Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Zombie pigs and ethics



In a scientific article released last week, it was revealed that scientists had 'brought to life' the brain cells of recently slaughtered pigs. Their innovation was to restore circulation and cellular activity in the brain cells of severed pigs' heads, using an artificial circulatory system that pumped blood and drugs to the brain for six hours. The dead brain cells consequently showed signs of activity, although apparently no signs of consciousness: they are said to be 'cellularly active' but not 'a living brain'.

PigsThe groundbreaking research is said to have potential application in resolving acquired brain injury and as a cure for brain disorders and diseases, although scientists have been quick to point out that this will be some way off. Scientists have also been careful to stress that the experiment complied with ethics protocols. They used animals that had already been slaughtered and, faced with the possibility that they would bring them back to 'life', the experiment included nerve blockers that would prevent the return of sensation.

While there need be no doubt that the experiment was carried out in accordance with the relevant ethical research protocols, this rather misses the point. There are other, more profound, ethical questions arising not from the experiment's method but rather from its necessary implications.

Despite the excitement about the potential to alleviate future human suffering, these advances to our understanding of the working of the brain come at a huge cost to the very meaning of life. Most media reports have mentioned medical and legal implications of potentially 'reversing' death. Some have focused on the example of organ transplantation, suggesting that the brain recovery technique may need to be used on potential organ donors to be sure that their death is confirmed absolutely as irreversible. But this, too, misses the point.

There have of course been myriad medical advances that have extended life, and even restored life where it once would have seemed impossible. CPR, for example, 'restarts' the heart, thus giving a patient a second chance at life.

Death of the brain however has been seen as the final determinant of death, following the point at which the brain no longer controls breathing and circulation and then itself commences deterioration. This experiment, however, might result in treatment to restore the brain, restarting other vital processes and thus restoring life, as we understand it, to a person who would otherwise be deemed dead.

With advances in robotics and the capability to run prostheses or machines using only brainwaves, it is feasible that a revived brain alone, without the aid of a damaged human body, might activate bionic body parts, raising the question of what it means to be human.


"Humans in this 'half-state' would enter an uncertain status ethically, and possibly at law, raising questions about capacity and guardianship as well as human rights."


Alternatively, the brain revival process may not restore life as we know it, but instead may restore 'cellular activity' in the brain without consciousness. A quasi-life: not alive, but not dead. This is truly the realm of science fiction, of the unfeeling zombie. Humans in this 'half-state' would enter an uncertain status ethically, and possibly at law, raising questions about capacity and guardianship as well as human rights.

Those living with an intellectual impairment currently are presumed by the law to have capacity to make decisions, as a matter fundamental to human dignity. Generally, their 'existing support network' takes care of their affairs, including personal decisions. These laws may apply also to a person whose brain has been partially revived, but they do not answer the question as to what point a formerly-deceased human becomes a person again following reactivation of only some brain activity.

Important also is the question of the authority under which another human would revive the brain of a deceased person. There are multiple ethical questions for treating doctors. On the one hand is the question of whether a doctor has an obligation to use the technology to attempt to revive a deceased person, and the limits of this. For example, whether a young person should be revived but not an older person; an otherwise healthy person but not a sickly person; or, in the interests of health economics, whether a wealthy person who can pay for the treatment is revived but not someone who is poor.

On the other hand, is the question of a doctor's liability for reviving a person who wished instead to die.

The question of the limits on decision-making raises broader questions regarding the point at which a person becomes entitled to the death-reversing treatment and the point at which it might be imposed upon them. To use the example cited in media reports, if one is an organ donor it may become a precondition of donation that an attempt is made to revive the brain, and that only once this fails will the person be declared truly dead.

Taking this one step further, pending the declaration of 'true' death upon proven inability to revive the brain, a person would not yet be dead. In that case, we must ask what, exactly, does 'death' mean.

This brief discussion has only scratched the surface of the profound dilemmas raised by the potential of this research. Ultimately, if we are destined never to die — even only some of us — it is not only the meaning of death that is called into question, it is the meaning of life itself. We cannot defer these discussions until after the results of this experimentation. They are urgent and warrant immediate and focused attention. Our lives depend on it.



Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, medical ethics, acquired brain injuries



submit a comment

Existing comments

I'm having some difficulty in believing this is seriously happening! Georgia Blain's wonderful and courageous "The Museum of Words" is a must-read for any ethics committee involved in this sort of, um, research. Additionally, I've recently seen a great documentary about the film director Jocelyn Moorhouse and her family which includes two autistic children. Jocelyn has written a book titled "Unconditional Love". Ergo, the ethics decision-makers should ponder on this title. Long and hard.

Pam | 24 April 2019  

Pope John Paul II in an address to the International Transplantation Society in Rome in 2000, defined human death in a way that altered the multiple ethical dilemmas facing transplant surgeons with the words, "The death of a person is a single event consisting in the disintegration of that unitary and integrated whole that is the personal self". Correspondingly, life is the enduring possession of that integrated whole that is the personal self. This definition of death clarified the ethics surrounding brain death and permitted the harvesting of organs for transplantation before the heart stopped beating, the definition of life which previously endured. Regardless of whether the brain cells exhibit various biological functions, if those functions do not restore the integrated whole that is the personal self, human life does not exist - in very much the way that some cellular biological functions of plants identical scientifically to a cellular biological function in a human being does not indicate human life.

john frawley | 24 April 2019  

And what of the dignity, and the lives, of nonhuman animals, or of the ethics that automatically prioritises the interests of human beings? Pope Francis has indicated that 'Paradise is open to all of God's creatures', and that 'It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other humans'.

Thomas Ryan | 25 April 2019  

Thank you Dr. Frawley for getting in early and reminding us that as our understanding changes so too will our definitions. Kate is right in posing a whole series of ethical questions with which we must grapple; but grapple we must. Denial of the question or obfuscation of the implications should not be an option.

Ginger Meggs | 25 April 2019  

The great challenge that modern science poses is to the concept of God the Creator. In April 2016, the first child was born with the genetic material of three people not two, so-called maternal spindle transfer(MST). This procedure eliminated the fatal childhood mitochondrial disorder that came from the mother's flawed genetic material (The mother had lost two children from the disorder). The altered ovum was then fertilised and implanted in the mother using IVF technology. Cloning has been applied to many non-human species. In cloning an ovum is fertilised not by a spermatozoon but by electrical stimulation. The artificially fertilised ovum is implanted in the mother using IVF technology. The male of the species is redundant challenging the God created necessity for man and woman as God's instrument for creation. This is but one of the ethical considerations that has prevented human cloning to date. The research outlined in this article, like the examples above, challenges God's dominion over both life and death. Never in the history of Man has belief in a supreme being been so challenged. However, it is said that nothing is new in this world and the Catholic position is, as always, that there is no moral responsibility/obligation to employ artificial means of producing or maintaining human life. This is the principal that permits the removal of artificial life support systems in the harvesting of organs for transplantation. In a nutshell this philosophy says God, not Man, alone holds dominion over life and death according to His will as the final creator and arbiter. I believe the great scientific advances, because they are truths, are nothing more than God's revelation of the greatness of what he has created. The problem with them is that we abuse them for our own ends - eg IVF was developed to treat infertility in women. Modern Man uses it to provide children for men "married" to each other, to produce a child in a man, to tailor make a preferred sex child or as a lucrative business proposition through commercial surrogacy. We are capable of buggering up everything that is wonderful and good - God himself discovered that on Good Friday.

john frawley | 26 April 2019  

Thank you, Kate Galloway, and thank you, John Frawley. Very, very important contributions.

Joan Seymour | 27 April 2019  

Thanks for this clear and important discussion. As an organ donor living in the bush I assume that post my death ie end of consciousness useful organs might be kept from decaying, packed in some fluid and flown to save the life of someone perhaps several hours away. Might the author please comment?

Karis | 29 April 2019  

Yes, it is an important discussion and not to be shied away from. But what we thought we knew about what being human meant is gong to be severely challenged. Remaining open to discomforting possibilities seems important, even if unfamiliar or outside our ken, as my Scottish nan would have said.

Sande Ramage | 29 April 2019  

Similar Articles

Assange and Ecuador's 'traitor' president

  • Antonio Castillo
  • 29 April 2019

Ecuadoreans have a popular expression, hacer la casita — roughly, 'they deceived us by promising something that was not going to be fulfilled'. This is what most Ecuadoreans are feeling now about president Lenín Moreno following his economic shift to the right, and the withdrawal of the asylum granted to Julian Assange by his predecessor.


A new narrative after Christchurch & Colombo

  • Justin Glyn
  • 26 April 2019

No security measures will ever be able to suppress inclinations to hatred or violence which grow in the depths of the human heart. And yet there is a difference between Colombo and Christchurch which might be worth exploring. Paradoxically, the most useful things that governments can do are those which are least often tried.