Usual Suspects Attack Americans for Medical Progress over Xenotransplantation

As animal rights activists
and extremist environmental groups gear up to seek an outright ban on
the transplantation of organs from non-human animals to humans, Americans for Medical Progress‘s Jacquie Calnan wrote an excellent, widely published
op-ed on the importance of pursuing research on xenotransplantation and
similar technologies. She and AMP were subsequently attacked in a release
by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace and

Calnan’s op-ed, “Payton’s
hope” (available at highlighted the problems of former Chicago Bear running back Walter
Payton, who recently announced he has a rare liver disease and may die
within two years if he does not receive a transplant.

As Calnan noted in her op-ed,
although there are 12,000 people on the waiting list for livers, only
about 4,000 such transplants are performed each year. In 1997 more than
1,000 people died while waiting for a matching liver. Calnan’s editorial
did an excellent job of highlighting animal rights hypocrisy, which is
why I suspect it was so quickly attacked. She repeated PETA celebrity
spokesman Bill Maher‘s recent quote to US Magazine that: “To those
people who say, ‘My father is alive because of animal experimentation,’
I say ‘Yeah, well, good for you. This dog died so your father could live.’
Sorry, but I am just not behind that kind of trade off.” Someone
should send Maher a thank you note for so succinctly summing up the animal
rights philosophy.

Calnan mentioned the newly
developed device I mentioned a couple weeks ago that uses pig cells to
help keep some people alive while waiting transplants. The fact is this
technology is here today and it is already saving lives, so the animal
rights and extreme environmental activists have to fall back on two claims
to discredit the technology.

The first is that the risk
of passing diseases from non-humans to humans is too high. Animal rights
activists have released claim after claim trying to make this point, but
most of the more serious ones have later turned out to be baseless. On
the other hand, like any other thing human beings do, there is always
some risk associated with it – the risk of some new deadly disease crossing
from non-humans to humans will never be zero.

But if our society was that
risk-averse no pharmaceutical drugs or medical technology would ever be
approved since the risk of a calamity from any new technology is never
zero. If this sort of principle actually guided medical technology, certainly
technologies that we take for granted, such as vaccination, would never
have been allowed since the potential risks were only poorly known at best.

The second claim is that there
are more than enough organ donors to go around. At the end of her article,
Calnan ask for more people to become organ donors, which is a reasonable
position, but the critics of xenotransplantation seem to assume that those
organ donors are here today. A recent press release from the Boston-based
Campaign for Responsible Transplantation claimed, for example, that Xenotransplantation
advocates “use statistics and emotion to make their case … some 3,000
transplant patients die each year on in the U.S. … [but a ] US General
Accounting Office report … reveals a potential organ donor pool of 150,000
people. This is in stark contrast to previous estimates of 5,000 to 29,000
people annually … if these organs are secured, it would solve the national
organ shortage, and completely eliminate the need for animal organ transplants.”

As is the typical modus operandi with
these groups, however, this last claim is a distortion. The GAO report
was written to explore different methods of evaluating the performance
of Organ Procurement Organizations, who are assigned the task of procuring
organs and getting them into the organ sharing network. In order to do
that sort of evaluation, the GAO wanted a baseline of the upper bound of
eligible organ donors, which it estimated at 147,000 in 1994 using a technique
to estimate actual deaths and then adjust the figures to determine how
many of those deaths would have had harvestable organs.

The interesting thing is that
in the very next paragraph after giving this estimate, the GAO notes the
limits of counting potential organs this way, “we found that both
the death and adjusted-death measures [which are the source of the 147,000
figure] have drawbacks that limit their usefulness, however, including
lack of timely data and inability to identify those deaths suitable for
use in organ donation.”

First, this explicitly concedes
that the 147,000 figure was obtained using a method that the GAO admits
has an “inability to identify those deaths suitable for use in organ
donation,” which is the crux of the problem with human organ donation
itself. If it was too expensive and time consuming for the GAO to go back
four years and decide how many people were eligible organ donors,
imagine the difficulty in trying to harvest those organs on the spot.

It is one thing to look back
several years later and say there were say 40,000 automobile deaths and
of those 6,000 were potential organ donors. It is another thing to be
in place to actually obtain those organs (a severe problem in organ donation
is that even among those who have signed organ donor cards and are good candidates
to donate organs, often the organs are no longer usable by the time doctors
are aware of the potential donor or get permission from family members
to proceed. This is a situation that is unlikely to change significantly
in the near future).

In addition, the CRT release
failed to note that the number organ donors has increased over the last
few years – but the number of people eligible for organ donation has increased
even faster. I suppose if PETA had its way, this wouldn’t be a problem
since there would be no animal research and fewer people would be transplant
candidates since the medical knowledge to save their lives simply wouldn’t
exist, but barring this it seems clear that future advances in medical
science are going to continue to drive the demand for organ donation at
a much faster rate than the increase in donated organs.

If anything the GAO report
on the failures of Organ Procurement Organizations to obtain more organs
is evidence of just how difficult it is going to be to increase the level
of organ donation, and further emphasizes why xenotransplantation and
similar technologies will likely play a key role in the 21st century – provided animal rights activists aren’t given the chance to
halt this important advance.

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