Are all cultures ready to accept pig organ transplants?

Surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital make history by transplanting a pig kidney into a human patient. Picture: Supplied by Massachusetts General Hospital / Michelle Rose

Surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital make history by transplanting a pig kidney into a human patient. Picture: Supplied by Massachusetts General Hospital / Michelle Rose

Published Mar 28, 2024


A pioneering medical procedure has thrust the centuries-old debate surrounding the permissibility of using swine parts into the limelight once again.

In a recent landmark experiment, surgeons successfully attached a kidney from a genetically modified pig to a human recipient, sparking a nuanced discussion within religious communities about the ethical and religious implications of such advancements.

Although there were similar successful procedures performed in the past, none have seen such positive results with the patient not only accepting the pig kidney but showing vast improvement in health and bodily function.

The use of pig organs in medical procedures has long been a contentious issue, particularly within Islam and Judaism, where consumption of pork is strictly prohibited.

However, porcine-derived products have found widespread application in medicine, from insulin to vaccines, and even in cardiac surgeries where pig valves have saved countless lives.

Speaking to TRT World, Dr. Mohammed Ghaly, a professor of Islam and biomedical ethics at Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, highlighted the prevailing view among religious scholars that the use of pig parts is permissible in cases of medical necessity.

"Saving a human life is viewed as a very noble gesture in Islam," he emphasises.

“I can say that the mainstream view of religious scholars is that it’s possible to use pig parts as long as we don’t have any alternative available,” Ghaly said.

Despite the demand for organ transplants worldwide, successful xenotransplantation - the transfer of organs between different species - has remained a formidable challenge due to immune rejection - when the human immune system does not recognise the foreign tissue and attacks it.

Dr. Muhammad Mansoor Mohiuddin, director of the cardiac xenotransplantation programme at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, implored the importance of genetic modifications which make pig organs compatible with human recipients.

While acknowledging religious sensitivities, Mohiuddin highlighted the scientific rationale behind selecting pigs for xenotransplant research.

“Being a Muslim, we might have a problem with pigs. But for the rest of the world, it’s alread consumed as food," Mohiuddin tells TRT World.

He and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health successfully attached pig hearts to several baboons in 2014. One of the hearts survived for almost 3 years.

“We have completely mapped the genome of a pig,” he says, referring to the set of genetic information that forms the basis of living organisms.

“We know how a pig differs from a human and what changes are needed to make its organs acceptable in our bodies. We don’t know much about goats or cows.”

Pigs have many qualities which have made them suitable for use in human-applied medicine.

Their organs are of a similar size and structure to humans, they have a similar genetic composition, can grow to a suitable size in months and are economically viable.

Although great apes such as chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas have the most similar genetic make-up to humans, their endangered status disqualifies them as a viable source for xenotransplantations.

Religious scholars have weighed in on the ethical considerations surrounding pig organ transplants, with some issuing decrees permitting their use under certain conditions.

Still, widespread acceptance within religious communities remains a topic of debate, with concerns about the purity and religious implications of such procedures.

“In Islamic doctrine, the pig is classified as forbidden in its entirety. The pig is considered impure and no part of it may be consumed. Therefore, deriving any form of benefit from pigs is likewise unlawful and prohibited,” explained Mufti Mahmood Suliman from Darul Ihsan, Durban.

“However,” Suliman continues, ”Islamic doctrine considers a human life to be sacred and of great value. Therefore, in extreme circumstances, such as life and death, when consuming pork is the only means of survival, it shall be permissible to do so to the extent of necessity.”

If a person requires life-saving medical intervention and no permissible treatment or option exists: “Islamic law allows for the use of otherwise impermissible substances, in-terms of the famous principle of Islamic Jurisprudence: ‘Necessities permit the prohibited’.

“Each case must be considered on its merit in conjunction and consultation with a medical practitioner and an experienced Islamic scholar,” Suliman concludes.