Should we breed pigs just for their hearts?

The commercial use of animal parts for medical purposes is an equally flourishing business. Due to their similarity to humans, pig heart valves are repurposed for human heart valve replacements, and pig tissue is used to manufacture pharmaceuticals like the anticoagulant herapin (until the early 2000s, some insulin was still produced from pig pancreas). The company is big enough that pork giant Smithfield Foods even has a branch dedicated to biosciences.

Ethically, the use of animals for medical purposes is tricky. While eating animals prioritizes human taste pleasure (your love of bacon) above animals’ interest in not feeling pain or not being killed, leading many ethicists to view it as unethical except in particular contexts, the medical question changes the stakes, weighing the life and suffering of current and future humans against the life and suffering of animals. If a drug can save many humans, isn’t it worth killing lab mice or beagles to do it? If pig hearts can save people dying on organ waiting lists, isn’t it worth killing pigs and baboons?

This is the position that the medical establishment and institutional academic animal care and use committees (IACUCs), which review animal research, explicitly take. Insofar as bioethics considers animals, it tends to focus on what are called 3R (replace, reduce, and refine the use of animals), an ethical standard far below that applied to human research subjects, and applied much less rigorously. This is also the position that many lay people implicitly take. Most of us don’t like to think of a pig that was killed and had its heart cut out and implanted into the body of a previously healthy baboon, whose heart was also cut out, and then that baboon dying a few weeks later – all for on behalf of peer-reviewed publications. But as a matter of principle, we accept the desirability of medical advances that can save human lives. It’s anthropocentrism – the idea that humans have moral primacy over all other beings – and because we’re human, it comes naturally to us.

The problem with a pig’s organ transplant, however, is that it is not based on a simple ethical decision of whether the life of a given pig is worth less than that of a given human who needs a heart. Rather, it calls for the creation of a new type of agriculture and a new political economy of animal use.