Animals in xenotransplantation – what happens to the vulnerable?
We all now understand that the use of animals in xenotransplantation is unavoidable, but is there something we can do to make the process more humane? Do we support animal rights or animal welfare?
Choosing the donor species
A designated pathogen-free sow and piglets in Living Cell Technologies (LCT) pathogen-free facility. The sow is a descendant of pigs originally from the Auckland Islands.
Non-human primates, such as chimpanzees and baboons, were originally used as xenotransplant donors, but concerns about the spread of an infectious disease and ethical issues have now stopped their use. Most researchers are now using pigs as donors because:
- they are easy to breed and have large litters
- pathogen-free pig breeds are available
- pig organs are a similar size to human organs
- risk of infectious diseases is lower than in non-human primates
- pigs are already killed for food, so using pigs may raise fewer ethical concerns than non-human primates.
Worldwide ban on xenotransplants
Bob Elliott from Living Cell Technologies explains why pig to human transplants, or xenotransplants, were banned in 1997 and the research since then that has allowed transplants to continue.
All xenotransplantation was banned worldwide in 1997 because of concerns about a pig virus called porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV) being transmitted to humans. However, several studies published in the late 1990s found no evidence that the virus could produce infectious particles in other species. Some countries, including the US, UK and New Zealand, are now allowing xenotransplantation research to continue on a case-by-case basis.
Animals in xenotransplantation – ethics
Ethical issues are definitely halting the progress of this technology. Xenotransplantation is one of the newest issues in the ongoing protests around the exploitation of animals for human use in ways that can be cruel and inhumane. To get the groundwork set for pig-to-human organ transplants, xenotransplantation researchers and regulatory agencies agree that pig organ transplants must show survival rates of three to six months in nonhuman primates before they even consider trials with humans. Monkeys, chimpanzees and baboons in the thousands have been experimented on and killed in the course of this cross-species transplant research. In addition, pig-to-human xenotransplantation requires breeding genetically modified pigs, raising them in special conditions (which can cost a great deal), and killing them to harvest their organs.
One question that a lot of people fail or struggle to answer is ‘why are we as humans more important than animals?’. This really is the fundamental question. Why do we deserve to breed and experiment on animals simply because they can’t say the word NO? However, xenogeneic transplantations are carried out in some countries as unregulated traditional and non-evidence-based treatment. International collaboration and coordination for the prevention and surveillance of infections resulting from xenogeneic transplantation are mandated. Again this goes against morals and rights for animals as they clearly aren’t being tested on in a safe, controlled environment. When it comes to xenotransplantation, the donors are animals. Therefore, the problems of donors in xenotransplantation concerns animal welfare, animal rights and how animals are treated. Movements against animal abuse and animal experimentation are active in western countries.
In Great Britain, there are laws like the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, the Protection of Animals Act and the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. ICLAS has documented Journal of Philosophy and Ethics in Health Care and Medicine, No.1, pp.11-26, July 2006 18 guidelines for animal experiments and CIMOS have announced international principles for biomedical research which uses animals as experimental subjects. In these laws, replacement, reduction and refinement are emphasised. This means that, when biological or medical experiments are practised, one should replace “higher” forms of life with “lower” levels of animals. Also, one should reduce the numbers of animals involved as much as possible. Besides, one should refine the methods so that the animals’ pain is minimised.
Thinkers like Peter Singer have joined in the animal emancipation movement and advocated animal rights. They have tried to change the current situation where animals are abused and killed because people want to get food, want to hunt for fun and experiment to promote human quality of life. They claim that what these people are practising is “speciesism”. People ignore other animals’ benefit and pursue the benefit of humans solely. This kind of idea naturally affects the cause of xenotransplantation.
When practising xenotransplantation one has to kill animals to save humans. In some cases, animals do not have to be killed, but they would suffer when people try to take cells or organs out of them. There is no denying that humans are taking into account their own well-being mainly and do not consider animals’ welfare. If the anti-speciesism movement becomes more widely active, it will not be easy to practice xenotransplantation. What kind of ethical standpoint should one take when accepting the concept of animal rights? It is to apply the spirit of utilitarianism (to reduce pain to the minimum and to enhance joy as much as possible) to animals.
Animal rights vs Animal welfare
However, some people try to apply utilitarianism to those animals that do not seem to feel pain or joy. At this point, environmental ethics become more important than utilitarianism. Environmental ethics conflict with modern classical liberalism. What environmental ethics regard as important is the well-being of the globe and its inhabitants as a whole and does not pursue only one’s own well-being or that of mankind.
Modern ethics have reached compromises between these two extreme standpoints, however, the concept of animal rights does not stay in the frame of modern ethics. It contradicts xenotransplantation from outside the medical scene. We should take into account this new standpoint when we discuss the rights and wrongs of xenotransplantation. Of course, some people are against animal rights. They say we should pay attention to animal welfare, but if human beings get something out of it, animals should give up their lives. We should try to give as little pain as possible when we experiment with animals, but we can take out their organs and kill them freely if it contributes to some members of mankind. But the necessity of consideration for animals has been agreed by many and is in the process of being written as law. Of course, there are many points to be discussed.
Should we be content with the concept of animal or should we give animals claims to animal rights? How should we balance animal welfare and human well-being? Can we really distinguish animal welfare from animal rights? People take different standpoints. Nonetheless, taking into account the well-being of animals in xenotransplantation is in the mainstream.
Be sure to read the first three parts to this series; Xenotransplantation; History of Xenotransplantation and Health Risks of Xenotransplantation. Come back next week for the penultimate issue on the pros and cons! Let us know what you think of the use of animals in xenotransplantation in the comments below.