The dawn of the 3-D printing revolution is upon us; in the blink of an eye we’ll have the ability to produce one of the most sought-after resources known to man: human tissue. We will harvest organs, not through car crash fatalities, but through mechanical reproduction. Millions of lives will be saved, not only of humans, but animals, when poultry, cattle and fish farms become a thing of the past, replaced by gigantic factory-labs. Grocery stores will be stocked with the most exotic indulges ‒ from zebra meat to wooly mammoth ‒ and if you brave down the furthest aisle, you may find a particularly shocking item: human meat.
It seems impossible to imagine, but a market for those with curious palates already exists in the darkest pockets of the deep web. Even in legal institutions, a demand exists as thousands of strong-stomached patrons have already tried the sourtoe cocktail from Yukon, Canada, famous for containing a mummified human toe garnish. Surely, it’s not a lack of interest keeping this novelty item from hitting the shelves.
With 3-D printing about to take the world by storm, whether we want to or not, it’s time for society to reckon with the age-old taboo of consuming human flesh.
The issue is more complex than first “meats” the eye. Cannibalism, as we refer to it, is not just morally frowned upon when murder is involved. Even in the most desperate situations, like the Donner Party, those who resort to eating the flesh of individuals succombing from natural causes are seen as a violation of some basic principle because the person consumed was someone’s brother or sister.
But what if it wasn’t a living breathing person with a name and a face you were tasting, but just a collection of biological material? Andras Forgacs explained the process of biofabrication in a recent TED talk, and the benefits of 3-D printing meat using only small tissue samples and cell cultures:“What if instead of starting with a complex and sentient animal, starting with what the tissues are made of, the basic unit of life: the cell.” The end product is virtually indistinguishable to that which comes from a once living organism, because they are identical on a cellular level.
Unlike a clone, a biofabricated human body would never be truly alive. Every part and component could be in place, but it would still never take a breath or achieve consciousness as lifeless a corpse. In this way it would be merely an object and never require a special social category.
Other than being totally weird and creepy, would you try it? Everybody has wondered it at one point or another what we must taste like. If it wasn’t once a person, is it still wrong?
What about printing other human body parts?
While we are probably cool with replicating a leg for a war veteran, or an eye for a blind man, what about sexual organs?
Is there a line? Where do we draw it?
When considering the ethics of biofabricating human body parts, it is crucial to examine whether or not the production of it may result in the further harm and cannibalism of real people. We can compare this to digitally produced child pornography. While no child is harmed directly by digital child porn, it has the potential to increase the probability of consumers harming real children. While it might temporarily alleviate the urge, it would not be effective in solving the problem long term because the underlying motivation involves real children, which the digital medium fails to satisfy.
Thus the real question is: Would the mass production and availability of human meat possibly increase the cannibalism of real people?
I do not believe it would, as the motivation for cannibalism seems to have more to do with the fetishized notion of consuming a once living being than the actual food itself. If your only motivation is to satisfy a curiosity, than there would be no reason to cannibalize real people, and the availability of human meat would have no effect on real life cannibalism. It would not act as a gateway drug in the same way as digital child pornography would, because biofabricated human meat would have no appeal to actual cannibals as it would not even partially satisfy the urge to kill.
Therefore, in an ethical sense, I believe there is nothing wrong with producing, distributing and consuming biofabicated human meat.
It sounds gross to me too, but one day we might not see it that way. 3-D printing is on track to be the most major technological innovation of the 21st century, revolutionizing not only medicine, but food production. It’s going to completely change our relationship with the organic matter we consume. No doubt one day we’ll look back on the slaughter of animals as a barbaric and unnecessary violation against the sanctity of life. Perhaps future generations will also view our hang-ups about trying the most tabooed cuisine, human meat, as naive and primitive.
I’ve read it tastes kind of like veal.