The recipient of a historic pig-heart transplant stabbed a man years ago. Ethicists say criminal history shouldn’t affect who gets live-saving organs.

Doctor in face mask selfie with patient with nose tube
David Bennet (right) with his surgeon, Dr. Bartley Griffith, at University of Maryland Medical Center. University of Maryland School of Medicine
  • A man with a life-threatening heart condition received a heart from a genetically altered pig Friday.
  • The patient in the historic procedure had been convicted of stabbing a man, according to The Washington Post.
  • Criminal history shouldn’t be a reason to deny anyone an organ transplant, medical ethicists say.

In a groundbreaking eight-hour transplant procedure on Friday, a man with a terminal heart condition received a new heart from a genetically altered pig.

That man, 57-year-old David Bennett Sr., woke up with a new heart at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. If successful, the pioneering procedure could one day save many more lives. More than 106,000 people are on the US organ transplant waiting list, and 17 people die each day waiting for a human organ, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration.

But when Leslie Shumaker Downey got a text from her daughter telling her to look at the patient’s name that was all over the news, it tainted the medical breakthrough for her, The Washington Post reported on Thursday. In 1988, Bennett was convicted of stabbing Downey’s younger brother, Edward Shumaker, seven times.

Shumaker was paralyzed after the attack and used a wheelchair for the next 19 years, the Post reported. He suffered a stroke in 2005 and died a week before his 41st birthday in 2007, according to the report.

“Ed suffered,” Downey told the Post. “The devastation and the trauma, for years and years, that my family had to deal with.”

A court ordered Bennett to pay Shumaker and his family $3.4 million in damages, the Post reported, but Downey said her family never received any of that money. Bennett “went on and lived a good life” after six years in prison, Downey added. “Now he gets a second chance with a new heart — but I wish, in my opinion, it had gone to a deserving recipient.”

Medical ethics experts, however, say that a patient’s criminal history should not factor into decisions about transplants.

“In general, medicine does not take into account criminal history in selecting people for treatments or experiments,” Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at New York University, told Insider, adding, “They try not to sort out bad people from good people. They treat everybody.”

Bennett couldn’t get on the human-heart transplant waiting list

Pig Heart Transplant
Members of the surgical team perform the transplant of a pig heart into patient David Bennett in Baltimore on January 7, 2022. Mark Teske/University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP

Hospitals generally don’t take criminal history into account when choosing who to place on the organ-donation waiting list. Often, they don’t even know about criminal records, Caplan said. A federal ethics committee has taken the position that criminal or prisoner status should not be grounds for denying an organ transplant.

“We have a legal system designed to determine just redress for crimes,” Scott Halpern, a medical ethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Post. “And we have a health-care system that aims to provide care without regard to people’s personal character or history.”

In a statement emailed to Insider, the University of Maryland Medical Center said that “it is the solemn obligation of any hospital or healthcare organization to provide lifesaving care to every patient who comes through their doors based on their medical needs, not their background or life circumstances.”

“This patient came to us in dire need, and a decision was made about his transplant eligibility based solely on his medical records,” the statement said.

Several hospitals had declared Bennett ineligible for the organ transplant waiting list, and he couldn’t get an artificial heart pump due to his irregular heartbeat, according to a press release from the University of Maryland Medical Center.

The Washington Post reported that Bennett’s son, David Bennett Jr., said that hospitals had refused to add his father to the wait list because he previously failed to follow doctor’s orders, take his medication regularly, and attend follow-up visits.

“It was either die or do this transplant. I want to live,” Bennett Sr. said a day before the surgery, according to the press release. “I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice.”

Caplan pointed out that Bennett didn’t receive a human heart that could’ve gone to somebody else on the waiting list.

“It’s not like, because he got the pig heart, somewhere some nice person died.”