An aid to ethical discernment

prepared by a working group on behalf of the Church Office of the Evangelical Church in Germany and the Secretariat of the German Bishops' Conference

Joint Texts No.13, 1998


An aid to ethical discernment

3. Reactions and assessments by the public

The general public reacts in different ways to the prospect that in the near future it will be possible to carry out xenotransplants; and the assessments vary among the population according to the personal situation, age and degree of affectedness.

This offer raises hopes in some people who might be potential organ recipients, for they expect to improve their anxious situation or even to prevent imminent death. Terminally ill patients and their families hope for themselves and others in a similar situation that now there will be a chance to overcome the existent shortage in transplantable human graft organs and that the people concerned will be given a better quality of life due to the improved supply with animal organs.

However, the idea of transplanting animal organs into people also gives rise to fears and concerns among other groups of people. No matter whether these fears are founded on actual risks or not, these people are quite right to expect their fears and reservations to be taken seriously, as for instance from concerns about the unpredictable effects of animal pathogens on the human organism, the potential threat of transmitting animal pests to humans and the surfacing of formerly unknown, threatening diseases to the fear of changing the human identity by integrating animal cells and organs into a human body. If such fears turned out to be realistic, this would not only have consequences on the individual, but possibly on large parts of the population.

The information on the opportunities and risks of xenotransplantation that is given to citizens, who are usually non-experts in the fields of science the topic touches upon, are not only of a fragmentary nature, but often also interest-ridden. As this is not always disclosed, the average citizen might perceive a scenario that is far from the actual state of affairs. In such a confusing situation one tends to prefer the arguments of the protesters that seem to come from their apparent "unselfish" attitude over the chain of arguments presented by experts, which are often hard to understand because of the differentiating approach they take and also because sometimes they assume a certain arrogance and ignore the fears of the people out of a detachedness from real life.

The developments in research and the public debate on xenotransplantation have reached a stage where it remains unclear to the citizens whether within the mixed bag of expectations the focus is actually on improving the situation of patients or whether scientific and economic aspects might push human values and concerns into the background. The expanding power of large pharmaceutical companies and medical research projects are met with increasing apprehension. In connection to that there are rising fears that even those sides of research that appear positive at first could become commercialized to such a degree that the achievements of research would then not benefit the people in need, but only the financially powerful.

Humans just as much as animals could become instrumentalized for the sake of scientific progress. Some people warn about the possibility of lowering animal welfare standards, because the treatment of severely ill people enjoys priority. Then, certain animals would be forced to serve as "organ warehouses" for humans.

Some people wonder with great concern whether the attitude people have regarding diseases and death would automatically change when it becomes extensively possible to replace vital organs through xenotransplantation, so that diseases such as heart, liver or kidney failure, which today are frequently terminal, will no longer inevitably lead to the patient's death. Would this be good for humankind, or would it change our attitude towards life's finiteness and the "feasibility" of things?



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