The Fellowship of Life
Man or beast – prevent or cure
From the Catholic Herald dated 5th August 1988:
News Analysis: Simon Lee, lecturer in law at King's College, muses on the ethics of transplanting pigs’ organs into humans
Is it morally acceptable for pigs’ organs to be transplanted into humans who need a new kidney or heart? Questions arise on either side of the transplant: do such operations infringe animals' rights, and do they demean the dignity of humanity? For many of us, this is one of the easiest of the daily diet of medical dilemmas. The research proposal to investigate the possibilities should be welcomed.
Nevertheless, others are worried. On the animals’ rights point, there are at least two major doubts about the ethics of killing animals for human benefit. Some believe that killing is wrong and some believe that inflicting pain and suffering is wrong. Others retort that it is only killing or inflicting pain on humans which is to be avoided, even if they would admit that inflicting pain on animals ought to be minimised. They are then accused of speciesism. And so the animal rights argument proceeds.
But those of us who are not vegetarians (and who worry more about the ethics of vegetarianism than carnivorism, being upset more by the inhuman conditions in which many lowly paid workers around the world toil to pick vegetables than by the humane slaughter of animals) will find it difficult to object to the transplants simply because they add a few more animals to the 400 million eaten in the UK every year.
On the dignity of humanity point, there is a vague attempt to link the pig transplant proposals with the prospect of trans-species fertilisation (in which, for example, a gorilla sperm and a human egg might one day be fused).
Even the Warnock Report, so roundly condemned on all sides for all things, received widespread support for its implacable opposition to the prospect of such hybrids. It may be difficult to pin down the reason why such strong objection is taken to this idea, especially on the part of those who adopt a utilitarian philosophy. It is partly a matter of the “yuk” factor, an intuitive response of disgust, partly speciesism, partly a religious respect for the distinctness and awesomeness of humanity (speciesism again, according to sceptics).
But whatever the worries about trans-species fertilisation, surely pig transplants are different. Using bits and pieces of pigs is a different enterprise from creating a new half-pig, half-human genetic line. Just as pigs can't fly (or is that next on the agenda?), there seems little prospect of pigs sliding down the slippery slope to trans-species fertilisation. On the other hand, the worriers will say that there is a direct route from altering the genetic make-up of the pigs, so as to improve their compatibility for transplants.
Well, if there is any slope (and I find the slippery slope argument very slippery itself), the pigs and ourselves are already on it. After all, pigs’ heart valves have long been used in heart operations and pigs’ insulin is regularly used by many diabetics. If the heart is viewed merely as a mechanical pump, then the objections for the whole organ being used seem difficult to sustain if no objection is made to the use of part of the organ.
If so, then all we are left with in the “dignity of humanity” point against pig transplants is perhaps a latent, misguided belief in the metaphors we use about hearts as a central factor in our human emotions.
So what are the positive effects if these proposals eventually lead to successful transplants? First, this will save human lives. Second, it will save us from other ethical dilemmas – how do we choose who should receive the limited number of transplants which can now be performed using human donors? How can we hold to a definition of death in the face of pressure to bring the moment forward so as to provide more chance for organs to be useful? How can we afford the high cost of dialysis. Should we allow the current traffic in kidneys from live donors?
Just to take the last of those issues, it is real concern at the practice of persuading poorer people in one part of the world to sell one off their kidneys (if one kidney works, we don't really need the other) to doctors who then transplant it into a wealthy patient in another part of the world. Should people be free to sell their kidneys? This is one alternative to pig transplants.
But are there any negative aspects to the current hullabaloo about pig transplants? First, there is a real worry that in the short term it will diminish the already scarce resources of human organs for donation. Second, there is a related danger that it will divert attention from the debate on whether kidney donor cards should be carried only by those who wish to contract out of, rather than those who wish to opt in, to donation. The numbers of people who carry kidney donor cards is too small and there is an interesting political furore about to erupt over whether our government would be justified in reversing the burden of decision-making in response. Those who feel strongly enough could still go to the grave with their kidneys. But otherwise, there could be a presumption in favour of using organs to help others.
The third danger of the pig transplant story is that it will deflect us from focusing on preventing the onset of kidney and heart failure. There is too much preoccupation with the dramatic high-tech science associated with pioneering transplants rather than with the mundane but vital work of dieticians and others who might point us towards a healthier life-style which could obviate the need for many transplants. This is a parallel problem to the obsession with in vitro fertilisation which obscures the vital research which ought to be conducted into how people become infertile.
There are some followers of medical ethics who see in every problem a message for the debate on abortion. They too will find something of interest in the question of pig transplants. For this issue has thrown us back to the question of what distinguishes humans from non-humans.
Secular answers have their difficulties. As Jeremy Bentham observed, the number of legs is not a conclusive answer to how we should distinguish those beings whom we can kill, nor the inability to talk or reason.
The dissimilarity, for others, is attested in the scriptures. Augustine and Aquinas, for example, interpreting the story of the Gadarene swine as teaching us that we have no duties towards animals.
But what about St Francis, I hear you cry? Professor Peter Singer, the guru of the animal rights movement, has his doubts about St Francis: “There is one episode in which a disciple is said to have cut a trotter off a living pig in order to give it to a sick companion. According to the narrator, Francis rebuked the disciple – but for damaging the property of the pig owner not for cruelty to the pig.” (Singer, In defence of Animals, p 3).
Do times change?
See letter: 'Unhealthy arguments on animal slaughter' -
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