Heads, Hearts, and Humanity: Identity and the Freedom to Choose

Cartoon by Graham Harrop

This article was written by one of the ADAV advisors, Maidie Hilmo, PhD, and has appeared on this site first.

Going back to ancient times, the Spring Equinox, falling on March 20 this year, has been celebrated as a time of transition when day and night are the same length. It represents the victory of light over darkness. This significance of this is especially relevant to to the current situation when the powers of light are battling against some particularly barbaric forces. It seems to be a measure of what has been unleashed in recent times as backward thinking has become increasingly manifested in various ways. A mind set does not tend to occur in isolation. What have we become?

Larger existential and ethical issues have also been raised by another recent event when a genetically modified pig’s heart was transplanted into a man who, sadly, passed away two months later.

The heart and the brain are the major organs. If hearts are being transplanted, why not try all the variables? Perhaps brains can also be transplanted, both ways. Such hybrids are not that far fetched.

Organ transplants are already happening. We can choose to donate, but in the case of pigs who are, like us, intelligent, self-aware beings, it is not a voluntary choice. 

This goes far beyond the issue of whether or not we are meat eaters or vegan or somewhere in between. It goes to the heart, as it were, of who we are or what we want to become.

To adapt an argument from George Bernard Shaw, if it is a choice between my baby or that animal that can be saved, of course I would choose the life of my baby. On the other hand, if it is a matter of the salvation of your baby against that of mine, what is to stop you from trying to sacrifice mine? The same thing that restricts any civilized human activity!

In Shaw’s time, it might have seemed more a matter of either-or. Now our knowledge has advanced to the point where there are numerous alternative approaches to organ transplants and the use of live animals for such purposes.

These include, for example, surgical ventricular restoration and also cardiac regenerative therapy using human stem cells. New research in the UK has developed human stem cell models to deal with cardiac fibrosis.  Bioprinting may soon become an alternative, along with many other human based lab technologies such as microphysiological systems.

While ethics and wisdom speak for themselves as compelling arguments against the use of GMO pigs for heart transplants, more efficient, accurate, timely, individually tailored, and cost-effective ways are already available or in the stages of development. These offer a better outcome for failing hearts (not to mention the obvious such as early and accurate medical diagnosis and lifestyle changes). Similar state-of-the-art and innovative advances relevant to humans are also applicable for other organs.

What is required, in this case, along with legal and political action, is that funding agencies such as governments, private charities, and other organizations fund the use and further development of scientifically advanced, ethical alternatives to those experiments mixing up our species.

Globally, a similar enlightened mode of thinking just might help bring the meaning of the Spring Equinox to fruition. To leave the darkness of the night behind, W.H. Auden’s foreboding poem, “September 1, 1939,” calls to attention the “points of light” among the just that “flash out” to show an “affirming flame.” 

Maidie Hilmo, PhD

Victoria, BC, Canada

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