How Human Head Transplants Could Work

The Ethics of Head Swaps

Canavero has a plan and a patient ready to give this crazy procedure a try in December 2017, but will he be allowed? He has stated that if the surgery is not approved in the European Union or the former Soviet Union, he will carry out the procedure in China. Given the newness and experimental nature of the surgery, there aren't really systems in place right now to approve or disprove of it. Presumably in the United States, head transplants would require approval by the institutional review board of the institution where the surgery might take place, the transplant community, the neurosurgery academy and the ethics board.

From the medical perspective, Canavero has presented a seemingly solid case; however the ethics board would have their work cut out for them. In 2013, Case Western Reserve University neurologist Jerry Silver who witnessed monkey head transplant 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 ... This is bad science, this should never happen."

Who is Silver to say whether or not this type of operation should be done? But really, who is anyone to say? Who gets to determine if this is an ethical procedure? Finding answers to the ethical questions that arise from this surgery may be even more difficult than figuring out how to successfully carry out the operation. If this surgery were to work, where would we stop?

  • Could people pay money to electively swap heads for no medical reason at all?
  • Is it OK to create any type of person you want, mashing together parts from a bunch of individuals?
  • Would you be the same person if you had a different body? Where is "the person" located anyway — in the body or brain?
  • Could the surgery be used to help people change their gender?
  • The newly bodied person would carry the mind of the recipient, but if they were to reproduce, the offspring would carry the genetic inheritance of the donor. Is that OK?

If and when we do figure out how human head transplants could work, we'll have to do some deep thinking as a society to find out if we even want to go to these extremes, and what implications such medical breakthroughs would have on our world.

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