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Ethics and Religion Talk: Examining the ethics of eating lab-grown flesh

Is it ethical to consume lab-grown human flesh?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Several companies are deep into development of lab-grown meat. It is made by taking a sample of the animal’s muscle tissue and growing layers of muscle and fat in a lab environment. It is meat - but no animals are harmed in its production.

What if a human being donated cells to such a production facility. Would it be ethical to consume lab-grown human flesh?

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Breaking news! As of August 28 of this year, it is not lawful to identify lab-grown animal tissue as ‘meat,’ at least in the State of Missouri. Violators may be fined $1000 and imprisoned for a year. No doubt other states will soon follow where Missouri has led the way. Human flesh or tissue grown in a lab could not be called ‘meat,’ since by definition, ‘meat’ is ‘animal flesh as food.’

Eating human flesh is a violation of God’s revealed will for mankind. In the beginning God gave our forebears permission to eat all vegetables and the fruit of every tree in Eden but one (Genesis 1:29-30 and 2:16-17). After the flood, this permission was extended to ‘every living thing that moveth’ (Genesis 9:3). But there is one kind of ‘living thing’ whose life is to be safeguarded by all, and whose death must be sorely punished, viz., human beings: ‘For in the image of God made he man’ (Genesis 9:6). This great exception will stand until the end of time.

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

Yum! Fire up that grill, baby! We’re having leg of Lutheran tonight.

Actually, I can’t fathom that there is a market for this. I pray there isn’t. I mean, if any of the Donner party survivors were still alive you might get some takers. But seriously? Since the Hindu tradition encourages vegetarianism (although personal diet choices are respected) we would probably eschew this opportunity. I recall that the question was brought up to some scholars about lab-grown beef. The consensus was that even though no animal life was taken it would not be advised. We ascribe to foods certain attributes that we imbibe when we eat them. Things like fruits are satvic (pure). Some vegetables, eggs and fish are rajasic (activating). Meat is always tamasic (lethargic), regardless of its source. That said, I do hope that nutritional science does finally perfect this method for harvesting beef, pork, and pork. Besides being more humane it will contribute a great deal to the slowing, and perhaps reversal, of climate change. The raising of animals for human consumption in factory farms is one of the major contributors to our current situation.

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

I found this question quite curious because it would never occur to me. I honestly admit having to google if eating human flesh was a healthy alternative to eating other foods. It turns out eating human flesh is not healthy due to mutated proteins called prions. These prions, if consumed, can lead to disease. So for that reason I would find this behavior unethical. As a society, we need to stop creating and consuming products that can cause harm to our health or to our environment’s health. 

R. Scot Miller, who writes from an Anabaptist and Quaker Christian perspective, responds: 

From a strictly Christian and sectarian perspective, any flesh produced through a creative process that fundamentally takes control over outcomes that apparently violate the natural process (excluding natural anomalies that occur within the process) displays a lack of faith and stewardship. In fact, it tends to promote anthropocentric outcomes that eschew sacrifice of life and the necessity of relationship as a means of valuing our sources of sustenance. One must know God, and one knows God through experience of created order. To take control of outcomes related to this experiential order is to re-define providence, and in fact, creation.

In my opinion, it would be disastrous to consider lab-grown human flesh as a dietary product. We have plenty of problems with identity, resisting created order, and starvation without genetically reproducing humans for any reason. Once we begin to identify human flesh as a consumable product, we not only violate important taboos that serve to protect our dignity, we violate the expectations that all humans are of worth in and of themselves, rather than a slave to the desires of human consumptions and greed. We might do well as humans to begin insist on a level of enacted sacrifice, such as hunting or raising stock for dietary consumption before being able to ethically eat meat. To avoid the fact of killing when consuming flesh is unethical. One would be more credible in finding plant sources of protein and other dietary needs rather than find a way that redefines flesh as non-being. I love beef, but if I can’t raise it and slaughter it, I’ll take a side salad. No women or children on the menu, please.

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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