Bioethics Blogs

No Pain, All Gain: The Case for Farming Organs in Brainless Humans

Guest post by Ruth Stirton, University of Sussex (@RuthStirton) and David Lawrence, Newcastle University (@Biojammer)

It is widely acknowledged that there is a nationwide shortage of organs for transplantation purposes.  In 2016, 400 people died whilst on the organ waiting list.  Asking for donors is not working fast enough.  We should explore all avenues to alleviate this problem, which must include considering options that appear distasteful.  As the world gets safer, and fewer young people die in circumstances conducive to the donation of their organs, there is only so much that increased efficiency in collection (through improved procedures and storage) can do to increase the number of human organs available for transplantation. Xenotransplantation – the transplantation of animal organs into humans – gives us the possibility of saving lives that we would certainly lose otherwise.

There are major scientific hurdles in the way of transplanting whole animal organs into humans, including significant potential problems with incompatibility and consequent rejection.  There is, however, useful similarity between human and pig cells, which means that using pigs as the source of organs is the most likely to be viable.  Assuming, for the moment, that we can solve the scientific challenges with doing so, the bigger issue is the question of whether we should engage in xenotransplantation.

A significant challenge to this practice is that it is probably unethical to use an animal in this way for the benefit of humans. Pigs in particular have a relatively high level of sentience and consciousness, which should not be dismissed lightly.  Some would argue that animals with certain levels of sentience and consciousness – perhaps those capable of understanding what is happening to them – have moral worth and are entitled to respect and protection, and to be treated with dignity.  It is inappropriate to simply use them for the benefit of humanity.  Arguably, the level of protection ought to correlate to the level of understanding (or personhood), and thus the pig deserves a greater level of protection than the sea cucumber.  The problem here is that the sea cucumber is not sufficiently similar to the human to be of use to us when we’re thinking about organs for transplantation purposes.  The useful animals are those closest to us, which are by definition those animals with more complex brains and neural networks, and which consequently attract higher moral value.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.