Pig ignorant

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DEVOTEES OF Animal Farm may not have realised how much pigs are more equal than other farmyard creatures, at least in relation to us. The pig heart is similar in size and workings to our own and since the number of human donors for heart transplants falls short of demand, one way of helping those dying of heart disease, might be to transplant the corresponding pig organ, "xenotransplantation". The problem of human tissue rejecting that of an alien pig is being circumvented by genetically modifying the pig immune system to make it more compatible with our own.

Press the panic button. A Babe character is imprisoned by a sadistic scientist freed from all scruples by his white coat. Monsters are encountered in the street, with human faces, but the mind-set of pigs. Conversely, behind the squinty eyes of a seemingly lowly pig, a sensitive human soul and/or heart struggles for recognition. It's time for a reality check.

The heart is not the seat of the emotions, nor in any way contributes to one's individuality. If so, those who had received human transplants might have thought twice. The brain gives you your spatial consciousness, your memories, and your outlook. Below the neck it's all plumbing.

But if we put the heart back into its rightful, mechanical station in life, some might turn to the "soul". Is not a pig's soul in jeopardy once part of its body is grafted into a human host? It's important to remember that by the time the heart is working in the human, the pig is dead, in the same way as it would be dead before you bit into the bacon sandwich. The soul, were it to exist, would surely, as a quintessentially immortal phenomenon, have little to do with a dead carcass.

Farmers have been raising animals for food for 10 millennia. We know that we can live without eating meat, but if someone cannot live without a new heart, then surely the use of an animal as a donor is more justified than as a source of nutrition. And speaking of alternative food sources, another argument against xenotransplantation, is that other possibilities should be explored. The short answer is they are. Preventative medicine is more widely practised than ever before, and yet even if we all carried donor cards, and synthetic hearts were perfected, people could still be dying from diseased hearts.

A further criticism is hard to rebut as it is unencumbered by facts. Scientific method is construed as whimsical, with the scientist indulging his (again) intellectual whims and fantasies, with no regard for the concerns and hopes of "normal" people. But scientists are not turned into heartless zombies by scientific method. Just because science and ethics can be differentiated, does not mean to say that either is ignored at the expense of the other.

In this debate, it is easy to forget that many human hearts are functioning thanks only to the pig valves placed in them and that, without animal experiments, a quarter of a million people would die of polio in any one year. If xenotransplantation offers the promise of saving lives, it is worth further investigation and debate, rather than being dismissed in a mood of panic, bigotry and ignorance.