The Chimera Conundrum
by pancake on February 9, 2017 - 4:14pm
In late January 2017, geneticists at the Salk Institute in California announced a breakthrough for regenerative science: the successful creation of human-pig hybrids called chimeras. The creation of these organisms involved integrating human stem cells into embryonic pigs, and after several weeks of incubation, researchers observed that “some embryos showed that the human cells were beginning to specialize and turn into tissue precursors”(Belmonte et al.). Belmonte states the project’s goal as “learn[ing] whether we can use stem-cell and gene-editing technologies to generate genetically-matched human tissues and organs” (Belmonte et al.). If successful, this technology could be a potential solution to the global organ shortage. A utilitarian point of view would recognize that the intended consequences have the capacity to benefit a large number of people. Nevertheless, the creation of human-pig hybrids is a controversial practice, and very little is known about possible outcomes. If chimeras were to develop a human consciousness to any degree, a deontological perspective may condemn the practice. Regarding whether or not the practice is ethical, a utilitarian approach best recognizes the value of this scientific breakthrough.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services claims that over 190,000 people are on the national transplant waiting list, with 22 people dying each day waiting for a transplant (HHS). Growing organs inside chimeras genetically matched to the recipient could reduce those numbers, while simultaneously diminishing the risk of organ rejection. If science can successfully achieve this, the consequences of growing organs in chimeras would make the research ethical from a utilitarian perspective since it satisfies the Greatest Happiness Principle, where “the end would justify the means if the end were the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (Merrill). Concerns over whether or not this solution favours the wealthy may arise, but reducing the number of people needing organs, while maintaining or increasing the number of donors, would be beneficial to anybody awaiting a transplant, regardless of monetary or social status. Allowing the continuation of regenerative research has the potential to save many lives, making utilitarianism an ideal approach to take when dealing with the ethics of this branch of genetic science.
In contrast, someone taking a deontological approach to the creation of human-pig hybrids might label it an unethical practice given its violation of the categorical imperative. A deontologist would argue that inserting human cells into a pig could produce a chimera with some ability to rationalize, or could cause the hybrid to demonstrate some human-like behaviours, therefore violating the principle that “no person should be treated as a means to an end, but only as an end” (Merrill). The human component of these chimeras would be such that using them for organ growth would be impossible when following one’s duty. In addition, while Kant’s approach did allow removal of organs from the deceased, his ethical approach forbids using a living human. Chimeras used to grow organs are living organisms, and are therefore not exempt from this rule. Deontology, an ethical framework rooted in realizing duties, would condemn regenerative science as unethical and would say that we are duty bound to end such practices.
The primary difference between the utilitarian approach and the deontological approach is that the former recognizes the importance of consequences, while the latter ignores them, instead focusing on the action itself. In the case of creating chimeras to solve the organ scarcity crisis, the positive outcome of saving lives is too great to ignore, thus making utilitarianism, an ethical framework rooted in consequences, a more persuasive approach to this ethical issue.
- Belmonte, Juan Carlos Izpisua, et al. “Interspecies chimerism with mammalian pluripotent stem cells”. Cell. Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Jan 26 2017. Web. http://www.salk.edu/news-release/new-findings-highlight-promise-chimeric-organisms-science-medicine/
- n.a. “Organ Donation Statistics”. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. n.d. Web. https://www.organdonor.gov/statistics-stories/statistics.html
- Merrill, John C. “Overview: Theoretical Foundations for Media Ethics”. 3-32 in A. David Gordon, John M Kittross, John C Merrill, William Babcock, and Michael Dorsher (eds.), Controversies in Media Ethics, 3rd Edition (New York: Routledge, 2011)