Xenotransplantation: A Summary of the Theological and Anthropological Aspects

Issue 6, April 2002

From the report of the Pontifical Academy for Life

Prospects for Xenotransplantation: Scientific Aspects and Ethical Considerations

1. Human intervention in the created order

The account of creation in Genesis lays out the hierarchy among creatures, which can also be deduced from the transcendent dignity of the human person. Our right to intervene in the created order and modify some of its aspects is derived from an understanding of the position of human beings at "the centre and at the summit" of the created order. God placed human beings in this position, not only because everything that exists is intended for them, but because woman and man have the task of co-operating with the Creator in leading creation to its final perfection.

It is not a case of human beings "lording it over" other creatures. It is the right and duty of human beings, "according to the mandate from the Creator and never against the natural order established by him, to act within the created order and on the created order, making use of other creatures in order to achieve the final goal of all creation: the glory of God and the full and definitive bringing about of the Kingdom", through the promotion of the human person.

2. The use of animals for the good of human beings

As creatures, animals have their own intrinsic value which must be recognized and respected. However they were placed by God at the service of human beings, to assist in human development and progress. Human beings have always used animals to meet their needs, for example, in the provision of food and clothing, and to assist with work. The manner in which animals have been used has varied according to different stages of civilization. Xenotransplantation is a totally new type of service of animals to human beings, but as a service it is not in conflict with the created order.

There are two opposing points of view about the use of animals to improve human health or survival. At one extreme is the belief that animals and humans have equal dignity. At the other extreme is the belief that animals can be used by humans without regard to ethical considerations. In the Catholic tradition human beings have a unique and higher dignity than animals, but humans must also answer to the Creator for the manner in which animals are treated. This means that the sacrifice or use of animals can only be justified when it provides an important benefit for humans. Xenotransplantation is considered to be such a benefit. However unnecessary animal suffering is to be avoided; there must be a real need for the procedure; and genetic modification used as part of the process must not alter biodiversity and the balance of species.

In terms of the acceptability of xenotransplants, Catholic theology does not preclude the use of animal organs in humans. If personal identity is not affected by the transplant, the acceptability of xenotransplantation is determined by cultural and psychological factors.

3. Xenotransplantation and the identity of the recipient

In addition to the two theological issues outlined an evaluation of xenotransplantation must include measuring it against the findings of philosophical anthropology, especially those that relate to personal identity. Does the introduction of an animal organ into the human body modify a person's identity and the "rich meaning of the human body"? To what extent is such modification acceptable?

Personal identity is the relationship of an "individual's unrepeatability and essential core" to his/her being a person (on the ontological level) and feeling that he/she is a person (psychological level). These characteristics are expressed in the person's historical dimension and, in particular, in the thinking and communicative structures of the head.

Personal identity constitutes a good of the person, and is an intrinsic quality of an individual's very being. As such it is a moral value, and there is a right and duty to promote and defend the integrity of the personal identity of every individual. The integrity of personal identity therefore provides an ethical limit to the degree of change which xenotransplantation may be allowed to bring about in the human recipient of an animal organ. Some organs are primarily functional, whereas others have a strong personal symbolism or are intimately linked to the identity of the person. The specific functions of the brain and reproductive organs link them indissolubly to personal identity, and therefore xenotransplantation involving these organs can never be morally legitimate. The acceptability of xenotransplants of other organs with strong personal symbolism will depend upon the subjective response of the individual, and need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

The full report can be found on the website of the Pontifical Academy for Life