Raising Animals for Their Organs

Robin Marantz Henig's article, "Animals as Donors" {Ethics, Jan. 26}, raised many interesting questions concerning the use of animals as organ donors. Two questions that were not mentioned also deserve consideration before we decide to forge ahead with interspecies organ transplants.

First, how many transplant patients die waiting for a suitable human donor? The report of the U.S. Task Force on Organ Transplantation estimated that while 94 percent of Americans support organ donation, only 17 percent carry organ donor cards. Moreover, the task force found a severe lack of education about organ donation and transplantation among the general public and doctors alike. Before we commence raising animals as "spare parts" reservoirs for our species, shouldn't we do more to promote organ donation among the human population?

Incidentally, chimpanzees or pigs can never be "donors," as the title of the article states, for a donor presents a gift, meaning she or he does so willingly. Non-human animals are forced to "give up" their organs for the human species.

Second, we must ask how many patients die waiting for enough money for a transplant. While Medicaid will often pay for transplants for indigent people, the government provides no money for post-transplant care or for necessary and expensive immunosuppressive drugs. Only the very rich, the very poor and those with an excellent insurance plan can afford organ transplants, which cost an average of $100,000 for the operation alone.

In addition to the ethical issues involved with decisions to use nonhumans as organ sources for our overpopulated species, we must ask ourselves if medical scientists have the right to turn their backs on those of our own kind who need realistic and immediate answers to the organ donation crisis. We must also question the allocation of tax funds for these technical high-wire acts at a time when education, donor promotion and network donor expansion are grossly underfunded. Shouldn't life matter more than limelight? Carol F. Helstosky

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals-Washington

It makes no sense to use chimps as organ donors. There are only about 1,500 chimps in captivity in the United States and a very small, endangered population in the wild. Sacrificing all the chimps in the world as organ donors would fail to make much of a dent in the need for organs. Physicians who propose the use of chimps do so for their own self-aggrandizement.

There are some 22,000 brain deaths in the U.S. each year, with only 4,000 resulting in organ donations. This compares to the 11,000 Americans currently in need of kidneys and 600 needing heart transplants. Clearly, humans can solve this problem ourselves through education and an improved organ procurement system. Nancy Lairmore Alexandria

Dr. Robert Whitney of the Public Health Service says that chimpanzees will not be used for transplant research because they are "so valuable" in AIDS research.

Chimpanzee subjects of AIDS experiments suffer horribly under conditions of severe isolation, imposed for the sake of human convenience. The immune system, which is of principal interest in AIDS research, is significantly affected by stresses such as isolation and inadequate cage size. How can the results of these experiments be valid when this variable is not taken into account? Judith McManus Washington

Improving the Lot of Nurses

Jeanette Hartshorn's solution to the nursing shortage {Second Opinion, Jan. 12} -- increase public relations and pay -- is not going to retain the old and new recruits, which is the key to the shortage.

The problems that plague nursing are the same that plague all women who work outside the home -- child care. If quality on-site child care were provided, the nursing shortage could well be eliminated.

Add to this the evils of shift rotation and you can see why nurses are turning to other careers.

There are nurses out there. We want to work. Make work work for us. Mary Heidenberger Herndon

Whose Diet Is Dangerous?

I was delighted to see Dr. Dean Ornish's endorsement of a diet which virtually eliminates the intake of fat and cholesterol {Healthtalk, Jan. 19}. I would add only that in addition to preventing cardiovascular disease, such a diet is effective in drastically reducing the chances of contracting many types of cancer.

I beg to differ, however, with the advice that people see a doctor before implementing "such a strict diet." As a physician, I would instead advise people who continue a typical American diet, high in fats and cholesterols, to seek medical help immediately. Neal D. Barnard, MD Chairman, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine Washington

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Clarification

An Associated Press report published on the Cutting Edge page last week incorrectly summarized new federal recommendations on screening sperm donations for AIDS. Federal health officials say that most sperm donations should be frozen, and that a fresh sample of blood from the donor -- not the sperm donation itself -- should be tested for AIDS antibodies six months after the semen was donated.