For those who have a family member or friend on a waiting list for a much-needed organ such as a kidney or even a heart, time is the great enemy. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, “an average of twenty-two people die each day waiting for transplants that can’t take place because of the shortage of donated organs.”
While the death of any human being is tragic, preventable deaths are even more so because of their unnecessary and wasteful nature. But thanks to a new scientific study, a potential solution to the problem of the organ donor gap may have arrived.
According to a recent CNN article by Jareen Imam, researchers at the University of California, Davis have devised a new method to grow human organs by creating embryos that contain both human and pig cells. As Imam notes, “These cells are created by taking human stem cells from an adult’s skin or hair, using them in a pig embryo, and injecting it into the uterus of a pig….Scientists are able to knock out a section of an animal’s DNA, such as the pancreas, so a pig embryo won’t have the information it needs to make that particular organ. Then, human stem cells come into play. Once injected into the embryo, the adult stem cells will start working on creating a human pancreas.”
This method can be slightly shocking when we first consider it. After all, no one wants to see pig/human hybrids wandering the street, frightening children, and perhaps mounting a campaign for President as an anti-immigration, anti-women conservative. But it’s important that we delve further into the potential ethical implications considering the fact that this new discovery may lead to a significant impact on both the amount of time a dying person has and their quality of life while they are still alive.
The issue of using animals for human benefit is something that has concerned society for centuries. As the National Institute of Health notes, cross-species transplantation has occurred during most of recent medical history, including blood transfusions from primates to humans in the seventeenth century, as well as kidney, heart, and liver transplants from chimpanzees to humans throughout the twentieth century. And while these methods were mixed in their success rate, concerns about their ethical or unethical nature live on to this day.
At the crux of this ethical quandary is this question: should animals be used to benefit human beings, even if doing so negatively impacts their quality of life or causes death in the respective animals?
It appears as though American society, by and large, has decided that animals should be used to improve humanity’s quality of life, within certain limits. This decision is seen in numerous ways, from our widespread use of animals in research programs for new lifesaving medicines, by our use of large farms to ensure enough meat and material for clothing exist to feed and clothe people, and even by our keeping of pets. In all of these cases, animals are deprived of a certain amount of their own agency as living beings to benefit, either physically or emotionally, human beings. Of course, certain protections exist to ensure that animals undergo a minimal amount of suffering and emotional duress, but in all of these cases, human beings have decided to put their own needs above the desires of other animals.
And almost all vegans and vegetarians are complicit in this use of animals for their own needs, because even if they don’t eat meat, most fabrics (both in clothing and in other products like bedding sheets) use animal byproducts, and most cosmetics and consumer products either contain animal byproducts or were tested on animals.
How then can we feel that it is more ethical to raise a pig to be consumed with eggs than it is to use a pig embryo to fill the organ donor gap? This thought becomes even more ridiculous when we remember how many food alternatives exist to meat, but how few alternatives are open to people who need a specific organ and will die without it.
These arguments are not meant to shame those who oppose initiatives which might help close the organ gap, but to demonstrate the fact that nearly all human beings, save for the most remote and hyper-aware among us, use animals for their own selfish needs, and don’t have an existential crisis every time they do so. This can only be because of a nearly universal and cross-cultural apathy towards the needs of animals, or because the majority of humanity has determined that the limited use of animals for our own benefit isn’t inherently unethical so long as we agree to abide by certain boundaries.
And if we are willing to accept the use of animals to help feed, clothe, and entertain ourselves, we should also recognize that the desire to use animals in a limited context to help prevent unnecessary and preventable deaths could be an ethical endeavor. Are we really prepared to say that we are happy to raise pigs for pork chops, but not for a pancreas?