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Using Pigs to Provide Transplant Organs for People

08/06/2016 15:38 | Updated 08 June 2016

Scientists say they can 'gene-edit' pigs so that human organs - hearts, kidneys, lungs - can be grown within the animals thereby tackling the shortage of human transplant organs.

I can imagine the longing of ill people and their families for transplant organs. Most would do anything to save a loved one. But I am concerned that this will open up of a new source of animal suffering. It would be much better to increase the supply of human organs. At present if we want our organs to be used we must register as an organ donor - we have to opt-in. Most of us don't do this - who wants to think about their own mortality?

So let's change the law so that it's presumed people consent to the use of their organs unless they opt out. This is already the law in Wales and several EU countries including Belgium, Croatia and Spain. The British Medical Association is pressing for an opt-out scheme. Studies suggest the supply of human-organs could increase by 25-30% if we changed to an opt-out system. In Belgium the supply of human organs doubled within three years of introducing opt-out legislation. Also, human organs are much less likely to be rejected when transplanted than those from pigs gene-edited to be human-like.

Gene editing is a form of genetic engineering or manipulation (GM). A large number of animals tend to suffer and die in the creation of one GM animal. Many animals suffer in the experiments needed to develop a GM animal. GM foetuses often die before birth. Of those born alive, many die early on.

There is an increasing feeling that we need to take a more responsible approach to animals. That we shouldn't treat them as if they were placed in this world just for our convenience. This was beautifully expressed by St Basil of Caesaria in the Fourth Century:

"May we realize that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee and that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve Thee better in their place than we in ours".

But, I'm asked, what would happen if we change to an opt-out scheme and there is still a shortage of organs? If that happens society may decide to use pig organs - I hope it doesn't - but if it does we must ensure there is no increase in the number of animals used for human purposes. This means we will have to cut back on some other use of animals - in the case of pigs that means eating less meat.

The benefits of eating less meat would be massive. We'd be healthier - the high levels of meat consumption in the West contribute to heart disease, obesity and certain cancers. Studies show that our diets alone - with their high levels of meat - will take us over the Paris Agreement's target of limiting the rise in temperatures to 'well below 2°C'. And if we ate less meat, we could end factory farming with its pervasive cruelty and instead rear animals extensively to high welfare standards.

Back to the pigs. In another passage that I treasure Lyall Watson writes:

"I know of no other animals that are more consistently curious, more willing to explore new experiences, more ready to meet the world with open-mouthed enthusiasm. Pigs are incurable optimists and get a big kick out of just being".

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