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Pig-human organs: policing the moral boundaries

20 June 2016
By Dr Anna Smajdor
Anna Smajdor is Lecturer in Ethics, University of East Anglia
Appeared in BioNews 856

Human beings have remarkable faculties. They can look back and marvel at the beauty of their planet as they travel through space. They can overcome diseases and famines that threaten to wipe out humanity. They can build beautiful cities, towers and temples. They can deliberate on ethical questions and create states, political systems and economies that reflect their moral convictions. They can wage war in ways that make the parapets and trenches of our ancestors look puerile. And they can create animal embryos that carry some human DNA.

We also have the capacity to think about the moral implications of our actions, and this capacity has been exercised in the context of the news on pig-human chimera embryos (see BioNews 855). There has been discussion of whether this might end the shortage of human organs for transplantation. There has also been discussion about the importance of ensuring that the modified pigs do not have human DNA in their brains.

The ethical implications of creating pig-human chimeric embryos is being taken so seriously that none of the piglets being carried by the pregnant sow shown in the TV footage will be permitted to survive. These embryos will be carefully killed and examined to establish whether we need to worry about a blurring of moral boundaries. The key issue here is whether human DNA may 'migrate' to the pig's brain.

Just what is so worrying about human DNA in a pig's brain? After all, the whole idea is to put bits of human DNA in its pancreas (and subsequently, heart, liver, lungs, kidneys). Perhaps we think that a pig would suffer more if it had some human DNA in its brain than it would if it just had human DNA engineered into its pancreas. This seems unlikely. Rather, the fear is that human DNA in the brain will mean that the pig's suffering is (at least in part) human suffering, and therefore morally wrong. We can deliberately cause suffering to pigs to further our own interests. But we cannot deliberately cause suffering to other humans. This is the moral boundary that must not be crossed.

So we will kill the entity that we have created in case it would be morally wrong to make it suffer. But how many animals suffered in the process of the DNA getting there? Will the sow who carried these piglets suffer when she undergoes an extended abortion to remove the embryo piglets? Will she survive the procedure that ends the life of her human-created offspring?

We often speak of genetically modified (GM) pig organs as though they materialised from nothing. But behind the scenes there are ranks of sows being forcibly inseminated, used as living incubators to produce commodities for our benefit. Of course, we use animals in these ways all the time. Factory farms raise pigs as so many packages of pre-dead meat. Those who are not already concerned about animal welfare may see nothing special to worry about in the GM pig news. As long as these are definitely pigs, there is no cause for anxiety.

Perhaps this is a chance to reconsider whether our moral categories are correct. As the philosopher Peter Singer has noted, we have a long history of making and enacting moral distinctions that enable us to feel justified in profiting from the suffering of others. For many millennia women have been taken to be man's moral inferior. Women's sexual functions, their offspring and their property were controlled in the interests of the powerful in society. This was perceived as a moral necessity stemming from women's innate weakness.

Another example is that of slavery. Slaves - like women - were deemed to be morally inferior; their interests were of less importance so they could be used to further the interests of the ruling classes. (It is interesting to contemplate the directions in which these moral convictions might have led us, if the feasibility of organ transplantation had overlapped with the moral acceptance of slavery.)

In the American slave-owning states, black people were believed to suffer less as slaves than white people would in similar conditions. But difficulties occurred when the moral boundaries between white and black became blurred. The terms quadroon, octoroon, quintoon came into use to categorise these problematic leakages across moral boundaries. The crucial thing was to ascertain whether a slave had some 'black blood' and to ensure that no pure-blooded white person would ever be subjected to such a fate.

Looking back, the parallels with the current debate are clear. They likewise highlight the central question: if it would be so terrible to treat one of us like this, perhaps it is also terrible to treat one of them like this. Like the slave owners of the past, our inclination is to avoid the problem by policing the moral borders ever more militantly to ensure that we can distinguish between us and them.

Human beings have extraordinary abilities. They can create - and believe in - moral boundaries and differences that enable them to use others as commodities and to disregard their suffering. When these boundaries are challenged, we have a choice: should we critically evaluate our assumptions and ask ourselves whether self-interest is obscuring our moral vision? Or should we continue to invent new sub-classifications and construct ever-more elaborate barriers to separate ourselves from those whose suffering we do not want to acknowledge?

19 April 2021 - by BioNews 
The director of the Progress Educational Trust is interviewed by 5 News about embryos containing material from both monkeys and humans...
8 August 2016 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
The US National Institutes of Health is considering lifting a ban on the funding of research to create human-animal 'chimeras' and replacing it with an ethical review process...
13 June 2016 - by Dr Jane Currie 
Scientists have used CRISPR to create part-pig, part-human embryos in an attempt to grow human organs for transplant...
9 November 2015 - by Dr Jane Currie 
A group of researchers have called for an overturn of a recent decision by the National Institutes of Health to suspend funding for research on human–animal chimeras...
7 January 2013 - by John Brinsley 
Mythical ideas of 'chimera', or animals formed or forged of parts derived from various different organisms, have endured throughout history, from Greek folklore and Homer's Iliad through to contemporary science fiction. In fact, organisms arising from human-nonhuman genetic combinations are already with us...
9 January 2012 - by Suzanne Elvidge 
Three chimeric rhesus monkeys born in the USA have been described as the world's first primate chimeras...
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