Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
A pig's heart: go for it!
The prominent left-wing barrister Michael Mansfield is concerned about the prospect of a pig's heart being transplanted into a human being. In a recent article, he warned that 'xenotransplantation is being propelled forward in order to build careers and produce profits - the two motivations that have done more than anything else to pervert advances in human health' (Sunday Times, 20 July). Mansfield is a vice-president of Doctors and Lawyers for Responsible Medicine, an organisation campaigning against all medical experimentation on animals.
Mansfield's particular objection to the advance of xenotransplantation seems strange in a society which has traditionally regarded the individual entrepreneur, motivated by the prospect of both fame and fortune, as a great force for progress. Familiar histories of medicine record the heroic achievements of the great men of science, whose success no doubt often brought material rewards as well as professional recognition.
Mansfield offers no evidence or example to support his claim that ambition and avarice have perverted medical advance. If we think of cases such as the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick or of the role of HIV in Aids by Gallo and Montagnier, both advances attended by intense personal rivalry and offering considerable commercial potential, it is difficult to see how either delayed the progress of research. Indeed, they may well have acted as a stimulus.
The undoubted popular resonance for Mansfield's outlook reveals the dramatic loss of confidence of modern capitalist society in the individualistic and entre-preneurial ideology which was once regarded as its driving force. Today members of society's elite feel obliged to find new ways to win approval for their activities. Thus Tony Blair and his ministers proclaim ethical policies and scientists declare their altruistic commitment to the welfare of humanity, or better still, to that of the planet.
Like popular criticisms of capitalist 'fat cats' - and overpaid barristers - Mansfield's critique of animal experimentation appears radical, and is linked to the familiar themes of left-wing health activists about the virtues of preventive medicine and the need for measures to combat poverty. In fact, this approach reveals an inclin-ation to question not merely capitalism, but any form of human agency.
It is clear that what drives Mansfield's opposition to pig heart transplantation is an objection in principle to the use of animals for human purposes. In common with many supporters of animal rights, he characterises as 'arrogant' the assumption of human superiority over animals which justifies both experimentation and transplantation. But to deny the superiority of humanity means in practice repudiating the distinctive contribution of human consciousness to making the world as we know it today - and its potential for remaking it in the future. Reducing humans to the status of animals amounts to the negation of human civilisation, past, present and future.
A bizarre but revealing feature of the transplantation controversy is the distinction drawn by some activists between the proposed use of pig hearts and the use of organs from monkeys (bone marrow from a baboon was transplanted into a man with Aids in the USA last year). While many reject all such techniques, some argue that pig transplants are acceptable, while those from baboons, which are genetically much closer to humans, are not. The fashionable use of the term 'primate', which includes both man and monkeys (sometimes 'non-human primates') reflects the trend to blur the distinction between humanity and the animal world. The projection of human characteristics onto a pig in the film Babe has not yet had the influence of the vast outpouring of books, films and television wildlife features which treat apes as 'our cousins'.
The fact that baboons are genetically closer to humans makes them, in some ways, more suitable donors for organ transplants, though there are real scientific problems - including the risk of introducing potentially pathogenic viruses into the human population as well as the familiar difficulties caused by host rejection - to be overcome. Yet, though monkeys are biologically closer to humans, in terms of their abilities they are much closer to pigs: they are equally incapable of the conscious purposive activity that is unique to human beings. This is what makes the gulf within the primates of much greater significance than that between the primates and other mammals.
In response to the irrational and reactionary clamour against animal experimentation it is important to reassert the humanist tradition of medical research. It is a sign of the benighted times in which we live that prejudices of the sort that have dogged human advance since the Enlightenment, and reached a particular intensity in the gloomy days of late Victorian England, should have once again gained influence in society. Some of the major advances in medicine over the past century, from the discovery and development of insulin and antibiotics to the modern treatments for HIV or to prevent tissue rejection after transplants, were the result of animal experimentation. Yet, in the USA and in Britain a powerful animal rights lobby has promoted ever tighter restrictions on the use of animals for medical research.
In response to Mansfield, we should point out that the lack of public recog-nition for medical research and the poor financial rewards for those engaged in it, not animal experimentation, are the real deterrents to medical advance. The activities of animal rights activists, supported by some academic commentators who tend to exaggerate the risks of xenotransplantation, have contributed to public anxieties and have provoked the authorities into more extensive measures of regulation - including a ban on any pig's heart transplant until some of the problems are resolved.
One group of people who have fewer reservations about the human use of animal organs is those who are waiting for kidney or heart transplants, of whom there are more than 6000 in Britain. The outcome of these procedures, which carried a very high mortality in the early days, has improved dramatically - largely as a result of experiments conducted on animals.
Reproduced from LM issue 103, September 1997