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The Prospect of Xenotransplants:
Scientific Aspects and Ethical Considerations

The Vatican recently announced in a report entitled ‘The Prospect of Xenotransplants: Scientific Aspects and Ethical Considerations’, that xenotransplantation, or organ transplants from animals to man, are ‘morally acceptable if certain conditions are respected’.

‘Such transplants in fact reflect one of medicine's most promising discoveries,’ said the Pontifical Academy for Life, in a press report to explain the Church's view.

The academy's work was commissioned by the Vatican State Secretariat in response to a request from the European Council on the ethical character of xenotransplants.   Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, explained that xenotransplants be adopted ethically as ‘final surgical therapy’, only after very strict conditions are guaranteed - one such condition being that experimentation would have to be done on animals first, and only later applied to persons in desperate need.  Because of the poor response to appeals for human organ donors compared with the numbers required by patients, ‘the scientific community is highly committed to the prospect of xenotransplants, that is, to the possibility of transplanting organs, tissues and cells from animals to man,’ the bishop said at the Vatican Press Office.

The document had been prepared by an international working group, guided by the Pontifical Academy for Life.  Professor Emmanuele Cozzi of the Department of Surgery of Cambridge University, and professor Marialuisa Lavitrano, coordinator of the Xenotransplant Project in Italy, highlighted the ‘hope’ offered today by preclinical tests and the use of transgenic pigs.

A theological justification was put forward by Father Maurizio P. Faggioni, OFM, professor of bioethics at the Alfonsiana Academy of Rome, who concluded that ‘the recourse to animals as sources of organs is no more than an instance of the use that man can make of animals’.  However, he added that the ethical character of these transplants will depend on ‘the evaluation of the goods that can be obtained for man or woman and the respect for certain conditions, such as avoiding unnecessary suffering for animals, and the need to observe the greatest caution at the moment of introducing uncontrollable genetic modifications that can significantly alter the biodiversity and balance of the species in the animal world.’

Deborah Jones, (General Secretary of the Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare) speaking for the organisation, deplores these conclusions by the Pontifical Academy for Life in their report and castigates the enquiry for not including due consideration for the God-given rights of animals not to be used as 'spare parts' for people.   ‘The biblical injunction to have dominion is to do with responsible stewardship for creation, not to endorse this blatant form of unnatural exploitation,' she said.  ‘Father Faggioni is right to draw the line at "unnecessary suffering for animals" and the dangers of "introducing uncontrollable genetic modifications that can significantly alter the biodiversity and balance of the species in the animal world" - but he does not go far enough.’  This news seems like blasphemy being committed by the very authorities mandated to uphold God's intentions

The pontifical academy’s document in Italian on xenotransplants may be consulted at http://www.vatican.va in the section of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Debate

First , what is xenotransplantation?

It means inserting the organ of one species into the body of another, or specifically, using the organs of genetically altered and specially raised animals for transplanting into humans

What is wrong with xenotransplantation?

There are three general arguments against this practice:

Specifically:

  1. The animals raised for organ transplantation are often genetically modified – an interference with their natural evolution which we believe that no one (apart from their creator, God) has any moral right to make, and the animals often suffer painful consequences from such genetic modification.
  2. The animals are raised in sterile confinement, separated from their fellows and their natural environment, with all their comfort and desires for natural behaviour thwarted. Laboratories are not good environments for animals and poor laboratory care can cause additional suffering. Recorded data shows that experiments to develop the viability of xenotransplantation subjected the animals to suffering both before and after the operations, incurring hyperacute reactions and other problems.
  3. The risk of transmitting viral infections from animal organs to humans and unleashing on the public an epidemic caused by a mutated animal virus, is real and very great. It is not possible to breed a pathogen-free animal. (British scientist Dr Robert Weiss recently announced the discovery of Pig Endogenous Retrovus which can infect human cells. The virus is in the pig’s RNA, so it cannot be bred out of the animal.) Most newly emerging infectious diseases have been shown to come from other species. Just two retroviruses, believed to have been transmitted from monkeys to humans – HIV1 and HIV2 – are responsible for the millions of cases of AIDS in humans.

Notes:

  1. The Daily Express (21/09/00) reported that Imutran, subsidiary of Novartis pharmaceutical company, had announced that it was transferring its genetic research on pigs and primates to the USA and Canada ‘where animal welfare restrictions are less stringent’. The search to find countries with lower animal welfare restrictions says something about what is done to the animals – and also about those countries which have ‘lower animal welfare restrictions’.
  2. The need for animal ‘spare parts’ can be eliminated by the adoption of the laws passed in Sweden and Denmark requiring citizens to state their willingness or unwillingness to be organ donors when they renew their driving licence, file income tax forms, or do some other task mandated by the country. These counties have increased their organ donor pool significantly.
  3. The need for ‘spare part’ surgery of any sort can be reduced by the adoption of healthier life-styles: proper diet, exercise and abstaining from organ-damaging activities such as smoking and heavy use of alcohol.

Most of this information has come from the bulletin of the Animal Defence League of Canada. With thanks.

For questions, comments and submissions, please contact:
Deborah Jones at The Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare djonesark@waitrose.com

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