There are many ethical issues with a head transplant. (Creative Commons)
There are many ethical issues with a head transplant. (Creative Commons)

Head transplant: is it ethical?

Just Because We Can, Doesn’t Mean We Should

April 7, 2017

Head transplants were strictly for science fiction…until now. Italian neuroscientist, Dr. Sergio Canavero, plans to merge sci-fi with reality in December 2017 by performing the first human head transplant on Valery Spiridonov. Spiridonov suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman Disease, a rare genetic disorder that breaks down muscles and kills brain and spinal cord nerve cells that assist in body movement. Confined to a wheelchair his entire life, Spiridonov told CBS news (referring to the head transplant) “I couldn’t see any other way to treat myself.” Although this creepily intriguing surgery seems like a great feat, it contains many ethical issues including the patient’s well-being as well as the concept of the “soul.”

In 1970, Dr. Jerry Silver and Dr. Robert White performed a head transplant on a rhesus monkey. The results were devastating. The monkey was paralyzed for eight days until it expired. Dr. Silver told CBS News, “I remember that the head would wake up, the facial expressions looked like terrible pain and confusion and anxiety in the animal. The head will stay alive, but not very long.”

“It was just awful. I don’t think it should ever be done again.”

— Dr. Jerry Silver


“It was just awful. I don’t think it should ever be done again,” Dr. Silver disclosed. In the article, HEAVEN: The Head Anastomosis Venture Project Outline for the First Human Head Transplantation With Spinal Linkage (GEMINI), Dr. Sergio Canavero dismisses Dr. Silver’s horrific memory of the 1970 operation. Dr. Canavero writes that the experiment was the first successful head transplant on a primate. This completely contradicts the facts of the actual procedure in which the monkey was in constant pain until he/she died. He believes his 2017 head transplant will be more successful because he has the correct technology for membrane-fusion that didn’t exist in the 1970s. Because the first head transplant performed on a primate was extremely unsuccessful and caused the patient misery, it is inhumane to go forward with the operation even if the patient has consented.

Pain and death are probable side effects of the head transplant, but there is something extremely controversial and intangible that would cause the procedure to be unethical: the soul. There is no scientific proof that the soul exists, but many religions and individuals believe in the idea that humans are more than electrical currents in the brain. According to Chabad, Chassidic Jews believe humans have two souls: the “animal soul” and the “G-dly soul.” The animal soul seeks self-preservation and high self-esteem while the G-dly soul seeks to reconnect with G-d. The animal soul resides in the body with the G-dly soul inside. If there is a soul and it is a part of the body, then taking a head and attaching it to another body would meld two souls together taking away from the individual’s identity. There are many instances in which people who have undergone organ transplants have adopted certain characteristics of their organ donor. The Daily Mail features Miss Johnson as a prime example. Miss Johnson underwent a kidney transplant in which her organ donor was a 59 year-old-man who enjoyed literature. The woman went from reading celebrity stories to reading classic literature, such as Jane Austen, following the procedure. The phenomenon of people developing the same characteristics as their donor is known as cellular memory in which memories are stored in individuals’ cells. One can interpret this as the “soul,” but even if souls are just an idea, many people identify with their bodies. Bodies are part of what makes a person who they are, therefore one’s head being attached to another person’s body might take away from their individuality.

Science has reached points unimaginable. If Dr. Sergio Canavero’s head transplant works, it could potentially be used again to save many peoples’ lives. There are some things, though, that should be left to science fiction. Head transplants may be useful, but does an extended life outweigh ethics?

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