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BIOETHICS

Manimal Planet

Anti-Mermaid Legislation Rises from the Deep

SOURCE: Wikipedia Commons In 2006, President Bush called for a ban on the creation of animal-human hybrids. This month, Sen. Sam Brownback returned with a bill to stop the monsters.

Some years ago Thomas Frank asked, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” But the oddity of an economically distressed state that repeatedly votes against its own interest is nothing compared to the bizarre preoccupation of its senior senator.

Sam Brownback (R) wants to make sure that the United States government prevents the creation of human-animal monstrosities that could destroy humankind.

For years Sen. Brownback has been worried about mixing human and animal tissues for scientific purposes. In 2005 he introduced the Human-Animal Chimera Prohibition Act, which would have imposed civil and criminal penalties for making certain kinds of laboratory animals. The unintended consequences of this bill would have included severely hampering medical research on serious human diseases like Alzheimer’s that seem to have a genetic component.

Although barely noticed at the time, Brownback’s concerns got enough attention in the Bush White House to earn a reference in the 2006 state of the union address, in which the president called for banning human-animal hybrids. The remark excited little public comment, perhaps because it was so odd, and it certainly didn’t earn President Bush any more points with a scientific community that already held him in low esteem.

At the time I suggested that the White House speechwriters didn’t seem to know the difference between a hybrid and a chimera. All hybrids are chimeras because they involve mixtures from two sources, but hybrids are a special kind of chimera in which the genes themselves are mixed.  A familiar example of a hybrid is a mule, a sterile animal that is produced by mating a horse with a donkey.  Chimeras range from people with heart valves from pigs to people who resulted from fused embryos to once-pregnant women who carry some fetal cells with them the rest of their lives to the valuable lab animals I mentioned.

Apparently Senator Brownback has learned the difference between chimeras and hybrids. His new bill specifically “does not preclude the use of animals or humans in legitimate research or health care where genetic material is not passed on to future generations, such as the use of a porcine heart valve in a human patient or the use of a lab rat with human diseases to treat patients.” So the senator wants to ensure that the genetic makeup of human beings is not altered by some sort of animal combination, which would be “a violation of human dignity and a grave injustice.”

Conceding the dignity problem for the sake of argument, it’s hard to understand how a race of mermaids would be an injustice, certainly not to the mermaids themselves.

As a presidential primary candidate Sen. Brownback expressed his doubts about evolution. One wonders how he would square that position with his worry about the potential development of the human germline. Anxious about blurring species boundaries, the senator also likes to tout his background in agriculture that has given him expertise in genetic engineering of crops and livestock. It’s probably time for him to take a refresher course in animal husbandry, since speciation remains a poorly understood process. Genetics turns out to be only one component, and there are various ways to define a species.

Brownback has announced that he is leaving the senate to run for governor of Kansas. One might have expected that Kansas would, in a Brownback administration, be the first state to outlaw human-animal hybrids. But the (non-hybridized) Sunflower State is not the pioneer in preventing a pollution that could ultimately produce centaurs or the planet of the apes. Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal already signed a bill into law that would protect the Bayou State from such a fate, seemingly inspired by Sen. Brownback’s scary vision. Apparently bi-partisanship does not count as a suspect hybrid, since Democratic Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu has signed onto the Brownback bill.

Some years ago the French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that the difference between modern and pre-modern states is that in the former sovereignty is claimed over life rather than death. Foucault would have delighted in this example of the exercise of sovereign authority over human bodies, and not just current ones, but those in the distant future as well. But do the conservative extremists who support this kind of nonsense appreciate that using state power to keep the human race pure serves the same eugenic purpose that they commonly attribute to the left?

The proposed protections are incomplete. They only cover human-animal monstrosities made within our borders. I propose the “Human-Animal Hybrid Immigration Prohibition Act of 2009.”

Let’s hope it’s not too late.

Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D., is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Ethics and Professor of Medical Ethics and of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Editor-in-Chief of Science Progress.

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