Just last year, the lungs of Travis S, a brother in our congregation, failed and only a lung transplant could save him. It was a joyful day when we heard a transplant became available. We held his hand by his bedside, comforted his wife and prayed. Unfortunately, his body rejected the transplant after a few weeks and I had the heart-breaking task of preaching his funeral beside his shattered wife. The question of donor organs, how to find suitable organs and the possibility science may discover how to grow genetically cloned human organs inside animal hosts (xenotransplantation) is an issue close to my heart.
It is also an issue directly related to abortion, IVF embryonic stem cell research and human cloning experiments. The issues of “what is a human being,” “when is a human actually a human” can be seen in a different light when considering the issue of xenotransplantation.
There are thousands of people waiting for needed life-saving organ transplants but only a small fraction will get organs in time. These statistics provide an emotionally compelling justification to find a way to manufacture genetically superior organs through animal or even human clone hosts, but this technology will require gene editing chromosome manipulation; thus, the resulting organism, it may be argued, could be like the Greek chimera monster – a gross amalgamation of human and animal parts.
The moral lines concerning human-animal chimeras are no longer the stuff of science fiction because, as Dr. Tad Pacholczyk points out, there are humans who now have animal tissues such as pig heart valves and “are already themselves a type of human/animal chimera” (Pacholcyzyk, 1). So how should one approach the morality of human-animal chimeras considering the need for donated organs they might provide?
This moral question hinges on the definition of “chimera.” This is so because the subject of a moral question changes the nature of any morality response. For example, environmental responsibility and deforestation is a different moral question than the morality of abortion because there is a vast difference between the essence of a tree and an unborn human.
The definition of a chimera is, according to dictionary.com, a “mythological, fire-breathing monster” or “a similar grotesque monster” or “an unreal creature of the imagination.” Using the term chimera for a person who has a pig heart valve is a far cry from a “grotesque monster.” Adding an animal part into the body may make a difference in the efficacy of the heart but this difference is nothing like a total difference. A woman with a pig heart valve still has, by nature of her whole being, a full human essence. She is not a true chimera because her human essence is that of a rational animal, a condition that does not disappear with the addition of non-human parts because humans and animals are kinds of creatures, each possessing the essence of what it means to be what they are.
Failure to recognize a true essence for both humans and animals introduces the purely subjective notion that animals should be afforded “human rights” as if there is a univocal relationship between the ethical treatment of animals and of humans. Organizations such as PETA certainly believe this and even in the President’s Council on Bioethics there is some confusion on these moral demarcations. For example, Schuab compares human-animal Chimeras to transgender persons and confuses true Chimera’s with wolf-dog hybrids (President’s Council Transcript, 2-3). This notion fails to see that transgender persons are in fact still full human beings, not “mythological, fire-breathing monsters” and wolf-dog hybrids are merely a variation on the dog kind – fully capable of natural genetic reproduction and not “an unreal creature of the imagination.”
From a strict definition of chimera, it follows that an animal genetically modified to grow a human organ would still be, as a whole essence, an animal. This is so because the essence of a being is not the sum of its parts and we know this because while all animals are composed of eukaryotic cells, not all animals are the same thing. Klusendorf, for example, makes this point when he says that human embryos are a specific kind of organism that has stem cells, not a being that comes from or is merely a bundle of stem cells and he concludes, “embryos are not mere eggs” (Klusendorf, 3). Therefore, unless or until the genetic manipulation of such an animal produces an animal whose whole essence is something other than either an animal or a human – a true chimera – it is, in fact, merely a host. As such, from a moral point of view, a host animal should be ethically treated as an animal. For this reason, I would not object on moral grounds to animals being used to grow human organs.
Nevertheless, caution is necessary because the distinction between an animal acting as a host for a human organ and a human embryo or human clone acting as a factory for organs must be maintained. This is because devaluing humans into commodities is morally wrong. The procedure of cloning, for example, is inefficient (Bioethics, 151) resulting in dozens or even hundreds of embryos either expiring or being killed. This is unacceptable because all humans, even embryos and clones have dignity by virtue of the kind of being they are in essence, not by virtue of any sum of any parts. To reduce humanity to its parts means that human dignity must come in greater or lesser degrees, the implications of which are to possibly devalue humans into “disposable organ banks for morally depraved elites” (New Atlantis, 35).
Finally, devaluing human beings to produce organs or stem cells also ignores the many health dangers to both IVF embryos, any clones produced and the women who provide eggs because the process of retrieve the eggs would “subject millions of women to the dangers of egg harvesting” (Focus, 36). Thus, while animals used as hosts for organ manufacture is morally acceptable, using human clones and IVF embryos for the same purpose is not morally acceptable.
Father Tad Pacholczyk, Making Sense of Bioethics: Human Organs from pigs – is it Kosher? (February, 2016, www.ncbcenter.org)
President’s Council on Bioethics – Human-Animal Chimeras (http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/PCOBHumanAnimal.php)
Scott Klusendorf, Betting the Farm: What Cloning Advocates Really Want. Christian Research Journal, Vol 29, #4 (2006, http://www.equip.org)
The New Atlantis: The Case Against Cloning-to-Produce-Children (www.TheNewAtlantis.com)
- Ben Mitchell et al. Christian Bioethics. B & H Publishing Group: Nashville, TN, 2014.
Focus on the Family. Sanctity of Human Life Guide. 2014.