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From Bacon to Human Babies: Ethical Conflict in Pigs as Surrogate Mothers Daniel Brewer

The Flu isn’t the only thing swine could be giving us; they could also provide human babies. Few people have considered the possibilities of using pigs as surrogate mothers for human babies, but according to Krishna Dronamraju the idea was proposed as early as 1932 by J.B.S. Haldane [1]. It was further suggested as an alternative to abortion in 1984 by Peter Singer and Deanne Wells [2]. As absurd as it may sound, the possibilities are real. According to Stellan Wellin, not only is it practical, but a therapeutic imperative exists for the development of the technology [3]. Pigs have already been used to save human lives with transplanted pig organs ranging from heart valves to brain cells [4]. Extensive research has also been performed to create a transgenic pig that would more closely resemble human genetic makeup and allow for advanced success in organ transplantation. Although suggested decades ago the technology is still ahead of its time. Time, in this sense, refers not only to the feasibility of the technology to be implemented, but also for the ethical makeup of society to be in a position to accept it. Human baby transplantation is still premature in its ethical acceptance but with information and exposure it may be a real possibility in the 21st century.

New technology, especially when it pertains to human life, unequivocally brings with it new moral dilemmas. Society’s acceptance of possible technology often influences how quickly, and even if, a technology will ever be explored. Radical new technologies are often first rejected, then accepted, then embraced. Because of unease and ethical questions regarding pigs as surrogate mothers, the idea has been strictly monitored and restricted in its development. The unease is nothing new either. Persecutions and killings have arisen over ethical controversies. According to John Fletcher in 1642 in one of the New Haven colonies, fear of human animal relationships had grown to the point that a one eyed man with a large nose was executed when a one eyed pig with a large snout was born [5]. Modern genetic understanding proves the deformed pig’s birth was a result of coincidence and one would like to believe that society has progressed since then. However, given that less than a year ago an abortion doctor was gunned down and killed while in church, there are still those who seek to take the life of those who they feel have broken their code of ethics [6]. Singer and Wells’ suggested that babies destined for abortion could be saved by transplanting them to surrogate pigs to be gestated to term and adopted. This may help solve the abortion issue, but will humans born to surrogate pigs be persecuted and potentially executed because of their involuntarily performed alleged crimes against ethics?

In order to answer these questions some information as to the acceptance of the technology is pertinent. Because of the obscurity surrounding the technology arising from the ethical controversy surrounding pigs as surrogate mothers very little research has explored the ethical opinion of, or its possible acceptance in society. In relation to this lack exploratory information I formulated research to look at both the current acceptance of this possible technology and how information can influence ethical decisions. The subject of animals as surrogate mothers was chosen because it is an issue that most people have not considered, and it intertwines pertinent issues relating to the rights of humans, animals, and fetuses. In order to explore the acceptance of using pigs as surrogate mothers for reproductive ectogenesis (the gestation of a fetus outside the mother), and to investigate the influence of information on ethical acceptance, two separate surveys were generated. Each survey contained three identical yes or no questions regarding aspects of the technology. The questions were formulated to touch on some of the main arguments surrounding reproductive ectogenesis.

Question 1: If possible, would you support a technology that could allow implanting of prematurely born human babies into surrogate animal mothers until grown to term?

Question 2: Would you support development of a machine that could keep prematurely born babies alive by essentially performing the same functions as a mother’s body even if less effective than an animal surrogate mother?

Question 3: Would you support using a machine or an animal surrogate mother to be used in place of abortion for mothers who did not want to carry a baby to term so that the baby could then be adopted? The varying factor between the two surveys was that second survey contained a brief introduction outlining pertinent Information to the imperative need for such a technology and background information such as that 1 in 8 babies are born premature [7] and that over a million die worldwide each year [8]. It also described how pig kidneys and brain cells have already been successfully transplanted to humans to save human lives [4] and how this technology could save lives of fetuses. Over one hundred individuals of varying demographic backgrounds were given one of the two surveys to complete.

The percentage of people who said they would accept the technology in each question are shown in figures 1-3 below. Despite the controversies associated with the subject support for reproductive ectogenisis was higher than predicted with 41% accepting it even without any background on the subject. Results for the survey with the introduction showed a 29% increase in the number of people who would accept the technology of using animals as surrogate mothers. This portrays the value that information can have on ethical debates. Males also showed, on average, to be significantly more likely than females to accept the idea of animals as surrogate mothers. Possible reasons for this trend could be because women view this technology as threatening their maternal roles of providing life support to the developing fetus and intimate connection with the fetus. Results for the second question show the general acceptance of machines in medical technology and in both surveys people were far more likely to accept a machine as a solution than an animal. This could have risen from concerns for the animal, but some respondents stated that they felt it threatened the inner sense of human superiority in the perceived hierarchy of life. We as humans often like to envision ourselves at a level higher than the animals around us and the idea of being able to exchange parts with them somehow makes us feel less human. Also machines have been used in medicine for decades where as animals use is a more recent possibility. Increased use and success with human animal transplantation will likely correlate to increased approval. However, like other emerging technologies the acceptance may not completely come until a generation has grown up with the new technology.

Question three shows how forming correlations to already existing ethical questions can influence decisions on new technologies. Most people have some opinion on the abortion issue and it is widely debated in the news. However, few have probably thought about animals as surrogate mothers and how this might be a possible solution to the abortion issue. Interestingly enough, multiple survey participants answered no to questions one and two but yes to question three. This shows that they wouldn’t have accepted the technology until the correlation was drawn that showed a compromise to an already existing moral issue. If they could take the survey again they might change their answer to one or both of the first two questions. Another interesting trend is that medical professionals were more likely to support the technology than the other categories without the introduction but significantly less likely when given the introduction. The sample size was smaller for medical professionals and more extensive research could help to discover the validity and cause of this trend. As time tests the acceptance of human ectogenesis further research in this area could include looking at how trends change, especially if human ectogenesis progresses and receives more recognition in the next couple years. The race for medical breakthroughs is a 95 billion dollar endeavor in the United Stated alone and ethical acceptance of those technologies is often crucial to their success in the market place [9].

The power of information, as shown by the increase of acceptance in the second survey, explains why the medical advertising field has grown exponentially the last couple decades. The answer to how the technology and the human products of it will be accepted will never be fully known until the technology comes to fruition. However, as shown by the surveys, the subject remains controversial, but the knowledge that can provide momentum to the project is already starting to form and replace inhibition to new ideas. If human ectogenesis is put into practice it will still be years before the first human baby will be thanking a pig for carrying it in the womb. However, the winds of change are blowing towards a technology that would have been not only scientifically impossible, but ethically impossible in any other century.

Daniel Brewer is an undergraduate at Arizona State University. His article will also appear the Brown, Cambridge and UCSD editions of the journal.

References

  1. Dronamraju, Krishna. Haldane’s Daedalus revisited. Oxford University Press; 1995
  2. Singer P, Wells D. The Reproductive Revolution: New Ways of Making Babies. Oxford University Press; 1984
  3. Welin S. Reproductive Ectogenesis. Science and Engineering Ethics 2004 10: 615-626
  4. Frontline. Organ Farm: Four Patients and Their Clinical Trials Available from: URL http://www.pbs.org
  5. Fletcher, J. Moral Problems and Ethical Issues in Prospective Human Gene Therapy. Virginia Law Review 1983 69:3 515-546
  6. CNN. Doctor Who Performed Abortions Shot to Death 7/2/09 Available from URL http://www.cnn.com
  7. Mitchell, Deborah. High Number Of Premature Births Cause for concern Emax Health. 10/5/2009 available from: URL http://www.emaxhealth.com
  8. Medical News Today. Number Of Premature Births In The U.S. ‘Discouraging’ Opinion Piece Says 3/28/2008 Available from: URL http://www.medicalnewstoday.com
  9. MSNBC Health. 95 Billion A Year Spent on Medical Research. 9/20/06 Available from: URL http://www.msnbc.com
  10. http://www.istockphoto.com/stock-photo-1906463-gestation-fetus-growing.php