The Apeman and the Scotsman: the slippery slope to humanzees

In the Scotsman this week there is an interview with a scientist who
has claimed that a loophole in the draft UK Human Fertilisation and
Embryology Bill is likely to lead to the creation of hybrid human-apes
or “humanzees”.

In essence this argument is a slippery slope objection to the proposed
changes in the powers of the UK regulatory authority for embryo and
fertilisation research.

Calum MacKellar, a biochemist, and Director of the Scottish Council of Bioethics claims in the interview that inseminating chimpanzees with human sperm could result in the live birth of a humanzee, and that in the absence of prohibition scientists are “very likely” to attempt this.

It might be felt that this claim is a deliberate attempt to confuse the public about the types of animal-human hybrid embryos that are referred to in the act. Other opponents of the act have used fairly emotive and hyperbolic language to refer to the creation of ‘monsters’, and experiments of ‘Frankenstein proportions’. The act refers to a variety of different types of human/animal combined embryos, however none of these are permitted to be kept for more than 14 days.

In fact, although the proposed bill has a clause that would prevent the introduction of animal eggs into a woman, Dr MacKellar is right in asserting that there is no specific clause that prohibits the opposite scenario.(1)

But is it actually likely that scientists would attempt this? In the 1920s Josef Stalin was apparently interested in the creation of a humanzee army. He funded the research of a Soviet scientist Ilya Ivanonv, who attempted unsuccessfully to inseminate a chimpanzee with human sperm. However in recent years there have been no such reported attempts, despite the fact that there have been no specific legal prohibitions (in the UK at least) that would prohibit this.
It seems plausible that this reflects both a lack of desire by scientists to create humanzees, as well as a recognition that the current system of ethical regulation of human and animal research would not permit such a study. Primate research in particular is very closely scrutinised. MacKellar cites the possible use of humanzees for organ donation, however it is hard to imagine scientists being able to provide a sufficiently strong ethical justification to a research ethics committee for such research to be permitted.

If the current system for regulation of research is sufficient to prevent unethical experiments aiming to produce live-born humanzees, then it seems that there is little ethical argument for adding a specific clause to the bill preventing this. The proposed HFEA bill would not make it any more likely than it currently is that such research would take place.
On the other hand, from a practical or political point of view it could be argued that a prohibition of the insemination of chimpanzees with human gametes  may be a sensible addition to the bill. Such a clause would help prevent distracting and misleading slippery slope arguments against the creation of cybrid or hybrid embryos.

(1) The current bill may cover this, insofar as it stipulates that researchers cannot create human admixed embryo without a licence (Clause 4A- 2(b)), where a human admixed embryo includes one made using human and animal gametes

Links

Exclusive: Half man, half chimp – should we beware the apeman’s coming? The Scotsman 29/4/2008

Scientist warns of Ape Human Hybrid Monkeydaynews 29/4/08

Humanzees and Hybrids: Science or Monkey business
The Gralien Report 30/4/08

Man Bonks Chimp, Has Humanzee Baby, Vows To Prevent All From Ever Doing It Again InsanIT 29/4/08

MPs on Chimera Embryos BBC Jan 07

Plan to create human-cow embryos BBC Nov 06

Chimeras, hybrids and ‘cybrids’ Calum MacKellar Christian Medical Felloship 2007

Proposed UK HFEA Bill

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