Heartless Pigs

Science, technology, and life.
July 25 2008 7:45 AM

Heartless Pigs

Last week, during the discussion of Spain's new animal rights legislation , I pointed to an article by Donald McNeil Jr. in the July 13 New York Times . McNeil asked whether the most advanced animals, the great apes, deserved the "most basic right—to not be killed for food ." My answer was yes . In fact, I'd argue— hypocritically —that it's wrong to kill animals for food, period . It's brutal and unnecessary.

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

But let's make the question a bit tougher for you animal lovers. Is it wrong to grow and kill animals for transplantable tissue?

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I ask because a report out of England this week suggests that animals may become a rich source of tissue for repairing human bodies. "Currently, the use of animal tissue for human transplant is restricted, and of limited effectiveness," the BBC observes. The Daily Telegraph explains why:

Surgeons have been able to transplant heart valves from pigs into patients for more than a decade, but these have a limited life span as they do not become populated by the patients own cells and are unable to repair any damage, meaning they must be replaced every 10 years. For young patients this poses a particular problem as the valves do not grow with the child and so must be replaced frequently.

But scientists now think they may have figured out a solution. Professor John Fisher, a biological engineer at the University of Leeds, explains the method they've been successfully testing:

We can take a tissue from an animal, remove all the cells that carry the signals that trigger the immune system so just the biological scaffold is left. When this is implanted, the patient's own cells then grow in to replace the original cells we have removed. This has advantages as the transplant can then grow with the patient. ...

The patient's own cells then grow in . The transplant can then grow with the patient . I hope you "human dignity" fans on the right realize the import of what he's saying. He's talking about an animal tissue structure incorporating human cells and growing inside a human body. The code words are recellularization (PDF) and in vivo regeneration . In other words, interspecies integration. You can read all about it at the Web site of Fisher's company, Tissue Regenix .

But the harder question is for animal rights advocates. Fisher and his colleagues are collaborating with a British agency "to develop the technique so they can create new heart valves for children," the Daily Telegraph reports. Their research "opens the way for a range of new procedures using animal parts." So while tissue regeneration in vivo reduces the need to repeat each transplant, it will apparently increase "use of animal tissue such as blood vessels, tendons and bladders" overall, according to the BBC. The point of all this work, according to Tissue Regenix, is to "address the chronic shortfalls in donor tissue availability ."

We're not talking anymore about killing animals for food. We're talking about killing them for transplantable body parts. Animal rights vs. children's lives.

Liberals often challenge pro-lifers with a dilemma: In a burning fertility clinic, you can save either a 5-year-old girl or a tray of 10 frozen embryos . The point of the challenge is to test whether pro-lifers really believe that an embryo is equal to a child. Now animal rights advocates, the pro-lifers of the left, face their own dilemma: save the girl or spare the pig?

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