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A pig’s heart beats in a man’s chest

It’s big news … but is it morally right?

Dr. Bartley Griffith (left) takes a selfie with his patient, David Bennett. Associated Press/University of Maryland School of Medicine

A pig’s heart beats in a man’s chest

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s true. David Bennett, 57, was dying of heart disease and needed a new heart. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center told him his only hope might be a heart transplant—from a pig.

“It was either die or do this transplant,” Bennett said before the operation. “I want to live. I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice.”

The surgery took place Friday, but doctors released the news only this week. The pig’s heart was transplanted into his chest and Bennett survived the operation. Once connected to his circulatory system, the heart from the pig started beating. “It creates the pulse, it creates the pressure, it is his heart,” said Dr. Bartley Griffith, the head of the cardiac transplant program.

This first-of-its-kind surgery is decidedly experimental, but it holds tremendous promise. Sadly, the need for donor organs vastly exceeds the supply. In most human-to-human organ transplants, the donation comes only after the donor has died. The donor organs must be carefully matched and are often transported over long distances, with every minute aging the donated organ. Thousands of people die each year in need of donor organs.

The dream of organs for transplant available on demand is understandable, and there are no ethical means of providing enough donor organs from humans. But what about organs from animals?

The hope of using organs from pigs is not new. Strangely enough, some pig organs are roughly analogous to human organs. Pig hearts are similar to human hearts in size and functionality. Doctors said they had to work a bit to get the pig’s heart to rest in Bennett’s chest, but they had no trouble getting it to start beating.

Those same doctors warned that the surgery, though very promising, was highly experimental. Federal authorities had authorized the procedure only at the last minute. More to the point, the medical scientists had been working for years on the idea, developing techniques and practices in anticipation of the first operation. In this case, genetic modifications were used to turn “off” a gene in the pig’s heart that would lead to the recipient’s immune system rejecting the heart. Clearly, that is also something that cannot be done with human donor organs.

There are serious moral and worldview issues to be addressed with this new procedure, but there is no categorical reason for Christians to reject it.

Bennett turned to this surgery when it was, as he knew, his only option. The operation was headline news around the world. Dr. David Klassen, chief medical officer for the United Network for Organ Sharing, made the point well: “This is a watershed event. Doors are starting to open that will lead, I believe, to major changes in how we treat organ failure.”

But is this morally right? What should Christians think about a pig’s heart beating in a human chest?

Christians must always underline the basic distinction between human beings and all other creatures. Humans are made in God’s image, and there must be no confusion about that distinction. Certain principles are clear, and nothing must be allowed that alter the basic human genome. Big dangers would include any medical technology that would involve heritable traits (anything inherited by genetic offspring). There are dangers of viruses and genetic transfers. Any transplantation from another species, known as xenotransplantation, brings moral risks and complications.

There must be no xenotransplantation that would involve brains, for example, which are the physical seat of the self and its intelligence. But organs like hearts are very different. Thousands of xenotransplants take place each year in the form of heart valves from pigs and are now considered routine. To be sure, a heart is more complex than a heart valve, but the principle is the same.

Animal rights activists will likely raise concerns about medical consent (which the pig cannot give) and the instrumental use of animals to produce donor tissues and organs for humans. But the Biblical worldview authorizes the use of animals for human good, including meat and skins and labor. Over time, the need for donor organs will almost surely overcome any such protests.

The modern age comes with an unprecedented combination of promise and peril. Christians understand both with unique power. The promise of extended life and health is a moral good. How wonderful it would be for David Bennett one day to hold his grandchild. But the perils of unrestrained technology and unprincipled medicine are frightful. There are serious moral and worldview issues to be addressed with this new procedure, but there is no categorical reason for Christians to reject it. Keeping the distinction between the pig and the man will be crucial, but we can properly thank God for this particular pig and pray for this particular man. God bless your heart, David Bennett.

R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also the host of The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of several books, including The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. He is the seminary’s Centennial Professor of Christian Thought and a minister, having served as pastor and staff minister of several Southern Baptist churches.

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