Recently, technology has been rapidly advancing (which is no surprise), especially in the field of science and medicine. Research has begun on the use of pigs to grow human organs. This science is no doubt innovative and could save countless lives of people waiting for organ donations, but it is also raising many ethical and moral questions.

This technology would work in two stages. First, CRISPR gene editing would be used to remove the gene controlling the growth of a specific organ in a pig embryo (learn more about CRISPR technology here from a previous project of mine!). Next, human stem cells would be injected into the pig embryo, which is implanted into a sow to develop.

BBC News made a short video about this new technology:

 

Currently, 22 people die every day waiting for organ donations that do not come in time. It takes anywhere from 4 months to 5 years to wait for a vital organ to become available. For people who need these organs to survive, it’s a deadly waiting game.

Using pigs as biological incubators would increase the number of organs readily available for harvesting. Not only would this mean that more people would get the organs they need, but the abundance of organs would drive the prices down and make transplants more affordable. Another benefit is the possibility for customization. Currently, patients who undergo transplants must spend the rest of their lives taking immune-suppressing drugs, which puts them at drastically higher chances of getting severely sick from exposure to common viruses and germs. However, with this new research, stem cells from the future organ recipient could be put in the pig embryo, meaning that the organ grown would be a better match for the patient so that they would not have to take immune-suppressing drugs. Additionally, pigs have shorter gestational periods, which means that we would be able to grown human organs in a much shorter time frame.

Despite these many benefits, there are also some potential consequences to this research. Putting human stem cells inside pigs creates the possibility for pig fetuses to develop human-like brains. The scientists conducting this research abort the pig embryos after 28 days to prevent the possibility of pigs developing human characteristics and traits. There is also the possibility of the human organs being altered because of the pig’s DNA, which would cause major problems for the donor recipient. And then of course there is the ethical side to it.

When discussing these ethics, it comes down the age-old question: Do the ends justify the means?

Does the potential to help so many people make this research justified? Supporters argue that it’s worth the risks because so many human lives could be saved. Opponents argue that it is unethical and unnatural.

All things said, I obviously am against harming animals (being vegan and all). However, this situation requires deeper thinking. This research has so much potential to help so many people. Would harming pigs be worth it? While discussing the ethics of this, the thought that people already bring great harm to pigs by eating them comes to mind. If people are okay with harming pigs for a mere meal, then why would they be opposed to harming pigs for research to save many human lives (which is, arguably, a much more noble cause than simply for a meal). In my opinion, killing pigs to save human lives is more justified than killing pigs for food that people do not necessarily need. Truth be told, I wish that we had the technology to save human lives without having to expend the lives of other animals — this is part of why I am going into the field of science when I’m older. We may have to wait a bit for this tech, but I am so grateful for the scientists dedicating their lives to medicine and the advancement of caretaking.

One argument that people in opposition to this research use is that it is not moral to breed pigs just to be used as biological incubators, then killed immediately after they’ve served their intended purpose. However, there is a blatant flaw in this argument: that’s already happening. Meat production industries breed pigs in mass quantities only for them to be sent to slaughter and put on a plate. Some may consider this not too different from biological incubation seeing as they both create life for the sole purpose of serving humans before being killed.

Another piece that comes into play regarding the morality of this research is the concept of “playing god.” Science and philosophy are very often connected in this way. Should we be interfering with the “fabric of the universe”? Is it the place of humans to alter fate? If there is a plan for everything and everyone, should we be trying to change it? These questions permeate many subject areas and many thoughts. I personally am in favor of using science to better the lives of those who are suffering. After all, if we have a chance to help them, why shouldn’t we?

But then, inevitably, I circle back to the question of whether or not the means by which we help them is ethical or not. Whether saving a human’s life is worth taking a pig’s life. This begs the question: what makes a human life so much more valuable than that of a pig? Humankind has left a glaring mark that shows no reluctance in choosing humans over other animals, but what will we choose in the future?

I, of course, do not have an answer to these difficult and multivariable questions. However, I do plan on devoting my future to studying ways to help others in the most ethical ways possible! This was an extremely engaging subject to think about, and I am so glad for the opportunity to learn about this.

Check out KQED’s ongoing Do Now U project or the original #DoNowUPigs prompt. Thanks for reading and I hope this subject engaged both your heart and your brain.

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Enjoy this pic of a cute pig, courtesy of #DoNowUPigs!
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