Podium: Pigs, Transplants and Modern Morality Michael J Reiss from a Speech on the Ethics of Animal Transplants by the Reader in Bioethics at Homerton College, Cambridge

Article excerpt

WHAT I want to do in this short talk is to focus on one instance of what may well be an important 21st-century scientific advance and look at how we should decide whether to permit it or not. The case study I have in mind is that of xenotransplantation.

A frequent cry against genetic engineering of any sort is: "It's unnatural". However, this objection is difficult to defend. What is "natural"? In everyday language smallpox, earthquakes and death are natural, whereas vaccines, lap-tops and conferences such as this one aren't. In other words, there doesn't seem to be much of a relationship between what is "natural" and what is good.

Nevertheless, the "It's unnatural" argument can be defended in a number of ways. For a start, a number of religions argue that, at least to some extent, and in some sense, nature is good. At the same time, there have been significant movements within Judaism, Christianity and Islam in recent decades, serving, as it were, to give greater voice to the perspectives of non-human animals.

So does xenotransplantation cause suffering? Xenotransplantation research has focused on pigs. From a pig's point of view, life as a genetically engineered pig is probably better than life as a pig on many typical pig farms. True, there are welfare concerns - some surgery is involved, and the piglets are taken away from their mothers soon after birth and reared in rather boring and very clean surroundings. Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue on welfare grounds that the technology should be outlawed unless it is also argued that eating meat from farm animals should be outlawed too.

Moral philosophers disagree among themselves as to whether even human beings have rights. My own view is that if (and the issue may be a linguistic one) humans are held to have rights, other species too have rights. However, they have fewer and lesser rights simply because humans have capacities that other species either lack, or have only to a lesser extent. For example, children have a right to be educated. Piglets may have the right to be brought up in the company of their own kind, but they manifestly lack a right to more formal education, for the simple reason that they would not benefit from it. …