. Those in support of ESCR federal funding quickly formed a potent political coalition.  In a brilliant stroke, celebrity disease and injury victims, whose fame guaranteed ample media coverage and fawning treatment by politicians, became the campaign’s leading spokespersons.  The most effective of these were the late movie star Christopher (Superman) Reeve (quadriplegia from spinal cord injury) and television stars Michael J. Fox (disabled by Parkinson’s disease) and Mary Tyler Moore (insulin dependent diabetes), whose frequent lobbying trips to Capitol Hill received high profile media coverage and followed by almost guaranteed soft ball interview appearances on television interview shows like Larry King Live or Oprah.

This march of the celebrities was under-girded by politically potent and well-funded disease victim organizations, always influential with elected representatives and looked upon with great sympathy and support by media and the public.  The entire campaign was funded in the millions by biotechnology companies and coordinated by their trade association, the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO). 

It is not my purpose here to replay all of the ups and downs of a several year old political debate.  We can leave that to political science and history textbooks.  But just as the first battle of Bull Run did not decide the Civil War, the Great Stem Cell Debate of 2001 did not finally resolve the larger societal argument over the proper parameters society should place on biotechnological research.  During the Bush term, an ethically uncontentious and Nobel Prize-winning technique of obtaining pluripotent stem cells from skin was discovered that offered most of the benefits of ESCR without the ethical cost.  After a newly inaugurated President Barack Obama essentially reinstated the Clinton approach—and then, the promised cures were not forthcoming, even as adult stem cells enjoyed increasing success—the issue quickly faded from public attention.

The ESCR dispute may have lost its potency, but the epochal ethical controversy it unleashed and the moral quandaries identified in 2002 by Leon Kass remained—awaiting the next big breakthrough to explode into public consciousness.  But an odd thing happened. Those breakthroughs did indeed occur.  However, rather than causing an explosion, they barely caused a ripple of public concern or comment.

 

The Arrival of Human Cloning

 

            In 2002, President George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics issued its first important advisory report, Human Cloning and Human Dignity.[6] The Council was sharply divided about the ethical propriety of engaging in human cloning.  Seven of the eighteen members urged that “cloning-for-biomedical-research” as the Council called it (AKA, “therapeutic cloning,” that is, creating cloned embryos for use in stem cell experiments), proceed under “strict federal regulation.”  Ten urged a total ban on all human cloning experiments for four years. (One member did not participate.) All voting members urged that “cloning-to-produce-children” (AKA “reproductive cloning,” that is, bring a cloned embryo through gestation to live birth) be permanently banned.

            The distinction usually made between “therapeutic cloning” and “reproductive cloning” is a misnomer.  The actual act of human cloning creates—some would say, manufactures—an embryo asexually, e.g., without sperm and egg.  Briefly, here is the how primary method of cloning, known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer” (SCNT) is accomplished:

·       First, take a skin or other cell and remove the nucleus; 

·       Next take an egg and remove its nucleus; 

·       Place the skin cell nucleus where the egg nucleus used to be; 

·       Stimulate with an electric current or other means

If the cloning works—the “doing” is far more difficult than the “describing”—the egg reacts as if it had been fertilized and a new single-cell life comes into being.  After that, the embryo develops in the same manner as an embryo created through sexual means.  Indeed, the only substantial difference between a natural and cloned embryo is the genetic makeup of the former comes from both parents, while that of the latter is genetically identical to the person whose cell nucleus was inserted into the enucleated egg.

The question next becomes what to do with the nascent human life thereby created. If the cloned embryo is destroyed for stem cells or otherwise used in experiments, it is often called “therapeutic cloning.” If the embryo is implanted in a uterus for gestation and birth, it is often called “reproductive cloning.” But, it is important to re-emphasize, these distinctions involve uses made of the cloned embryo, not the actual act of cloning.

At the time of the Council’s report, no one had actually succeeded in human cloning, nor was it sure that it could actually be accomplished.  Yes, mammals were, even then, increasingly being cloned and gestated to birth successfully.  But creating human clones remained a future potential rather than a present actuality.  That was why the members believed it was so important to grapple with the philosophical and ethical conundrums human cloning presented and help society reach agreement about a proper way forward.

Alas, that didn’t happen. Other than in the laws of a few states in the U.S. and the occasional country, such as Germany, human cloning remained fundamentally unregulated when conducted with private resources. True, the U.S. does not federally fund the research, thanks to the Dickey/Wicker Amendment.  But attempts at creating cloned human embryos have continued using private money from the Bush years forward.

Then, in 2013, the breakthrough:[7] Scientists reported that they had succeeded in creating four cloned human embryos through SCNT and maintained them to the 150-200-cell stage (known as a blastocyst), the point at which embryonic stem cells could be (and were) derived—which also happens to be the stage of development at which embryos can be implanted in a uterus if they are to be gestated to birth. This should have been huge international news and a cause of much public discussion and debate.  Indeed, in 2004 when South Korean scientist Huang wu-Suk claimed to have created the first human cloned embryos and derived embryonic stem cells from them, , it set off a political firestorm, with human cloning proponents and opponents debating hotly over how and whether to regulate human cloning, or even—as I advocate—to ban it altogether.  (It later turned out that he had done no such thing. Huang was a charlatan, and with that news, the cloning controversy went into eclipse.)

But now, the very deed that briefly made Huang the world’s most famous scientist has actually been accomplished, and you can hear the crickets chirping. Why the striking difference in attention paid to an epochal story?  Huang claimed to have successfully cloned human beings.  Seeing the discord that caused—and wanting to prevent another such public brouhaha that could result in regulations impeding their work—the Science Establishment avoided using the C-word in the popular media—instead claiming merely that stem cells were obtained from “unfertilized eggs,”—a technical truth that masked a huge lie.  Thus the Wall Street Journal reported:

Scientists have used cloning technology to transform human skin cells into embryonic stem cells, an experiment that may revive the controversy over human cloning. The researchers stopped well short of creating a human clone. But they showed, for the first time, that it is possible to create cloned embryonic stem cells that are genetically identical to the person from whom they are derived.[8]

That bland description missed an essential—and morally crucial—element:  The experiment did not stop “well short of creating a human clone.” It did that very thing.  As I described above, SCNT does not create stem cells, it manufactures a human embryo via asexual reproduction, from which stem cells can be derived just as with a fertilized embryo.  After that, no further “cloning” is required and a new life exists, which is as human if done to us as Dolly was a sheep after being created by the same process.  That’s no small matter.

The successful cloning of human beings—whether for research or birth—is momentous: Even if the technique is used only in pursuit of biological knowledge and medical treatments, those will come at the very high ethical price of manufacturing human life for the purpose of harvesting it like a corn crop—that is, for the purpose of destroying it.

The fact that human beings can be cloned is a scientific triumph, but it is also an ethical earthquake. Cloning is the essential technology in the development of a plethora of other unprecedented and morally dubious technologies; the genetic engineering of embryos, the creation of human/animal chimeras, the gestation of cloned fetuses in artificial wombs as a means of obtaining patient-compatible organs, and eventually, the birth of cloned babies. But because these experiments also offer the potential to advance scientific knowledge and ameliorate significant human suffering, they will tempt us—always for “the best” reasons—to set aside our convictions about the intrinsic dignity of all human life.  As the noted pundit Charles Krauthammer, who served on George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, warned in the New Republic in 2002, creating cloned embryos for research is “dangerous” because it reduces the cloned embryo to “mere thingness,” justifying “the most ruthless exploitation.” He went on opine:

It is the ultimate in desensitization . . . The problem, one could almost say, is not what cloning does to the embryo, but what it does to us . . . Creating a human embryo just so it can be used and then destroyed undermines the very foundation of the moral prudence that informs the entire enterprise of genetic research: the idea that, while a human embryo may not be a person, it is not nothing. Because if it is nothing, then everything is permitted. And if everything is permitted, then there are no fences, no safeguards, no bottom.”[9]

Because these experiments offer the potential to advance scientific knowledge, they will tempt us—always for “the best” reasons—to set aside our convictions about the intrinsic dignity of all human life.  But supporters of the pro-life philosophy believe that good ethics lead to good science—just as George W. Bush’s embryonic stem cell funding policy helped create an atmosphere in which the intrinsic value of the human embryo remained a major focus of the debate.   Just induced pluripotent stem cells eventually opened an ethical path around the moral quandaries posed by stem cell research, so too will scientists be able to discover biotechnological means of obtaining knowledge and developing medical treatments they look for without surrendering the sanctity of human life principle.  

 

 

Setting the Table for Genetic Engineering

 

               Human cloning has been sold to a wary public as a means of bringing about medical treatments and cures.  For example, some have argued that stem cells taken from a cloned embryo could be used in regenerative treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s, without worries about tissue rejection since the cells and the patient would be an exact match genetically.  Others have gone even farther, urging what some call “fetal farming,”[10] that is, creating cloned embryos for a patient needing an organ transplant, gestating them into fetuses, and then transplanting the fetal organs, a process that could theoretically solve the organ shortage and allow transplant recipients be liberated from the strong drugs currently required to suppress tissue rejection.

            Such utilitarian exploitation of cloned human embryos are a ghoulish theoretical possibility, but I don’t believe they represent the ultimate goal of the Brave New Worldists (if you will).  Rather, cloning is not the seen as the goal but a launching pad, the essential technology that could permit the redesign of the human genome. Or, to use a more familiar term; the coming of human cloning has opened the door to the radical redesign of the human species through methods of genetic engineering.

Not too long ago, the notion that scientists were close to developing the technological prowess to enable them to change our biological nature at the genetic level seemed farfetched, at best.  The human genome and its expression are extremely complex, both in its architecture and function.  Learning which genes do what, and how they impact other genes and their expression, what could happen if these natural functions are altered, was a Gordian knot that could not be untangled.

Now, with the epochal breakthrough of cloning human life, scientists have arrived at the threshold technology that—when further perfected—could allow them to create methods to engineer the human genome through a trial-and-error experimentation on mass-produced genetically identical cloned embryos. Vice President and Research Director, Charlotte Lozier Institute, David A. Prentice, Ph.D., a biologist and adult stem cell researcher, warns, “Cloning is a gateway technology for many embryo experiments, and especially for genetic manipulation of humans.”

Initially, these experiments would probably be conducted on early cloned embryos in Petri dishes. But developing the techniques to effectively the human genome would eventually require developing embryos further into gestation—feasible once the artificial womb perfected, the development of which is an ongoing scientific area of inquiry already in animal testing.  Prentice worries:

Scientists would have to clone thousands of embryos and grow them to the blastocyst stage to ensure that part of the process leading up to transfer into a uterus could be "safe,” monitoring and analyzing each embryo, destroying each one in the process.  Next, cloned embryos would have to be transferred into the uteruses of women volunteers or artificial wombs.  The initial purpose would be analysis of development, not bringing the pregnancy to a live birth.  Each of these clonal pregnancies would be terminated at various points of development, each fetus destroyed for scientific analysis. 

 

Finally, if these experiments demonstrated that it was probably safe to proceed, a few clonal pregnancies [of the genetically modified] would be allowed to go to full term.  Yet even then, the born cloned babies would have to be constantly monitored to determine whether any health problems develop.  Each would have to be followed (and undergo a battery of tests both physical and psychological) for their entire lives, since there is no way to predict  if problems [associated with gene expression] might arise later in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or even into the senior years.[11]

We are not yet at the place where the above scenario can be carried out. Yes, scientists can clone humans. But the technology remains difficult, with far more failures than successes.  Moreover, “mass cloning” (as I call it) isn’t yet feasible because would-be cloners lack a basic resource; human eggs.  As readers will recall, each cloning attempt requires one mature human egg, and at present, human eggs are a rare and increasingly valuable commodity on the open market, most of which are consumed by the ever-expanding IVF industry. 

That could soon change. In animal studies, technologists have learned to transform skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, which were, in turn, transformed into eggs—which were then fertilized successfully.  From the Telegraph story:

Artificial eggs have been grown in a petri dish for the first time, and used to create living animals in a breakthrough hailed as 'remarkable' by British experts. Scientists in Japan proved it is possible to take tissue cells from the tail of a mouse, reprogramme them as stem cells and then turn them into eggs in the lab.

 

The ‘eggs in a dish’ were then fertilised and the resulting embryos were implanted in female mice which went on to give birth to 11 healthy pups.[12]

If that could ever be done with human tissues—and there would seem to be no biological impediment—there would be no limit to the number of eggs that could be manufactured and made available for use in the cloning process.  At that point, there would be nothing, other than self-restraint—good luck with that!—stopping technologists from learning how to clone human embryos more efficiently, and from there, conducting mass cloning experiments of the kind discussed above.

            There’s still more meat in the stew pot. The final technologies needed to genetically engineer the human race have already been developed.  IVF embryos are routinely genetically tested for diseases and quality control—including sex-selection—in a process known as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).  Those that pass eugenic muster may be implanted.  Those that don’t are tossed as medical waste or turned over to technologists for experimentation.

Such testing is a passive process. Actively engineering embryos would require an “editing” technology that would permit the biotechnologists to switch genes in and out, whether to examine the role the gene plays, say, in human development, and to learn how to use genetic engineering for health improvements or enhancement outcomes. 

That technology is not futuristic. It is already here.  CRISPR[13] is a gene-editing technique—the details of how it is done aren’t important for our discussion—that “makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people.”[14] This means that technologists can now bioengineer any organism on earth, leading to the potential to produce miraculous cures of illness and disability, a eugenics regime of embryo design, even a bioengineered weapon of biological terror.

 

Conclusion

 

            From the pro-life perspective, biotechnological advances have already eroded the fundamental ethic that all human life is sacred, and caused a resurgence in the belief—which permeated the slavery consciousness—that some human lives can be treated as natural resources for the benefit of others.   It has also furthered a particular mind-set—nay, an ideology—that sees biology as applied through technology (“biotechnology”) in almost mystical terms. Some even foresee a future in which biotechnologists’ manipulations have become so radical and widespread that they will have blurred the genetic distinctions between some humans and animal species.

With so much humanity-altering power being developed, where are the democratic debates about whether we should permit human beings to be designed, manufactured, and subjected to methods of quality control? They barely exist outside the realm of science symposia, and these issues certainly weren’t discussed during the recent presidential campaign.

Not only that: When attempts to establish parameters for biotechnology are tried, usually at the state level, they are almost always stymied in the legislative process.  We haven’t even had a transparent national discussion about what constitutes a “positive direction” for these technologies or grappled with the essential question of whether the genetic engineering of humans is inherently wrong.

            It’s not as if we weren’t warned to be prepared. “The theme of Brave New World is not the advancement of science as such,” wrote Aldous Huxley in a 1946 foreword to the republication of his groundbreaking novel, it “is the advancement of science as it affects human individuals.”[15]   Huxley worried that science was leading “a really revolutionary revolution” to “be achieved, not in the external world, but in the souls and flesh of human beings.”[16]  In other words, human biology, and indeed, human nature itself could, Huxley feared, become the subjects and objects of scientific manipulation. 

When Huxley first published his immortal novel in 1932, the technologies he described seemed unbelievable.  Babies gestated in artificial environments rather than in their own mothers’ wombs?  It could never happen.  Genetic engineering to “predestine and precondition” human life toward possessing pre-selected traits and attributes.[17]  What a vivid imagination!  A world where applied science has alleviated all human suffering but also destroyed human aspiration and individuality. Now, they are here.

With the development of biotechnology, we find ourselves at one of the most important moral crossroads in human history.  We can pursue biotechnology to treat disease and improve the human condition, while retaining sufficient humility and self-restraint to keep ourselves from endangering the intrinsic value of human life.  Or, we can hubristically rush onto the very anti-human path warned against by Aldous Huxley, driven by our thirst for knowledge, vast profits, and obsession with control and vastly expanded life spans. 

This essay is not an argument for stifling biotechnology. That couldn’t be done even if it were deemed desirable. But it is written in the hope that the pro-life community will come to understand that they will have to engage life issues on the cutting edge of science as—perhaps, more--energetically than they do abortion.  The human future, quite literally, depends on it. 

 

 



[1] A stem cell is the popular name for a cell that is “undifferentiated,” meaning it has not yet transformed into one of the more than 200 types of tissue found in the human body, e.g., blood, bone, fat, brain, etc.  Pluripotent stem cells, such as those derived from destroyed embryos, are capable of becoming any tissue in the body. Adult stem cells, which also offer great medical potential are multipotent, that is, they are capable of becoming many different kinds of tissues.

[2] Leon Kass, Foreword, Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President’s Council on Bioethics, (New York, Public Affairs, 2002) pp. xiv-xv.

[3] Biotechnological and medical researchers hope that stem cells may be able to provide “regenerative” medical treatments for “degenerative conditions,” i.e., an illness or injury in which an organ or other body system ceases to function properly because of a breakdown or death of cells or tissues such as heart disease, diabetes, serious burns, spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s and others such afflictions.

[4] The "Dickey/Wicker Amendment" is a limitation amendment in the appropriations bill for the Dept. of Health and Human Services.  It must be renewed annually. https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/dickey-wicker-amendment-1996

[5] National Institutes of Health Guidelines for Research Using Human Pluripotent Stem Cells, 65 Fed. Reg. 51976-81 (August 25, 2000).

[6] Human Cloning and Human Dignity, Supra.

[7] David Cyranoski, “Human Stem Cells Created by Cloning,” Nature, May 15, 2013. http://www.nature.com/news/human-stem-cells-created-by-cloning-1.12983 

[8] Gautam Naik, “Experiment Brings Human Cloning Once Step Closer,” Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2013. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324082604578485064174222502

[9] Charles Krauthammer, “Crossing Lines,” The New Republic, April 29, 2002. http://sci.rutgers.edu/forum/showthread.php?15691-Charles-Krauthammer-A-Secular-Argument-Against-Research-Cloning

[10] Jacob Appel, “Are We Ready for a Market in Fetal Organs?” Huffington Post, April 17, 2009. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jacob-m-appel/are-we-ready-for-a-market_b_175900.html

[11]David A. Prentice, email interview with Wesley J. Smith, December 28, 2016.

[12] Sarah Knapton, “Scientists Create Live Animals from Artificial Eggs,” Telegraph, October 18, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/10/17/scientists-make-live-animals-from-artificial-eggs-in-remarkable

[13] CRISPR is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.”

[14] Amy Maxmen, “The Genesis Engine,” Wired, August 2015 (my emphasis). https://www.wired.com/2015/07/crispr-dna-editing-2/

[15] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, from the Foreword, (Harper Perennial, New York, NY, 1998), p. xi.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.