A New Twist on Killing Non-Human Animals to Save Human Lives

Photo from United States Department of Agriculture (Wikimedia Commons)

By Genevieve Cottraux

The chimera is a Greek mythological figure—a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail.  In 1896, H. G. Wells published his science fiction work The Island of Doctor Moreau.  On his island, the exiled vivisectionist creates human-like hybrid creatures, monsters compounded from incongruous parts, a scenario harking back to the chimera.  The themes in Wells’ book include the infliction of pain and cruelty, moral responsibility, and genetic engineering.  The 1896 audience found the book to be blasphemous and horrifying.

Today, genetic engineering and the notion of the chimera arise with current medical research into growing human stem cells in pig embryos.  In its January 27 edition, The New York Times reports on teams of biologists at the Salk Institute and Stanford (in collaboration with the University of Tokyo) working on growing human replacement organs in non-human animals.

According to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost 120,000 people in the United States are awaiting lifesaving organ transplants.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Science Policy, issued a position paper in August 2016 outlining its approval for research labs to produce animal embryos containing human stem cells.  Previously, the NIH suspended the funding for any such research due to the concern that the chimeras produced could require a cognitive state, adding to the ethical debate over chimeric research.  In reconsidering its so-called chimera stance, the NIH has opened the door to the possibility of increased chimera research and the so-called harvesting of human organs from non-human animals.  Scientists acknowledge that xenotransplantation, the process of a human recipient receiving cells, tissues, or organs from a non-human source, raises public health concerns for cross-species infections.

What is missing from the conversation is the fact that genetic engineering of animals is cruel, unethical, and exploitative.  “Harvesting” necessarily means the killing of the donor animal.  While chimeric research has the potential to save hundreds of human lives, it comes at the cost of many more animal lives.

The Humane Party platform addresses ending “inhumane, scientifically indefensible, and economically unsound exploitation of other species by humans . . . until the Abolition Amendment has rendered such measures moot,” and also ending “inhumane, scientifically indefensible, and economically unsound practices with respect to genetically modified organisms . . . .”  In the Party’s proposed Abolition Amendment, Section 1 states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude of any animal shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  The use of animals in research is itself involuntary servitude for the animals involved, and chimeric research is even a further disregard for the rights of the sentient beings with whom humans share the earth.

Chimeric research is likely to continue under the country’s new administration. President Trump has been noted as surrounding himself with anti-animal advocates in key positions related to food, agriculture, and wildlife policy issues.  What about the use of animals in scientific research?  Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, told the journal Nature in November 2016: “Trump will be the first anti-science president we have ever had.”  If Trump is anti-science but also an enemy of animal protection, what might the next 4 years bring?  Trump has no previous legislative history on which to base a prediction, yet his general anti-animal rights stance would suggest a setback for animal protection.  A Gallup poll conducted in June 2016 suggests that Republicans view medical animal testing as morally acceptable: “Republicans . . . are more likely than Democrats . . . to support buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur and medical testing on animals.”