Head trans­plants raise le­gal and eth­i­cal ques­tions

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

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.

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