Podium: Pigs, transplants and modern morality

Michael J Reiss From a speech on the ethics of animal transplants by the reader in bioethics at Homerton College, Cambridge
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The Independent Culture
WHAT I want to do in this short talk is to focus on one instance of what may well be an important 21st-century scientific advance and look at how we should decide whether to permit it or not. The case study I have in mind is that of xenotransplantation.

A frequent cry against genetic engineering of any sort is: "It's unnatural". However, this objection is difficult to defend. What is "natural"? In everyday language smallpox, earthquakes and death are natural, whereas vaccines, lap-tops and conferences such as this one aren't. In other words, there doesn't seem to be much of a relationship between what is "natural" and what is good.

Nevertheless, the "It's unnatural" argument can be defended in a number of ways. For a start, a number of religions argue that, at least to some extent, and in some sense, nature is good. At the same time, there have been significant movements within Judaism, Christianity and Islam in recent decades, serving, as it were, to give greater voice to the perspectives of non-human animals.

So does xenotransplantation cause suffering? Xenotransplantation research has focused on pigs. From a pig's point of view, life as a genetically engineered pig is probably better than life as a pig on many typical pig farms. True, there are welfare concerns - some surgery is involved, and the piglets are taken away from their mothers soon after birth and reared in rather boring and very clean surroundings. Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue on welfare grounds that the technology should be outlawed unless it is also argued that eating meat from farm animals should be outlawed too.

Moral philosophers disagree among themselves as to whether even human beings have rights. My own view is that if (and the issue may be a linguistic one) humans are held to have rights, other species too have rights. However, they have fewer and lesser rights simply because humans have capacities that other species either lack, or have only to a lesser extent. For example, children have a right to be educated. Piglets may have the right to be brought up in the company of their own kind, but they manifestly lack a right to more formal education, for the simple reason that they would not benefit from it.

A somewhat different approach is to bypass the question of rights and focus instead on the extent to which our use of non-human animals is often "speciesist". Put at its most succinct, it is of little significance, the argument goes, that human beings belong to a different biological species from, say, chimpanzees, dogs, farm animals and laboratory mice; we should not treat such species merely as we choose, and for our own ends.

Think of the conditions we normally require before humans are permitted to be used as research subjects. We require that two conditions be met: first, that the participating individual gives their informed consent; secondly, that there is no intent to do harm to that individual. The second of these conditions is inviolate. The first can be overturned only when patients are unable to give their consent, for instance because they are babies, or are in a coma, when it can be given on their behalf. Further, most of us are not, generally, persuaded by the argument that these conditions can be overturned if a number of other people would benefit. This, of course, is why most people hold that, in everyday language, humans have rights. For example, nowadays few of us would be persuaded that subjecting even a few people to slavery is acceptable, whatever the beneficial consequences that might result for the rest of us.

The question is, why do most people hold that it is not permissible to subjugate people into slavery or to experiment on them without their consent when we regularly do these things to non-humans including even our closest evolutionary relatives, namely chimpanzees, and other mammals?

Given the tremendous diversity of opinion about xenotransplantation, what are we to conclude? Perhaps the only way forward is to try to reach decisions by consensus. It is true that this does not solve everything. After all, what does one do when consensus cannot be arrived at? Nor can one be certain that consensus always arrives at the right answer; a consensus may once have existed that women should not have the vote. Nevertheless, there are highly desirable reasons both in principle and in practice in searching for consensus.