Philosophy - Index > Testing - Index

Xenografts and Animal Rights
by Gary L. Francione
["Transplantation Proceedings", Vol. 22, No. 3, 1990, p1044-1046.]



There are many ethical issues raised by xenografts (cross-species transplantations). In this article I will briefly discuss just one of these ethical issues: the moral status of the use of nonhuman animals involved in xenografts. In at least one sense, the fact that the animal use occurs in the context of a xenograft is irrelevant. That is, if one accepts that human animals may always (or almost always) use nonhumans to serve human purposes, then it should make no significant difference whether the use is for the purpose of a xenograft, or some other purpose, such as drug testing or food consumption. Conversely, if one rejects any (or almost any) exploitation of nonhuman animals, then the purpose of the exploitation will probably not matter.

In another sense, however, xenografts crystallize the basic moral issue in a rather dramatic way. To the extent that a xenograft is successful, or will be successful in at least some cases, one can arguably trace a direct benefit that results from the exploitation of the nonhuman animal. This ostensibly tangible benefit distinguishes the xenograft from at least some other instances of vivisection where any benefit is likely to be far more attenuated. Whenever there is an arguably "direct" benefit from vivisection, the character of the debate seems to change, and even some people who would normally oppose animal exploitation will "balance" in favor of what is perceived to be the human interest. It would seem, then, that there would be strong moral arguments in favor of at least some xenografts if the ostensible benefit to humans is weighed only against the harm to animals.

It is clear that the efforts to perfect xenografts will intensify. But it is also clear that these efforts will meet with more resistance from what is referred to loosely as the "animal rights" community. There are at least three reasons why this resistance will intensify. First, more and more people are rejecting the "balancing" approach as an appropriate way to resolve moral issues. Second, the concept of animal rights is becoming increasingly accepted as the morally appropriate alternative to the balancing approach. Third, as a general matter, various groups, including but not limited to the animal rights movement, have begun to question the "objectivity" of science, and see science as a political activity. The remainder of this article will present a (brief) exploration of these three factors.

Balancing Interests

Although some early thinkers did ascribe rights to nonhumans, the animal "rights" movement was, until recently, really an animal "welfare" movement. That is, most people, including those very actively involved in trying to ameliorate conditions for animals, accepted that animals could be exploited by humans in various ways, but that humans had an obligation to ensure that animals were not used in trivial ways and that they were treated as well as possible given the particular type of use involved. It was our responsibility to balance human interests and animal interests.

This welfare approach is reflected in virtually all current and proposed legislation concerning animals. For example, consider the changes to the Canadian Criminal Code recently proposed by the Law Reform Commission of Canada. The proposed law criminalizes any unnecessary injury or pain inflicted on an animal, and, in the case of research, defines "unnecessary" pain or injury as that "disproportionate to the benefit expected from such research." Whether experimentation meets the proportionality test will, for all purposes, be determined by the research community which, in all but the most extreme cases, will defer to the individual vivisector. In essence, the proportionality test merely restates, and does not explain, the necessity requirement. Far from representing a progressive approach, the proposed law merely codifies a standard that most people--even those who use animals in experiments--would accept as tautologically true--that animals ought not be subjected to unnecessary pain or injury. The proposed law strikes the balance dramatically in favor of human interests and accepts that animals may be used in experiments, as long as there is some benefit expected from the use.

The problem with this type of approach is apparent: As long as those who do the balancing regard virtually any "benefit" to justify animal use, there will be no effective regulation of animal research. Although every person would agree that animals ought not to be used for "trivial" purposes, there are myriad instances of animal use that must be regarded as morally unjustifiable whatever understanding of "trivial" is employed. Nevertheless, the experimenters who performed those experiments would hardly characterize their work as "trivial" and, in most cases, neither did the people who performed the peer review for those experiments.

People do the balancing and until recently, most people have accepted that species is a morally relevant criterion to determine membership in the moral community. That is, animal interests have been underestimated systematically in this balancing process because of species discrimination, which is no different from discrimination based on race or sex. This species discrimination, or speciesism, as it is commonly referred to, has resulted in the justification of barbaric cruelty to animals.

But even if we were to be more conscientious about our balancing approach, this method of approaching moral issues would still be inadequate. The reason for this inadequacy is that balancing alone virtually never provides a satisfactory answer. For example, assume that virtually all xenografts would point to the ostensible consequences of improved human health to justify the practice. Those who disfavor xenografts would point to the negative consequences to the nonhuman animals. Although both sides accepted a balancing framework, there would be no agreement on the ultimate issue because an appeal to consequences can never work unless there is some sort of agreement on the valuation of those consequences.


Despite our resort to the balancing approach to resolve issues about the exploitation of animals, many of us do not use this same approach to resolve other moral issues. For example, very few people are willing to balance interests where the issue is using unwilling humans as donors of organs or as experimental subjects.

This reluctance has to do with the fact that we are unwilling to balance where fundamental rights are involved. That is, most of us believe that human beings possess certain rights. Sometimes the character or extent of these rights will be determined by a balancing process. For example, I may live in a society that grants me a right to medical care, but the scope of that right may be determined by balancing my right against other uses of resources. But there are some rights where such a balancing would not be permitted. For example, I suspect that few would accept as morally justifiable the enslavement of other human beings even if it could be demonstrated that marvelous consequences would ensue for all free people. A right acts as a sort of barrier between the rightholder and everyone else. If I have a right to be free, then, as a general matter, the fact that it will benefit you if I am enslaved is irrelevant.

Until recently, the dispute between those who use animals and those opposed to such use has centered on different concepts of "necessity"--one group would balance in a manner different from another group but both would balance and accept the legitimacy of a balancing approach. Indeed, even the position articulated by Peter Singer must be characterized as a balancing approach. Singer argued that species is not a morally relevant criterion for determining membership in the moral community and that equivalent human and animal interest ought to be accorded the same weight in the balancing process. Although Singer's approach would rule out a great deal of animal exploitation, it does not represent a rights approach (for people or animals).

The theoretical playing field changed dramatically in 1983 with the publication of Tom Regan's theory of animal rights. Regan argued persuasively that some animals have at least some of the same rights that humans have, and Regan explicitly rejects all forms of balancing. Although Regan's arguments are complex, and deserve to be read in their entirety, the thrust of his approach may be characterized as a recognition that animals have some of the same characteristics that lead us to grant rights to humans. In failing to extend the relevant rights to nonhumans, Regan argues, we are merely engaging in species discrimination. Regan's work is now beginning to have a dramatic impact on popular thought, and the concept of animal rights--as opposed to animal welfare--is beginning to take hold.

It is clear that once we accept the concept of animal rights, it no longer is open to us to ask whether the "sacrifice" of a baboon to help Baby Fae is morally justifiable. The baboon is not something that exists for the benefit of Baby Fae any more than Baby Fae exists for the benefit of the baboon. The balancing question becomes irrelevant.

The "Objectivity" of Science

The third reason for the increased opposition to xenografts (and other forms of vivisection) is that science no longer enjoys a position as epistemologically superior to other forms of knowledge. Despite the seductive simplicity of the traditional empiricist point of view--that science represents "objective" truth, the assumptions supporting this traditional view have been challenged effectively in recent years. Philosophers and sociologists of science have argued persuasively that factual assertions are completely contingent on theoretical assumptions, and that observation itself is subject to interpretation. In addition, the problems that scientists choose to solve are often dictated by political concerns.

This recognition is slowly eroding the pedestal upon which science has presided for many years. More and more people in the animal rights movement, the environmental movement, and the alternative health care movement recognize that science is as value-based as any other activity. Indeed, there is increasing criticism of the fundamental premises of Western medicine.

It is clear that the exploitation of animals in science, whether for xenografts or other purposes, raises ethical issues in addition to any technical issues. Scientists are no better able to cope with the vital ethical issues than are the rest of us.


Once we accept that animals have rights, the framework of our discussion of the morality of xenografts must change. That is not to say that a balancing approach would sanction xenografts. On the contrary, the current level of medical technology and resource allocation is such that a very good argument could be made that at least some xenografts are morally unjustifiable for many reasons. But what if we could be substantially certain that a particular xenograft will work? We would then be faced with a much more difficult decision under a balancing approach. Indeed, under such a set of circumstances, the benefits to be gained would be unlike the supposed benefits that occur in the context of basic research. That is, the prospect of a successful xenograft raises very difficult questions for the consequential moral theorist who balances interests.

But if instead we accept a rights approach (i.e., that a baboon is an individual with a right to exist not contingent on his/her providing a benefit to humans) then it is far less difficult to see why the xenograft is morally unjustifiable. Consequences are irrelevant where fundamental rights are involved.

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