A two-week-old baby in the USA made world news. In a hospital in Loma Linda in California USA, a baby was born with an incurable heart defect. The baby had, humanly speaking, only a few weeks to live. The only cure was a heart transplant. During five hours of surgery, the heart of a seven-month-old baboon was implanted in the body of the two-week-old baby. The name of the baby has not been released but the baby is known everywhere as, baby Fae.
This surgery has caused a lot of discussion. Some are protesting against it while others are in favour and very excited. It is considered a big step in a new direction since it opens new avenues for transplant of animal organs into human beings.
We will try to analyze the arguments of those who are in favour of these operations as well as those who are against it.
Let us first have a look at the reasoning of some protestors.
Cruelty to Animals?
Some have protested against this operation because they consider it cruel to kill a healthy baboon just to prolong the suffering of a child. Their reasoning is that the child would die anyway, because the human body rejects animal tissue, and consequently two die, namely, the baby and the baboon.
We do not consider this a valid objection. The question whether the baby ultimately survived is irrelevant. Even if the life of a baby can be prolonged only for a short period, it might be sufficient reason to try. The real point in their reasoning is whether the life of an animal may be sacrificed for the sake of human being. We believe that God has given man dominion over all creatures and that includes the right to kill animals to serve mankind. We are not allowed to be cruel to animals and to let them suffer unnecessarily, but we are allowed to kill animals. We do not just kill animals to save or prolong human life, but even to enjoy a good meal. The Bible teaches us clearly that the life of an animal is not sacred or at the same level as human life. In order to organize a party or to have a festive meal the fatted calf were killed. We cannot see anything wrong in killing an animal in this respect, especially not when it is done without any suffering or pain. Some experiments with animals might be cruel, especially when an animal is made sick to find out the reaction to a certain drug or poison. Causing such suffering should be avoided as much as possible. However, there is nothing wrong with killing an animal as such.
In the discussions about baby Fae, we heard the argument that no human heart was available. Some argue that the heart of a two-year old child was available. Others say that this would not have served the purpose because it was too big for a two-week-old baby. The argument was that the human heart became available at a moment when the transplant procedure had already been started and was too far underway to change to another heart. Although this might seem to be valid reasoning, we consider it irrelevant. If it is correct and acceptable to use an animal organ, it does not really matter whether there is another heart available. The only point is then which one suit the purpose better.
In addition, the rejection of foreign tissue was brought to the fore. It is general knowledge that the human body always tends to reject every foreign object, which penetrates the body. That counts for a speck of wood in your finger as well as for blood transfusion or an organ transplant. The body's attempt to get rid of every foreign object is a natural reaction to protect itself. These reaction symptoms can be avoided if the body does not recognize the object as being "foreign." Therefore, it is necessary to carefully choose a donor for blood transfusion, to make sure that it is similar to the blood of the patient. That determines the choice of material for artificial organs, for example a plastic hip or a steel pin in a broken leg. It also determines the choice of a donor for a heart transplant. The more similar the tissue of the donor is, the less chance that the body will reject the organ as a "foreign object." Another way to avoid the rejection symptoms is to eliminate or bring down the defense mechanism of the body. That is done to a certain extent during and after every heart transplant. However, it brings with it the risk of all kinds of infection, because the body loses its natural defense against these intruders as well.
Up until now, the transplant of an animal heart had never been successfully performed because of the rejection phenomenon. Animal tissue is too "foreign" to be accepted anyway. With a newborn baby, the defense mechanism has not developed sufficiently. That is why the operation of this two-week old baby could be performed. However, in the meantime we have learned that the baby survived for three weeks only.
The Real Point at Stake
What is the real point in this matter? The ethical question is whether we are allowed to transplant organs from an animal into a human being. Of the same importance is the question, which attitude is behind this whole development. Some argue that the use of animal tissue during an operation has been already a longstanding practice. Heart valves of pigs have been successfully implanted in human beings for many years. The bowels of cats are used to prepare the material for stitches, which cannot be reached to remove them after an operation and which therefore, have to dissolve in a natural way. However, apart from the objection one might have even against these practices, in all these cases we were dealing with minor "parts" and not with the transplant of vital organs.
We do not agree with the reasoning that the heart is the center of spiritual life and that therefore a heart transplant under all circumstances is forbidden. When the Bible says that we have to serve the Lord with all our heart and that from the heart are the springs of life, then the Bible does not refer in the first place to the physical organ that functions as a blood pump but rather to the spiritual center of our existence and our personality. Still we consider the heart so vital an organ that a heart transplant is about as far as we can go in this matter of organ transplant.
It is also important which philosophy is behind it. Doctors are talking about "inter-species" transplant. With the expression "inter-species", they mean: between the different species of animals. They first tried it with dog and wolf. Now they will try it with ape and man. They consider mankind to be the highest developed animal. One of the doctors who performed the operation stated that he loves animals but, as a member of the human species, he preferred to help a human being at the cost of a baboon.
The Lord has made man as His ambassador, created after His image, to have dominion over all creatures, also over the animals. We are allowed to use animals for food or to work for us. However, we should not consider human life as just a higher form of animal life. Our main objection against these so-called "inter-species transplants," is that it does not recognize the principle difference between man and animal. It is a lack of respect for God the Creator of human life and a lack of recognition of human life as unique. Here we find the same attitude as with the experiments with fertilization in vitro, mentioned in a previous article. It is part of an effort to manipulate human life and to demonstrate that human beings are in control of everything, independent of God or even working instead of God the Creator of human life.
Organ Transplant in General
In conclusion, we will make some remarks about organ transplant in general. We mentioned already that, although our physical heart is not the center of our spiritual life, still a heart transplant is about as far as we can go with respect to organ transplants. We have to be aware of what is going on in this field. From recent publications, we can learn that microsurgery has opened completely new avenues. Microsurgery is a technique of working with stitches that are invisible to the naked human eye. Only with a magnifying glass or microscope can they be seen. This technique has made it possible to transplant even an ovary and a fallopian tube from one woman to another. Because of the rejection mechanism mentioned before, this operation has been performed successfully only with two identical twins. Still it might be possible in the future to cure infertility in this way. However, the question remains, are we allowed using such procedures. The main problem in such cases is: Who is who? Who is the "mother" when a child is born after such an operation? Because we are dealing with the organs of procreation, which determine the personality and the character of the human being to be brought forth, we are intruding too much in God's work of creation of human life. We have come at the same slippery slope as with artificial insemination with the sperm of a donor.
The same problem of changing the personality comes to the fore when we think about transplanting a human brain or parts of it. That is impossible at the present for technical reasons. With the more sophisticated technology of microsurgery, it might become possible in the future.
We as Christians confess that human life comes out of the hand of the Lord. In modern medical developments, the Lord has given us wonderful means to cure illnesses and to relieve pain. However, we have to realize that there are limits. We have to show our respect for the majesty of our Creator in recognizing our limitations.
In this respect, continuous study of the ethical aspect is necessary. Let us help each other in finding the right Christian approach in these matters.