Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions
If my only chance to stay alive were to have a pig's heart transplanted into me, should I agree to the operation?
F. READER'S query is
the first to be trotted out on this subject and at the risk of telling a porkie one should say that he is not a member of the pig-breeders association. The question posed then is: would he be risking his bacon if he were to agree to such a transplant? Our response must avoid being higgledy-piggledy about the issues so we may have to air some general principles.
The reader could be subject to all sorts of side-effects such as troughs of depression after the surgical intervention or to an insatiable urge to spend lunchtimes in apple groves. The query is a genuine expression of concern in the face of new transplant technologies. Hopefully we shan't make a pig's ear of the clinical side of the query and set forth why the Church feels it necessary at times to question if not stymie such technologies.
Recent medical advances have inai.k: the possibility of the three little piggies taking refuge in red-brick buildings much more of a reality. The wolf at the door of the modern piggiepen is not the butcher of aforetimes but the 21st century organ harvester. So for the unfortunate piglets showing healthy ventricles and even healthier venae cavae, technological advances could spell a return to Animal Farm where some trotters are more equal than others. Needless to say it could be a while before the British or Irish public decide they have had enough of human coronaries and plastic diastoles to consider backing the harvesting of Animal Farm. The heart surgeon's case will not have been helped by the popularity of the movie Babe, which put a human set of chops on our little friend from Porkyville. Still one wonders whether the hapless patient in hospital will rack his brains or pummel his conscience over this matter when he is faced with a stark choice between animal life or human death. The question is: did he ever make it to human life?
Evidently some surgeons are serious about the benefits of a visit to the pork counter. It need not be as bloody as Monty Python's live organ transplant scenes from their disreputable The Meaning of Life. Assuming the surgeon concerned does not make a ham of the operation the reader stands a good chance of loss and gain losing his old human heart and gaining a new porcine one. Of course this II ew-found compatibility with a pig should not mean that he will undergo a personality change and emerge as a male chauvinist. Still the idea, if not the full-blown reality, has been around for some time. For years porcine insulin has been used by diabetics, though nowadays artificially-modified insulin is more commonly employed.
Moving to the next pork of call, it seems fair to pose the philosophical questions: Does the transplant of a pig's heart into a human host mean that a new second-class of human hybrid will be born? Does the adoption of animal organs make one less of a human being? When the pig's heart eventually splutters to a halt, will the patient he allowed to donate his organs to medical science or agricultural science? Will medical insurers invent a new category of person following the widespread acceptance of this operation? In the event of a coronary will the ambulance team have to call a doctor or a vet?
We should not regard this operation as comporting any profound philosophical implications for society ot for the
reader. Just as the plastic hip replacement does lint make one a candidate for Roy Story 2, so. too, partial exchange of animal and human organs should not compromise one's view of what it means to be human. There are philosophers, it is true, who subscribe to a tight relationship between body and soul, after the manner of Edith Stein's understanding of the principle anima forma corporis, and these find the issues troubling.
The distinction between the two spheres subscribed to by Platonist theologians does free them from too many worries about the implications of the reader's proposed operation. Still there are genetic questions still arising from such operations. Some anti-vivisectionists may be upset by the reduction of piglets to the status of organ crops but even the charming secretary of CSCAW might find it difficult not to sacrifice principle and piglet to the Aztecs if her life depended on it. Biblical theologians who take their point of departure on this issue from Genesis also have little difficulty with the idea of animal transplants ostensibly because man is called to be the steward of creation not its servitor. This approach is tempered by modern PC concerns, as expressed by two Tory politicians before they became Catholics, but resolved by the discovery of a papal decretal from Pius V (1566-1572) entitled De salute gregis (1567), which deprived unrepentant bull
fighters of Christian burial and censored clerics attending the local corrida. In an article for The Times, Cardinal Hume suggested that animals could not be the subject of rights as humans are. His argument was based on the Catechism (CCC 2418).
OF COURSE evolution cuts both ways in this discussion; evolutionary biologists tell us that 96 per cent of our genes arc shared with other primates. What would happen to DNA quotients if we revisited the animal world further down the ladder? Scythia, a sharp-tongued medic friend of mine, boasts that most of her boyfriends were pigs, but she did not have the heart to tell them. One day she will. At her medical school, out of a student roll call of over 200 only 20 turn up regularly to medical ethics lectures. Just the sort of alarming statistic necessary then for a rerun of the Hyde and Jekyll GP story who knows if one day it will be screened as l'he Talented Dr Shipley. Scythia tells me that with the advent of cloning technology involving human stem cells, the idea of tunmal organ transplants is looking increasingly shaky. Such technology is approved of by the Church (L'Osservatore Ronwno, 30 August 2000).
Finally a word of comfort for our trembling patient who posed the query. Consider the price paid for your health by the babes of the animal world. Your wife might think twice the next time she is in Sainsbury's and is asked to buy British pork.