Head Transplants: Are They Moral?

| October 28, 2017

An article published on Newsweek online detailed an update regarding the head transplant scheduled to occur this year or in 2018 by Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero.

Canavero has been studying the possibility of transplanting a head onto another body for much time, with his research focused on severing and reconnecting the spinal cords of small animals like mice and rats. Although he claims success in his studies, the operated animals generally only survived two days or less.

Scientific communities don’t believe that Canavero and another scientist Xiaoping Ren have enough evidence to think that their procedure will succeed. Ren, of the Harbin Medical University in China, is working with Canavero to conduct a head transplant on a Chinese man, instead of Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from muscle-deteriorating Werdnig-Hoffman’s disease and had hoped to be a part of the head transplant. It is unclear why he will no longer be a part of the procedure, but sources say he may have chosen to back out because there was no promise of success.

With all the talk of these Frankenstein-esque experiments and procedures, we might wonder: Are head transplants moral? I don’t have an answer to this question, but I think it lies somewhere in the distinction between mutilating the body and improving the body.

Obviously we view organ transplants as moral—they give others the ability to live without any harm to the donor. Some make the argument that the head transplant success would benefit the medical community by offering a way to live in a fully functioning body. However, others believe that if such spinal cord rehabilitation could be accomplished, this knowledge should be used to help people who are paralyzed, instead of changing bodies completely.

In addition, we might wonder (much like Mary Wollstonecraft of Frankenstein), what happens to the soul of a person whose head is severed and reconnected to a body? Canavero presents the assumption that removing a brain is the same as removing any other organ like a kidney or heart. However, we know that the brain is a very complex organ controlling our senses, our hormones, our emotions, and our thoughts and knowledge.

For now, the possibility of this surgery seems to remain not much more than a fiction. But it’s a good time to start asking ourselves: which procedures are moral, and which aren’t? And how do we determine this? We must be willing to determine the point where bodily procedures become bodily mutilation, and have the courage to speak up about these issues.