Can a Pig Heart be Kosher?

Recently, British newspapers began reporting on a stem cell breakthrough in which human organs could be grown in pigs for transplantation into humans. While xenotransplantation (interspecies transplantation) will require more research and human testing, Japanese scientists at the University of Tokyo have already created pigs that can “generate human blood by injecting blood cells from humans into pig fetuses.” Although this sounds like something out of a South Park episode in which scientists graft on a you-know-what to the back of a lab mouse so Mrs. Garrison can be a man again, or perhaps reminiscent of H. G. Wells’ Island of Doctor Moreau, this science fiction is fast becoming science. 

If it proves successful, this technology could dramatically reduce the long waiting lists to receive transplanted organs and tissue, thereby saving countless lives. It gets more interesting, however, when speculating whether kashrut (the Jewish body of laws governing the suitability of food and ritual objects) would preclude such a transplant in observant Jews.

Dr. Nora Rubel, Professor of Judaic Studies with a specialty in “religion and foodways” at the University of Rochester, offers: “There is no prohibition on [xenotransplantation] because the circumstances surrounding the prohibition against touching pig flesh is not current. Additionally, and possibly more importantly, the obligation of pikuah nefesh (saving a life) would certainly come into play if a xenotransplant was an option.” Although Talmudic issues are notoriously contentious, even the starkest of opponents come together when saving a life is at stake.

Dr. Fred Rosner agrees. In a 1999 journal article speculating on the eventuality of this technology, the Assistant Dean and Professor of Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine wrote that, “…Judaism will look with favor upon this procedure to prolong or save the life of a human being who is ill or dying from organ failure. Although Jewish law forbids Jews to raise or eat pigs, no such prohibition exists for the use of pigs to cure human illness or to save human lives by xenotransplantation.” Think of the Shabbos goy, medical version.

Islam also considers pigs to be unfit for consumption (haram) and, like Judaism, it has no official ruling on xenotransplantation. While fatwas are generally derived from the Qur’an and Hadith, in the absence of both explicit and implicit rulings, scholars resort to Qiyas or jurisprudential deductive analogy to come to a reasonable conclusion on issues not found in the sacred texts. 

A.R. Chao, a former Imam in Texas and graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, suggests that “xenotransplantation is acceptable if the patient’s life is in danger and all other medical options have been exhausted. [However, given the novelty of the technology, there has not been a clear ruling issued on it from Muslim jurists.]”

But jurisprudential issues are not so simple. Given the complexity of this issue, involving stem cell research, animal rights, and medical ethics, it will likely necessitate a dialogue between Muslim doctors, biologists, ethicists, and other authorities before most Muslim scholars arrive at an opinion on xenotransplantation. Even then, any judgment would be applied on a case-by-case basis, as Islamic jurisprudence doesn’t give blanket rulings on such delicate matters. 

As previously mentioned with Judaism, however, because the pig is not actually being consumed and is being utilized to save a human life, we can suspect such a transplant would be considered mubah, or permissible.  

Of course, the question is bound to surface at some point as to whether they have to use a pig? Why not another animal so as to save the trouble of these religious debates? Unfortunately (or quite fortunately, depending on your orientation), pigs are anatomically and physiologically similar to man. Coupled with their low maintenance, it makes them ideal surrogates for the growth of human organs. If you believe in intelligent design and techno-determinism, then maybe this is just indicative of God’s progressive sense of irony.

There are a lot of historical and modern developments that older religions could not have accounted for. But eisegesis and wishful thinking are only so convincing. God delivering the Ten Commandments to Moses at Sinai can just as well be read as coming from a UFO—and who’s to say that it’s really more far-fetched than a big invisible man in the sky? But then reality kicks in. Proto-religion didn’t account for everything. That’s when scholars and theologians alike must seek the spirit of their texts to pronounce new judgments. 

If the day comes when I need an organ and getting one from a pig is my best bet, I’ll gladly take it. But I also like bacon, so take that as you will.