Mr. Bennett in a much publicized photo
On Friday January 7th, 2022 news broke of David Bennett Sr. who had just become the first recipient of a transplanted pig's heart in a procedure conducted at the University of Maryland Medical Center. As of this writing Mr. Bennett is doing well and the new heart has taken over all pumping functions in his body. This is a momentous event in the annals of humanity as it opens a new chapter for our species' evolution, potentially leading to a society where animal organs become the de facto "replacement parts" for our bodies.
While the medical science behind the operation is revolutionary and ingenious, what are the moral implication of this new medical chapter? First, the basics. The pig whose heart was used was bred specifically for transplantation. In order to minimize chances of rejection of the organ by the human body, a potentially fatal reaction, scientists genetically engineered the pig at birth. The heart transplanted into Mr. Bennett came from a genetically altered pig provided by Revivicor, a regenerative medicine company based in Blacksburg, VA.
The pig had 10 genetic modifications. Four genes were knocked out, or inactivated, including one that encodes a molecule that causes an aggressive human rejection response.
A growth gene was also inactivated to prevent the pig’s heart from continuing to grow after it was implanted. In addition, six human genes were inserted into the genome of the donor pig — modifications designed to make the porcine organs more tolerable to the human immune system.
This laboratory invented pig was kept alive waiting for the appropriate moment. When the FDA gave approval for the dicey surgery on new year's day, the pig was immediately killed and its heart salvaged for insertion into Mr. Bennett's body. The medical community and the media celebrated it as a "watershed" moment, but is it proof of the elevation of our species or further evidence of our moral quagmire?
We live in a world where 10 billion (yes Virginia, that's 10 with a big B) animals are killed at human hands each year worldwide for human consumption. Thousands of others are killed in horrid experiments for cutting edge medicine and many for things as banal as cosmetics and hunting. Far from the nobility of extending life, our collective ethos has encompassed a philosophy where the killing of animals for pleasure is an acceptable pastime. The human race does not care for any of these other vagrancies. We care mostly for ourselves, even in that we do not excel as exemplified by the continuous wars that have maligned the human race, where we actually kill each other for honor and glory.
So what relative importance does this epic surgery hold when held in objective context of our overall actions? To create a pig, modifying its genes, in preparation to be murdered so it can contribute to the continuation of a human life, is this a moral action? Of course not. Why does Mr. Bennett, a non exceptional human, deserve an extension to his 57 years of life at the cost of the life of a 1 year old healthy animal? By way of example, while the Internet was full of photos of Mr. Bennett not a single photo of the pig that gave his life for him could be found by this writer. However when viewed in retrospect, against the backdrop of billions killed for unnecessary food and killed for idiocy such as cosmetics, the continuance of life from a pig to a human seems almost noble.
Life is a cruel gift. It's resource driven survival instincts project and create a world of fear and uncertainty where invariably the strongest do survive. If we are to ever find our pathway to the singularity of a great species, we need to eventually unpeel the onion. The layers must be put back from outside inwards. The killing of animals for such mundane things as cosmetics must first stop. Second, then the eating of animals must end. And then and only then can we look at this new science and ask ourselves, is killing a pig so that I can live a legacy I should desire?
While I celebrate the extension of life Mr. Bennett was given and the astonishing science therein, I mourn for the helpless pig that was born, modified and killed in the name of advancement. But before we all march out to the street decrying this latest chapter, we have work to do in other much more acute venues.