Human organs from pigs–is it kosher?

Human beings can have a visceral reaction to the thought of growing human kidneys or livers inside the bodies of pigs or cows. A participant in a recent online forum on human/animal chimeras described it this way: “Unbelievable!!! …If there was anything that was more anti-God it is the genetic formation of chimeras which is nothing more than Frankenstein monster creation.”

Although the idea of a chimeric animal is indeed unusual, several factors need to be considered in evaluating the practice of growing human organs within animals. Despite our initial hesitations, certain kinds of human/animal chimeras are likely to be justifiable and reasonable. This comes into focus when we recognize, for example, how thousands of patients who have received replacement heart valves made out of pig or cow tissues are already themselves a type of human/animal chimera. For many years, moreover, scientists have worked with chimeric mice that possess a human immune system, enabling them to study the way that HIV and other viruses are able to infect cells.

We routinely use animals to address important human needs. We eat them and make clothing out of them. We keep them in zoos. Utilizing them for legitimate and important medical purposes like organ generation and transplantation should not, broadly speaking, be a cause for alarm. As another online participant noted, only half in jest: “Think of it — a pig provides a human heart, lungs, and liver then the rest is eaten for dinner! ….Plus the pig will likely be chemical free, well-fed, and humanely treated.”

If a pig were in fact able to grow a human kidney in place of its own kidney, and if it could be used for transplantation, it could provide a major new source of organs in the face of the critical shortage that currently exists. Many patients today are on waiting lists for a kidney, and a significant percentage die before an organ ever becomes available.

Yet significant technical and ethical hurdles remain before growing organs in pigs is likely to be feasible.  The science is still in its infancy, and researchers have yet to figure out how to make human cells co-exist in a stable fashion with animal tissues. There are abundant concerns about the possibility of transmitting animal viruses to humans especially considering how readily other viruses like avian flu have been able to jump from birds to humans.

Even assuming these kinds of risks are able to be minimized, and pig/human chimeras could be safely produced, there would still be several ethical issues to consider. One concern involves using stem cells from human embryos as part of the process of making pig/human chimeras. Typically scientists try to generate chimeras by adding human embryonic stem cells to animal embryos, which then grow up and develop into chimeric animals. Destroying young humans in their embryonic stages for their stem cells is gravely objectionable, so creating chimeras could be ethical only if alternative, non-embryonic sources of stem cells (like adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells) were utilized for the procedure.

The technology might also lend itself to other unethical practices, like trying to create a pig that could produce human sperm or eggs in its genitalia. Similarly, if human nerve cells were incorporated into a developing pig brain in such a way that the animal developed what appeared to be human brain structures, some have noted there could be questions about the occurrence of intelligence or self-consciousness or other facets of human identity in the animal. Although such concerns seem farfetched, given the dearth of knowledge about the “scaffolding of consciousness,” it seems reasonable to limit this kind of experimentation. Some scientific agencies like the National Institutes of Health have restricted the availability of research funds for the study of human/animal chimeras because of these and other considerations, seeking to levy pressure so that the needed ethical discernment and discussion occurs before researchers proceed further.

We tend to view modern scientific progress as a powerful “engine of good” for the well-being of mankind, and therefore we view most scientific research with hope. This is proper and fitting, and to reinforce and reinvigorate that hope, we should continue to insist that cutting edge biomedical research remain in active dialogue and interaction with sound ethics. The expanding study of human/animal chimeras challenges us to reflect carefully on the morally appropriate use of these novel and powerful technologies, so that human dignity will not be harmed, subjugated, or misappropriated in any way.

Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash