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Further Reading


Cooler Heads

Body Transplants & Ethical Warnings

by Paige Comstock Cunningham

Earlier this year, Dr. Sergio Canavero announced that he would attempt a head transplant within two years. His confident claims aside, the first problem with his statement is a semantic inversion. The "organ" that a donor would provide is not his head, but his body. The goal is to extend the life of a person with degenerative muscular or nerve disease or metastasized cancer by attaching his healthy head onto a healthy donor body. Thus, we are actually talking about body transplantation.

The first head/body transplants were attempted on dogs in 1954, and on a monkey in 1970. None lived more than nine days.1 A human head/body transplant attempt has never been reported.

The proposed technique would involve cooling the patient's head and the donor body to extend the amount of time they could survive without oxygen, using a "magic ingredient" to fuse the spinal cords, and inducing a post-transplant coma to prevent movement.

Medical community reactions ranged from skepticism ("It won't work") to disdain ("It's a PR stunt") to dismissal ("The guy is a bona fide lone ranger") to concern ("Even attempting the experiment is unethical and bad science"). Despite widespread objections, Canavero is soliciting funds and a medical team.

Whether or not he succeeds, his proposal raises serious ethical concerns. One is the violation of research standards. A significant volume of bench and animal research—completely absent here—is required before attempting human research. Second, as Dr. Gregory Rutecki points out, nonvital transplants, such as a face transplant, require "intensive counseling over and over about the patient's stability and psychological state."2 This, too, is missing from Canavero's proposal. If a face transplant can change one's sense of identity, how much more would a body transplant?

Philosophers also care about personal identity. What makes you the same person over time, through the stages of embryo, infant, teen, and adult? Is it your whole body, or just your brain? Philosopher Derek Parfit suggests that the relevant question involves "the continuity of our mental or psychological metaphysical narrative."3 Similarly, neurologist Patricia Scripko says that what makes us specifically human "is held within the higher cortex."4 But memories are not just stored in brain cells. Some heart transplant patients develop the donor's food, sexual, and artistic preferences, and even aspects of his personality.5 An artificial divide between the presumably relevant brain and supposedly irrelevant body leaves no room for embodied or immaterial aspects of identity, including the human soul.

A further ethical concern is a practical one. At a cost of $11 million, the proposed transplant will require 150 doctors and nurses. One donor's body could save up to eight lives through multiple organ and tissue transplants.6 And $11 million could go a long way toward curing the underlying diseases. Meanwhile, Canavero's "magic ingredient" could help spinal-cord injury patients now.

But ethical warnings and practical objections may not deter a brash surgeon and a desperate candidate. Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old computer scientist from Russia, has volunteered.7 I wonder, would he object to having a woman's body? 

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