GENEWATCH
 
ETHICAL LIMITS TO BIOENGINEERING ANIMALS
By Paul Root Wolpe
 
The history of humanity's use of animals for its own purposes is not a particularly benevolent one.  We have used animal flesh for our meals and fur for warmth, bones for weapons and skin for parchment, blubber for oil and horns for medicine. We have harnessed their bodies for labor and domesticated them as companions. We have killed them for sport, worked them to death, and used them for experiments without anesthesia.

Today, we believe we are better. We have laws against animal cruelty and strong public sanctions for mistreatment of animals. At the same time, though, we have transformed individualized exploitation of animals into industrial animal processing. Each year, billions of chickens and millions of turkeys have their beaks partially cut off so that they can be crowded into warehouse-sized barns without cannibalizing each other. Cattle are fed unnatural diets and sometimes castrated without anesthesia, while geese are force-fed to fatten them up for pâté.

Of course, one could go on. No need here to review the litany of our current cruelties or to lament our lack of concern for the suffering of the animals we consume; there is a vast literature on those things and their ethical implications (from Peter Singer's Animal Liberation [1975] to Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals [2009]). Yet, despite our general inattention to the quality of life of our livestock and poultry, we still maintain that, as a society, we care about the treatment of animals. We are outraged when a famous quarterback is caught with fighting dogs, we give money to save endangered species, we individually wash oil-soaked birds in the gulf.

We are deeply conflicted about our treatment of animals as a society; so when we see the use of animal bodies as platforms for genetic experiments, it is little wonder that we are confused about how to react.

Our conflicted attitude toward animals expresses itself in many ways. I often present the idea of using transgenic pigs to provide heart valves and whole heart transplants to my undergraduate students as provocatively as possible, by saying:  "Imagine!  You can create a drove of transgenic pigs whose hearts are not as immunoreactive to humans, or, perhaps, even engineer a pig to grow a heart using some genes from the intended recipient. Then, when the heart is needed, you can choose the best pig, slaughter it-maybe right in the hospital-and transplant the heart directly into the human being!"

The reaction is immediate and passionate, and predictable. Students object that keeping pigs at the ready to be slaughtered for hearts is wrong. "Why?" I ask. The best response I usually get from students (or at least, those who have taken Intro to Philosophy) is that it is using the animal entirely as a means, and that is wrong. My next question, of course, is whether they eat meat.

Why is it that students who had bacon for breakfast react so strongly to the idea of slaughtering a pig for its heart?  After all, no one is going to die without bacon, and we are sacrificing the transgenic animal to save a person's life.

The answer lies in our tendency to personalize morality. We are far more likely to feel a responsibility to one person who is suffering than to groups who are suffering. Charities raising money for poverty in developing nations know it is far more effective to tell one person's story than to cite statistics. It is also manifested in what Albert Jonsen referred to as the "rule of rescue."1 If you ask people whether insurance companies have a right not to reimburse experimental, unproven treatments, a majority say yes. However, if you then give them a particular case of a particular person-a woman with treatment-resistant breast cancer, for example-the same people think it unconscionable that the insurance company will not pay for any and all experimental treatments, even those with only a remote chance of helping her. Personalize the case and our general principles often go out the window.

Students feel sorry for that particular chicken, or pig, but not so much for chickens and pigs in general. The thought of slaughtering "pigs" for bacon seems not to offend some visceral sense of fairness, while slaughtering that particular pig to put its heart in that particular person seems to create an ethical calculus that we do not put into play with masses of animals. One death a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.

The same reaction seems to be operative in our response to laboratory animals. The same mice we can glue-trap or snap-trap in our basements must be euthanized consistent with the recommendations of the American Veterinary Medical Association Panel on Euthanasia when killed in a lab. Vermin in the home turn to protected subjects in the lab.

The reactions to biotechnologically engineered animals, then, become complicated. Is there anything really wrong with using green fluorescent protein to create a glowing rabbit, fish, or monkey?  Should we protest the construction of an ear-shaped polymer scaffolding on the back of a mouse?  Do we cross a line when we create flocks of transgenic animals as bioreactors, or to be 'pharmed' for drug molecules? Is it ethically questionable to wire electrodes into animal brains to control behavior, or to keep disembodied animal brains alive in nutrient media?  With all the suffering that we bring to animals caught up in agribusiness, is it not better to create an animal that is well taken care of, even if it has been engineered with genes that make it glow or express a protein in its milk?

When does the use of biotechnology on animal bodies step over an ethical line, or are their bodies open platforms for our biomechanical tinkering?

The conflict becomes clear in cases such as the experiments of Sanjiv Talwar and John Chapin and their colleagues at SUNY, who wired rats with electrodes in their sensorimotor cortex and again in their pleasure centers (medial forebrain bundle), and then controlled the rats movements by stimulating them to turn right or left as the experimenter desired.2 Animal rights groups and ethicists often complained that these animals were denied their autonomy, turned into "ratbots" or "roborats." Even Sanjiv Talwar admitted that the "idea is sort of creepy."3 Yet we use animals for work and recreation purposes every day in ways that significantly restrains their autonomy, whether they are drug-sniffing dogs or plow oxen or aquarium dolphins or canaries in a cage. Are roborats really any worse off?

Clearly, from an ethical perspective, the suffering of animals in general does not free us from the obligation to treat our animals ethically in the laboratory or biotech industries. So what is wrong with the roborat? 

The difference between robo-rats and drug-sniffing dogs, for example, is that in the case of the dogs, they are trained to exhibit certain behaviors, then rewarded with affection or food for those actions. They are taught to understand, and are rewarded for understanding. Dogs unable or unwilling to conform are not used as work dogs. The robo-rats, on the other hands, do not really understand what they are asked to do, and the rewards, delivered directly to the brain, do not conform to the nature of rewards we generally expect to give animals-food, for example-which connect an understandable action to a primary biological function, in the hands of a recognizable human master. The robo-rat does not understand the behavior being asked and does not participate in the reward being offered, and it has no potential relationship to the master. All is done remotely, both request and reward, through impulses sent directly to the brain. In that sense, the robo-rat is instrumentalized beyond the pet or work animal, and is denied a level of autonomy given even to farm animals and caged pets. The violation in the case of the robo-rat is taking that last step: removing all relationship with the animal and truly treating it as a mechanism to be controlled rather than a living creature.

The lines are not clear, and the standards shift with time and place. As we begin to create animals whose very bodies are pharmaceutical manufacturing plants, whose organs provide life-saving transplants, and whose bodies have altered genetics and physiology to provide experimental platforms for our science, we have to scrutinize our motives and our actions.

Animals are both commodities and autonomous beings, and in order to maintain our rights to consider them as the former, we are obligated at the same time to honor the latter. Clearly, there is a certain amount of self-contradiction involved. We do not treat all animals the same, and we have different standards even for the same animal in different contexts. Our pretenses, however, do not absolve us of our ethical responsibilities. As we create new ways to integrate biotechnologies into animal bodies, we must constantly revisit and redefine the line between the use of animals and their exploitation, the control of behavior and their right to a certain level of autonomy, and the instrumental use of animals for the general welfare and the manipulation of animals for our curiosity or entertainment. There may be no better measure of our humanity than how we treat our animals.

Paul Root Wolpe, PhD, is Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University.

 

Endnotes

1. Jonsen, AR. (1986) "Bentham in a box: Technology assessment and health care allocation" Law, Medicine and Health Care 14:172-4.

2. Talwar, SK; Shaohua, X; Hawley, ES; Weiss, SA; Moxon, KA; Chapin, JK. "Behavioural neuroscience: Rat navigation guided by remote control." Nature 417, 37-38.

3. Whitehouse, D. (2002) "Here come the ratbots." BBC News: May 1, 2002 {http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1961798.stm}

 
 
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