Head transplants raise legal and ethical questions
Sergio Canavero, an Italian doctor well-known for advocating head transplants, recently told the media that the first head transplant will be done in China by the end of 2017. He said, the Chinese medical team is familiar with the relevant techniques and the first patient to undergo such an operation will be Chinese.
We are not sure whether the surgery is as mature as he suggests and whether a head transplant would succeed. But before such a transplant is attempted there are legal and ethical questions to be considered.
Currently there has been no successful head transplant involving animals. Therefore would the operation to transplant a human head be an experiment? If so, is such an experiment legal and ethical?
More importantly, if most medical professionals strongly oppose such an operation but the doctor still insists on doing it, and the patient dies, what responsibility will the doctor bear?
Many argue that the lawshould be more tolerant of medical developments and experiments are needed to realize medical progress. However, the slightest error would likely lead to the death of the patient. Canavero did not say what he thought the odds were for success and no medical association supports his experiment. Sometimes science advances at the cost of human lives, but that does not mean sacrificing patients in pursuit of glory.
Another problem is the legal aspects of such an operation: Where will the body used for the operation come from? There are not enough organs for transplant operations. To transplant a whole body, they need to find a dead person within hours even minutes after his death, and make sure all his organs are healthy and not damaged. To find a body donor and successfully get the donated body will be a great deal harder than finding an organ donor and successfully getting the donated organ.
Even if some healthy person promises to donate his or her body after their death, and even if the surgical operation succeeds and the donated body and the transplanted head combine into a newperson that only raises more issues. Who is the newperson? What is his or her legal identity, the head owner or the body donor?
More importantly, do the relationships of either person, such as marriage and blood relationship, continue? Does the body necessarily “belong to” the head?
An obvious issue is, whatever the newperson’s legal identity is, he or she cannot have two spouses at the same time. A bigger challenge is, his or her previous spouse and family might not accept the newperson.
Reports say that the initial candidate for Canavero’s head transplant operation is Valery Spiridinov, a Russian scientist who hasWerdnig-Hoffman disease, a rare genetic disease that gradually wastes away muscles. He hopes to get the chance of living in a healthy body through a transplant. We applaud his pursuit of a better life, but think there is an ethical problem with the way he hopes to achieve this.
The ethical problems are so big that even Professor Ren Xiaoping fromHarbin Medical University in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province, who is said to be the main co-worker of Canavero in China, said they must solve the ethical problems first. Such a program must be regulated by law, he also said.
Actually, there are ethical problems with many other medical technologies, too, such as human assisted reproductive technology, namely human clones or surrogate births. Such technologies are maturing but they might pose threats to what makes us humans. That’s why we hold a relatively conservative view on them. The same applies to head transplants and it might take a much longer time for the public to accept them than for the doctors to succeed in doing one.
The author is an associate professor of law atHainan University.