Secular biologists want to see how long they can keep embryos in a dish before killing them.

You can feel the undercurrent in Nature News’ story about a new record for keeping human embryos alive: they want to extend it past the 14-day limit set by international agreement. Sara Reardon writes:

The work, reported this week in Nature and Nature Cell Biology, also raises the possibility that scientists could soon culture embryos to an even more advanced stage. Doing so would raise ethical, as well as technical, challenges. Many countries and scientific societies ban research on human embryos that are more than 14 days old; in light of this, the authors of the studies ended their experiments before this point.

The proverbial angel on the shoulder cries, This is unethical. The devil cries, The old rules are outdated. Do it! Do it! We all know what “ended their experiments”. It’s a euphemism for “killed them.” Is there nothing left of human exceptionalism? Look at the attitude of this secular biologist:

Scientists have well understood the earliest stages of life in many other animals for decades. “It’s really embarrassing at the beginning of the twenty-first century that we know more about fish and mice and frogs than we know about ourselves,” says Ali Brivanlou, a developmental biologist at the Rockefeller University in New York City and lead author of the study in Nature. “This is a bit difficult to explain to my students.”

Humans are just another animal, in other words. Dissection after death is one thing—medical students profit from dissecting cadavers donated to science—but to take a helpless, developing human embryo and watch it for days or weeks and then kill it is different. If Brivanlou extended his reasoning, why not treat humans like lab rats to know more about them? We grow lab rats and inject them with cancer. We stuff them with drugs and watch what happens. We wring their little necks. Why were the German scientists culpable at the Nuremburg trials? Weren’t they trying to understand humans to know more about them? Did good intentions excuse what they did? There’s nothing in Brivanlou’s argument to forbid experimentation on live humans except the number of days of gestation and development. He shouldn’t find the ethical reasons we treat animals differently hard to explain to his students. He could tell them he is thankful mad scientists didn’t play with his embryo.

Brivanlou’s argument also begs the question that growing human embryos in a dish is the only way to learn about them. Modern technology has provided numerous ethical ways to study human development without killing the subject, including advanced imaging with ultrasound, MRI and CT. If an embryo is stillborn or dies from natural causes (without intentional killing, as with abortion), then the parents can offer the embryo to science. Why are scientists chomping at the bit to play with human embryos and kill them?

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