‘People feel safe with a clear distinction between humans and animals’

In the future, we may be able to adapt animals so that their organs are suitable for transplantation into humans. That is now banned in the Netherlands, but in Germany pigs are already being bred with genetically modified hearts. In America Doctors recently successfully linked a pig kidney to a (brain-dead) human patient for the first time. Research is also being carried out into other options: you insert human cells very early in an animal embryo, so that a human organ grows in the animal. With these kinds of techniques, researchers hope to solve the shortage of donor organs in the future.

The big question: is the world really waiting for that? Can you put an animal organ in a human, or grow a human organ in an animal? We discuss this in this series of articles with representatives of three religious perspectives. Henk Jochemsen holds a PhD in Molecular Biology and is Professor Emeritus of Christian Philosophy and represents a Protestant Christian vision in this three-part series of articles. In 2017, he was commissioned by the Ministry of Health, Science and Sport to write a essay on the moral acceptability of culturing human organs in animals. In this he advocates restraint. His hesitations have not diminished in recent years.

“We have to be extremely careful,” says Jochemsen. A new virus outbreak cannot always be foreseen.

Sverre Frederiksen

This is partly due to the corona crisis, in which the whole world suddenly became aware of the risk of zoonoses, diseases that spread from animals to humans. To breed animals that grow human organs, we need to inject animal embryos with human stem cells. “We have to be extremely careful,” says Jochemsen. A new virus outbreak cannot always be foreseen. “Biotechnologists can neutralize viral sequences in DNA, but only if they know them. The genome is incredibly complex and variable. So you can never guarantee complete security.”

order of creation

In addition to safety considerations, Jochemsen mentions a second objection, which has to do with his Christian philosophy. Jochemsen is based on the Christian idea that an order has been introduced into creation that we should not just disrupt. By this he refers to the distinction between humans and animals, but also to other categories that we often use, such as male-female, life-death and natural-artificial. “This arrangement gives us a sense of security of a world in which we can position ourselves,” says Jochemsen. “If there is going to be mixing, then you have to ask yourself: what does that do to people?”

“For me, the problem lies in the mixing of animals and humans at the organ level,” says Jochemsen. “This undermines the distinction between humans and animals.”

Sverre Frederiksen

Technology is never neutral, Jochemsen emphasizes. That is why he finds it too simple to state: if the goals are positive (eg ‘saving’ human lives), then the technology is acceptable. Technologies are means to an end, but they also change the way we see the world and ourselves. “For me, the problem lies in the mixing of animals and humans at the organ level,” says Jochemsen. “This undermines the distinction between humans and animals.”

We should not think too lightly about this, says Jochemsen. “When we talk about this kind of mixture of humans and animals, you see an intuitive hesitation in many people,” he says. “Scientists call that reaction irrational. But behind that first reaction is a moral conviction. You should not ignore it, but investigate it. Often it is about a sense of naturalness. People feel safe in a world in which there is a clear distinction between humans and animals. People have their place in it and animals too.”

Yet you can wonder whether everyone feels safe in the order that Jochemsen describes. Categories such as human-animal and male-female will be experienced as suffocating for some people. Jochemsen sees it differently: “I don’t see where it is stifling. I think it’s just protective.” Jochemsen is concerned about a future in which these kinds of distinctions fade away. He refers to science fiction: “In science fiction you often don’t see utopias, but dystopias. Of course science fiction is not a prediction, but it is a way to think through the consequences of techniques: where is this going? In the world that some people are striving for with technology, you really have to fear whether you can still live your life.”

Respect for animals

Jochemsen: “Animals may be used or eaten by people in Christianity, but they also have their own value.”

Sverre Frederiksen

Is Christianity open to new biotechnologies such as donor animals? “I don’t think you can speak of ‘Christianity’ in this case”, says Jochemsen, because there are all kinds of Christianity such as Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox.

However, according to him, you can say that within Christianity there is often a positive attitude towards technological developments that can remedy and treat human suffering. But that doesn’t mean that adapting animals to grow human organs in them is immediately lawful. “With regard to donor animals, there is no particular religious statement that provides a direct answer.”

In Christian ethics, you cannot simply use animals as organ suppliers. Respect for the animal is important. “Animals may be used or eaten by people in Christianity, but they also have their own value,” says Jochemsen. “That means you should always treat them with care and respect. That is why I have big questions about the massive factory farming industry. I don’t believe that’s right. Animals have great significance in the Bible. The Old Testament contains all kinds of rules about the proper handling of animals. If a donkey collapses under its burden, you must take its burden off it and help it to its feet.”

Human suffering

According to Christian tradition, we must respect the natural order. You might think that we also have to accept that people get sick. But that is different, says Jochemsen. “Just because there is an order in nature, which goes back to creation, doesn’t mean that everything we see in nature is good,” he says. We do not find the order that God has in mind ‘just’ by looking around us. “Acknowledging that order requires an interpretation of reality.”

So how do you know if your interpretation is in line with God’s intentions? The Bible plays an important role in this. “Protestant Christians will wonder if the Bible says anything about it. Diseases are not part of the good of the original creation. Our job is to treat the sick.”

That is not to say that illness and disability is an evil that all the time must be exterminated, continues Jochemsen. “Illness or disability can also bring people something they would never have achieved otherwise; think of some great artists. I don’t think suffering in itself is good, but we do see that suffering in human life can lead to something good. That is the resilience of man. By the way, this does not apply to all people, so you have to be very careful about that. You can never decide it for someone else.”

Culture organs

Suppose someone is seriously ill and can be saved with an adapted organ from a pig, is that allowed according to Jochemsen? According to him, there are two issues here. “The general ethical question is: is xenotransplantation (modifying animals so that their organs are suitable for humans) a good idea? Should we offer that? I have serious doubts about this for various reasons, at least for the time being. But if it’s implemented, and if society decides it’s a good idea, then of course it’s a personal choice.”

So the question is whether we should give people that choice. “I think it would be safer and better to first do more research into alternative techniques, such as cultured organs. These are human cells that develop into mini-organs. They can restore certain functions in the body. I would like to promote that line of research.”

But do people want to wait for that? We could endlessly research possible alternatives. Whether this will ever solve the donor shortage remains to be seen. Jochemsen acknowledges that problem: “That’s why I write in my essay to the Ministry of VWS from 2017: let’s do that for the first ten years. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, we can examine how society is responding to the idea of ​​donor animals. There may be habituation, and then you may decide to allow it. But for now I have a hesitation. And it hasn’t gotten any better since 2017.”

Donor Dialogue

On November 7, 2021, the Donor Animal Dialogue will take place in NEMO Science Museum Amsterdam, where questions and ideas can be shared. In addition to the dialogue, various speakers are also guests. Here you will find the program and you can register.

Source: Kennislink by www.nemokennislink.nl.

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