Ethics of xenotransplantation
Xenotransplantation entails transplanting cells or organs (for example pancreatic cells, a heart or a kidney) from an individual of one species into an individual of another species.
Xenotransplantation has been proposed as a possible solution to the problem of the shortage of human organs for transplantation. Since the 1980s a number of research groups have been attempting to genetically engineer domestic pigs so that their organs may be given to humans.
Get information sheet: Xenotransplantation
Worldwide concerns about xenotransplantation
A number of national and international ethical committees as well as individual scientists have looked at the question of xenotransplantation. One of the particular matters of concern has been the issue of health. We know that pigs carry what are called porcine endogenous retroviruses (engagingly abbreviated as PERVs). In the light of various human diseases that reached humans from animals, including CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) and AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), it is unsurprising that there is tremendous hesitancy in allowing any scientific or technological procedure to go ahead that might lead to new human infections. There is the worry that these PERVs might lead to previously unknown human diseases.
Should xenotransplantation be used to solve the organ shortfall?
Ethical issues raised by xenotransplantation
Some ethical considerations:
- The welfare implications for the pigs involved - companies involved in research on xenotransplantation maintain that their pigs are extremely well looked after, but the pigs are subjected to a number of surgical procedures.
- Whether we have the right to use pigs in this way - but if we don’t have the right to use pigs for xenotransplantation, do we have the right to eat them?
- Whether xenotransplantation entails the undesirable crossing of the human-animal boundary.
- Pigs are considered unclean in some cultures and religious traditions, including Judaism and Islam.
- Perhaps people would accept a xenotransplant but later feel awful about the thought of a pig heart (or whatever) inside them.
- Perhaps it would be better if we put the effort into public health campaigns (some of the people who need transplants need them because of their diet or lack of exercise) or other ways of dealing with the issues.
We can conduct an ethical analysis of xenotransplantation using the five frameworks of consequentialism/utilitarianism, autonomy, rights and responsibilities, virtue ethics and multiple perspectives.
Written by Professor Michael Reiss, Institute of Education, University of London.
- 08 December 2011