A few days ago, news broke that a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology, led by Prof Magdalena Żernicka-Goetz, had created synthetic human embryos using stem cells, without the need for eggs or sperm, opening the door to deeper research on genetic disorders and the biological causes of recurrent miscarriage.
This followed previous research showing that stem cells from mice could be encouraged to self-assemble into early embryo-like structures with an intestinal tract, the beginnings of a brain, and a beating heart. It is not difficult to imagine such technology being used to grow replacement organs for people who need them due to illness or aging. However, the initial reactions to this research highlight concerns about legal and ethical issues and the need for legislators to catch up.
The embryo elephant in the room
Unfortunately, the embryo elephant in the room is being ignored. The potential ability to grow any organ—such as a heart, kidney, or even skin—could at some point take humans closer to achieving the holy grail of ‘biological immortality’.
Yet, such an achievement would most likely disrupt Nature’s ruthless fairness. Indeed, regardless of our wealth, social status, race, gender, and religious or political beliefs, death touches us all.
If the extension of life could be bought, do we really think that it would be fairly and universally provided? Should we not have a thoughtful and considerate debate about these issues as a society rather than sleepwalking into a dystopian world of immortality for the 1%?
Immortality vs biological immortality
Biological immortality, also called ‘indefinite lifespan’, must not be confused with immortality. By replacing our organs as they age and become less functional with new ones grown in a lab from stem cells, humans could extend their lifespans arguably indefinitely. In a way, our chronological age would have been decoupled from our biological age. However, this would not mean that injury, poison, disease, predation, lack of available resources, or changes to the environment could not kill us.
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Arguably the last remaining frontier for this biological immortality pursuit would be the brain, as the memories it contains is what makes us who we are. So, unless we could extend the lifespan of our brains, or find a way to read and write memories and consciousness from and to the brain so a new one could be reloaded with our life memories, biological immortality would still be limited by the brain’s own mortality.
Some may even say that such developments would get humanity quite close to the concept of reincarnation, which is present in many religions including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism.
Legislation and ethical issues
As noted, the initial reactions to this research highlighted concerns about legal and ethical issues and the urgent need for legislators to catch up. However, as philosopher and Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University H. L. A. Hart argued in his famous The Concept of Law more than 50 years ago, morality may influence the law, but laws and morals are distinct social phenomena.
It seems that before jumping into such delicate legislation about life and death, our society would need to first engage in a thorough ethical debate to determine what we all agree to be morally good and bad, and right or wrong. This exercise should include more than legislators and judges.
Once that is settled, it would be the right time to put legislation in place. That said, this is likely to be a challenging process as concepts around morality tend to vary widely between and within cultures. As such, our inability to reach a global consensus will likely lead to a largely unregulated field of research for years to come.