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Biotech Governance: Engineered Publics or Societal Shift?

By Johannes Kögel. 

For the first time in history, a heart from a genetically modified pig is transplanted into a human being—a feat that may potentially alleviate the shortage of donor organs. However, the public reaction is, at best, mediocre. Two days later, it is revealed that the recipient of the pig heart had a criminal record. This time, newspaper commentary sections are heating up, with some people marvelling at the perceived injustice of a convicted felon receiving a second chance, while others criticize the newspapers for making it a news case in the first place. 

Certainly, an explanation is needed as to why a debate that has occurred countless times before overshadows the reactions that a groundbreaking interspecies transplantation can elicit. While social justice can be viewed as a particularly effective moral trigger, this debate highlights how the role of the public has changed compared to the era of the first human cardiac transplantations in the late 1960s and why citizen participation may be considered a necessity in a society increasingly differentiated into various functional subsystems. 

In xenotransplantation (transplantation of organs, tissue, or cells across different species), the appeal to the audience is evidently different from transplantation within the same species, allotransplantation. Donors do not need to be recruited in a process where repeatedly emphasizing the value of the lifesaving gifts plays a pivotal role.

In xenotransplantation, organs can potentially be harvested on demand. Thus, the rhetoric simplifies the picture of the heart as a mechanical pump to highlight the feasibility of the process, while tolerating the organ's origin. 

More generally, taking xenotransplantation as an example, it becomes evident that biotechnology governance is increasingly taking the form of pre-emptive biopolitics. The deciding principle is no longer solely guaranteeing the flourishing of the population's body but ensuring the safety of the population in the face of potential crises. 

The rationale behind this shift is not mere precaution, i.e., installing safety and protection measures against probable threats. Rather, it involves anticipating unforeseeable threats and actively working on them to make them less unpredictable. Gain-of-function research, for instance, involves producing highly contagious infectious carriers to create antidotes pre-emptively.

To gain acceptance for specific biotechnologies, such as xenotransplantation, citizen participation approaches are increasingly employed, as they constitute manageable and significant “publics”. These formats bring scientific experts together with lay citizens and are often facilitated by social scientists and/or participation experts. They are deemed necessary for an ever-growing complex society to ensure communication and translation among all its societal spheres.

In fact, we observed in the discussion following David Bennett's transplantation how the functionally differentiated society unfolds. The medical staff involved emphasized their conscious disregard for legal affairs when operating within the medical framework. This implies treating a patient without considering their personal background, even in legal terms. Additionally, readers and commentators highlighted the distinction between the legal and medical aspects. Some, however, argued that committing crimes could jeopardize medical chances, underscoring the normative content that transcends all societal spheres or subsystems.

Therefore, what may facilitate or necessitate citizen participation formats as communication across social spheres also makes the outcome susceptible to context-specific interpretations, depending on the subsystem in which it is addressed. For example, is it part of knowledge production used as a policy brief, or is it a political communication directing scientific research? Consequently, attempts to simplify complexity may inadvertently complicate matters even further, providing opportunities to utilize citizen participation in various ways. 


Johannes Kögel, a sociologist and philosopher by training, is a research associate at LMU München, working on a research project focused on xenotransplantation. As part of this project, he organized a citizen conference on the same topic in Munich in 2019.