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‘I want to live’ — Why even in an age of animal rights, human beings come first

The transplant of a pig heart into a human being is a terrible blessing that should give us all pause

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Alex Cochran

A pig’s heart is remarkably similar to a human’s, so much so that they’ve been used in training medical students. Pigs’ heart valves have been used in human bodies since the 1960s. 

Still, it seems there should have been a national moment of silence, a collective period of reflection, when doctors at the University of Maryland last Friday placed a pig’s heart in the chest of a man and it began to beat, just like another human’s heart would.

“That’s a simply amazing thing, just to think about it,” said the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on his podcast earlier this week.

The surgery, a last-ditch effort to save the life of a 57-year-old grandfather and handyman, is rightly described as a medical breakthrough, not only because the patient, David Bennett Sr., is apparently recovering, but also because the pig’s heart was genetically modified to reduce the risk of rejection.

The procedure was also a breakthrough of sorts in that the surgeons weren’t thrown in jail.

An Indian doctor who transplanted a pig’s heart into a human 25 years ago was arrested and his work derided as unethical and dangerous. (Which it apparently was; the patient died.) What’s changed since then is worth our consideration, even as we cheer medical progress and wish for a long, healthy life for Bennett.

The field of medicine has been radically transformed by the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, which has been described as giving scientists the ability to play God by “editing” human beings and animals.

Meanwhile, the animal-rights movement seems to gain ground every year, with increasing concern about factory farming, trapping, slaughter and experimentation. The desire to end animal suffering is in part what is driving plant-based alternatives to meat and leading to laws prohibiting manufacturers from testing products on animals and laws improving conditions for farmed animals. There’s even a movement to grant animals “personhood,” under which they would be entitled to legal rights.

In light of this progress with regard to animal welfare, the pig-to-human heart transplant seems one giant leap for mankind, one giant step backward for the animal kingdom and its defenders. Is farming animals for organ transplants to which they cannot consent more ethical than farming them for barbecue?

Some argue not. “Animals aren’t toolsheds to be raided, but complex, intelligent beings,” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said in a statement. Pigs, in particular, have been shown to be surprisingly intelligent and social, as much as dogs.

Farming animals for organs would not require the numbers of animals that Americans kill for meat; about 110,000 Americans are awaiting organ transplants, while more than 9 billion animals were killed for food in the U.S. in 2020. But one of the scientists involved in the transplant said, “If this works, there will be an endless supply of these organs for patients who are suffering.” That seems a blessing, but also a terrible one when you envision the “endless supply” of animals that will be bred and killed for these procedures.

Moreover, the limited information given about the “donor pig” so far suggests that these animals will not have anything resembling a natural life; according to the BBC, “the genetically engineered pigs are raised in a controlled, bio-sealed environment.”

So, two steps forward, three steps back, and those of us who are pained by animal suffering could be gutted by this new development in medicine except for the family photos released by the University of Maryland Medical Center.

David Bennett Sr., second from left, is surrounded by family in this undated family photograph.

David Bennett Sr., second from left, is surrounded by family in this undated family photograph. Bennett received a pig’s heart in a transplant operation at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Provided by David Bennett Jr.

In them, Bennett is pictured surrounded by his children and grandchildren. They are snapshots of a happy father before his heart began to fail, causing him to be connected to a heart-lung bypass machine six weeks ago. The machine was keeping him alive, but wouldn’t have for much longer, which is why Bennett consented to the experimental surgery, saying, “I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice.” It’s hard to look at this photo and say the life of the pig mattered more — especially if you’ve had bacon in recent months.

Bennett and his family now wait, along with the rest of the world, to see if this extraordinary experiment works and vaults us into a new chapter of an age-old debate: What are the limits, if any, of human beings’ dominion over animals? As Matthew Scully wrote in “Dominion,” his ever relevant book on this subject, “Kindness to animals is not our most important duty as human beings, nor is it our least important.”

In other words, celebrate the technology that gave Bennett a chance to recover. But give at least a passing thought to the pig.