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THE SPECIESIST WITHIN: Is it okay to harvest pig kidneys to save human lives? Peter Singer says ‘yes’

Peter Singer, the moral philosopher who helped launch the modern animal rights movement and is also a vocal advocate for kidney donation, states that he is cautiously supportive of even lethal pig donations.

DYLAN MATTHEWS: Until recently, the question of trading a life for another through organ donation was largely hypothetical, grist for prize-winning sci-fi novels. But on September 25, Robert Montgomery showed that you could implant a pig kidney in a human, and the question became very concrete, very fast. No, we’re not killing humans to harvest their organs, as Thomson or Kazuo Ishiguro imagined. But we’re killing intelligent animals for their organs, and the moral consequences of that should weigh on us…

But here’s the thing that should give us pause: The pig used in Montgomery’s surgery was subsequently euthanized. There are some 63,000 new patients every year who might benefit from a kidney donation. Assuming each donor pig is stripped of both of its kidneys and then euthanized, that’s more than 30,000 pigs killed every year to extend human lives.

Now, in fairness, that 30,000 is a blip next to the 131.6 million pigs slaughtered for their meat in the US in 2020 — a rounding error, given the scale of factory farming. Nevertheless, Montgomery’s breakthrough forces us to confront two questions: Is it morally justifiable to slaughter thousands of pigs annually to keep humans alive? And is it more morally justifiable than other methods that could also end the kidney shortage?

The ability to transplant pig kidneys into humans would undoubtedly save many human lives, which is, of course, a good thing. But it behooves us to take seriously the moral consequences of such an act, especially if we begin performing it on a wide scale… Implanting other species’ organs and tissues into humans — or xenotransplantation, to use the technical medical term — is a very old idea…

A major problem in all these efforts was rejection: the recipient’s immune system interpreting the donated organ as a foreign body and attacking it as if it were a hostile organism. This is also sometimes a problem with human-to-human transplants. But rejection has become less of an issue with humans after the development of better immunosuppressant drugs, which prevent immune attacks on donated organs.

The NYU team went a few steps further than immunosuppressants: They used organs from genetically engineered pigs. The pig whose kidney was implanted in the NYU surgery was a GalSafe pig, a genetically modified pig variety approved by the Food and Drug Administration this past December…

Pig kidneys, in that sense, are not strictly medically necessary. Voluntary living human donors could fill the gap. But in practice, a much lower percentage than that donates a kidney. In 2020, there were only 5,234 living donor transplants — a far smaller number than deceased kidney transplants and a waitlist of more than 106,000…

Which forces us to consider the moral quandary of exchanging a pig life for a human one. Pigs are remarkably intelligent animals. They have good memories, love to play and explore, recognize each other, and have sophisticated social lives. Purdue animal scientist Candace Croney even taught pigs to play video games. (The pigs loved it.)

So imagine an animal like your dog, but perhaps smarter, being killed to save the life of a human. Would you be willing to kill your dog in that case? Does the question disturb you? Montgomery agreed that the practice raises important animal welfare questions… The question is even tougher when you get to organs like hearts, lungs, and pancreases, which cannot be given by a living donor…

Genetically engineered pig hearts that could work for humans could dramatically extend lifespans for people with heart disease, and the same goes for lungs, liver, and other organs. But in each such surgery, a pig would have to die for a human to live…

Peter Singer, the moral philosopher at Princeton who helped launch the modern animal rights movement and is also a vocal advocate for kidney donation, told me in an email that he is cautiously supportive of even lethal pig donations.

“I would not insist on the pig surviving the surgery, because that’s an uncertain benefit and would require twice as many pigs to be used,” Singer wrote. “What I would like to see is that all pigs involved in the procedure — including at the research stage, which obviously will continue for some years, and including the pigs’ parents — are reared in conditions that meet not only their physical needs but their psychological and social needs — so not in a factory farm. That seems a minimum quid pro quo for the benefit the pig is conferring on humans.” (Revivicor declined to comment when asked about the living conditions of its pigs.)

Singer is a utilitarian. He believes that ethics is about maximizing the welfare of humans and animals, and so is willing to make trade-offs like these that still involve the deaths of sentient animals. Christine Korsgaard, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, is very much not a utilitarian. She’s perhaps the most eminent Kantian philosopher in the world today. Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century thinker who serves as Korsgaard’s main inspiration, argued human beings must treat each other’s common humanity as an end in itself, not a means to their own ends.

This idea can be hard to grasp, but the important thing to know is it places limits on how much harm you can inflict on someone or some animal in order to produce some greater good. You have to respect the humanity or dignity of all rational beings (including animals).

Korsgaard objects to pig-to-human organ transplants on basically those grounds. “I do not think it is justifiable to kill an animal so that we can use her organs for a person, any more than it would be justifiable to kill one person to use his organs for another person,” Korsgaard wrote me in an email. “I think the pig does have a prior claim on her own life and her own organs. If you kill a pig for her organs, you are treating her as if she is ours, a mere resource for human use, as if she exists for us rather than for herself.”

Genetically modifying the pig compounded this wrong, she wrote, as humans changed the pig’s biology so it could better serve human ends. “Women don’t exist to make homes for men; people of color don’t exist to provide cheap labor for white people; animals don’t exist to provide food, labor, and organs for people,” Korsgaard concluded.

I am more of a consequentialist like Singer than a Kantian like Korsgaard. But Korsgaard’s arguments have incredible force. Just like factory farming, using pigs for organs turns them into a kind of industrial commodity for humans, rather than living creatures who deserve to live full, wonderful lives. There is something distasteful about that, even if the good of increased organ supply outweighs the concern.

Mostly, the development makes me sad that humans have been so unwilling to step up and donate kidneys to each other — or create the policies that would encourage such an act — that they are resorting to taking them from another species. Donating a kidney is a routine, safe procedure, one that humans could and would likely be more willing to provide if compensated.

If the alternative to a world where thousands of pigs are killed for their kidneys every year were one where Medicare carefully screened kidney donors and paid them each $50,000 or however much is necessary to get a full supply of kidneys, then the latter world seems infinitely preferable. No person, and no pigs, would have to die.

But that is not the actual counterfactual at hand. The counterfactual is the current world, where politicians have banned compensation for organ donation and organs are in persistently short supply. Compared to that counterfactual, pig organs seem like a step forward. SOURCE…


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