Continued from Part 2…
Here, we present Part Three of a three-part series on the feasibility of head transplant surgery, written by Dr. Christopher Winfree.
In Part 1, we gave an overview of the topic including recent news reports. Dr. Winfree then covered the technical problems associated with such a procedure. In Part 2, Dr. Winfree reviewed the physiological issues.
In this final post, he discusses the ethical issues.
There are number of ethical limitations, which are fairly straightforward. I would not imagine that these would prevent the procedure from being done in appropriate situations.
I can envision a clinical scenario in which a person has some sort of terminal metastatic cancer that has invaded the person’s body but has left the head and neck largely untouched. Such a person may only have a few weeks to live, and thus could be considered terminal, with no other realistic solutions to improve their situation.
I can further imagine that a brain dead patient, who has donated their body to an organ sharing network, who has undergone an appropriate informed consent process, could be an appropriate donor.
The donor must be fully informed of and understand the implications of the donation prior to their donation. In principle, such a donor would really be no different than a donor who is providing their liver, heart, bone marrow, face, limb, etc. for transplantation. The only difference is that in this case they would be donating an entire body.
Personally I have no ethical problems with proceeding with such a protocol involving a head transplant assuming all parties underwent adequate informed consent. The Italian neurosurgeon who claims this kind of transplant is imminently possible [in the February, 2015 New Scientist cover story] does indicate that there are some psychological issues that need to be addressed and I agree that psychological support might be needed.
The recipient head who receives the donor body might have some body adjustment issues and body identity issues, which I suspect could be addressed in a fairly straightforward fashion. Given that the recipient of the body would be facing imminent death in our scenario, I do not think that any psychological sequelae would necessarily be insurmountable.
The procedural protocol would hopefully involve psychiatric and/or psychological support to assess the needs of the recipient patient and treat whatever psychological issues came up. A study of this procedure might, in fact, provide some interesting insights into the nature of body identity.
Overall, the concept of performing head transplants is interesting, worthy of further study. I look forward to hearing about progress in this field.
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