Morality and Head Transplants

Photo via M I T C H Ǝ L L

Valery Spiridonov, a computer scientist from Russia, will become the world’s first head transplant patient in December of 2017. Spiridonov was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffmann disease at an early age which has left him immobile his entire life. Now at age 30, Spiridonov wants a chance at a new body before he dies.

“I need help every day, every minute. I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease,” Spiridonov said in an interview.

The procedure will involve over 100 surgeons and is expected to last up to 36 hours. The procedure will be led by surgeon Dr. Canavero who will attach Spiridonov’s head to a donors body through spinal cord fusion. Many skeptics have branded Dr Canavero as “nuts” arguing that reconnecting a severed spinal cord and stopping the immune system from rejecting the head is impossible.

There is evidence to the contrary however. Organ rejection is the main problem with any transplant, but modern drugs have the ability to strongly suppress and weaken the immune system to allow the new organ to thrive. This is how we are currently able to transplant foreign organs such as hearts, lungs, kidneys and pancreases into recipients. Furthermore, there has already been success with animals. I personally remain extremely skeptical, but I’m optimistic of its potential over the next several decades.

What I find most fascinating about this, however, are the ethical implications of the procedure if it works. Are we creating a real life Frankenstein? Should people be able to “buy” new bodies? Should head transplant procedures be performed at all?

Imagine that we wake up tomorrow and discover that head transplants have a 99% rate of success. Finally people with muscle atrophy, cancers and various other issues have a solution to their problem- they can throw away their disease ridden body and get a new one! Well there would be a few problems:

  1. The procedure would be insanely expensive. Not only would the 100+ surgeons and 36 hours needed to perform the procedure send your bill skyrocketing, but you would be paying for the cost of an entire human body. To put this in perspective, in the United States it costs 200k – 1.2 million for a single organ to be transplanted. Organs are already extremely scarce, but a healthy, fit and functional body would be on an entire different level. Canavero has estimated the total cost at $13 million dollars. Only the extremely rich would be able to afford the procedure.
  2. The Rich could buy bodies for aesthetic reasons. If it comes down to who has the most money (which so many times it does) rather than who has the greatest need for a new body, rich folk could literally buy a new body simply because they don’t like the one they’ve got. I can see the TV commercials already, “Don’t like to work out and stay in shape? Don’t like that weird birth mark on your back? Have a lot of money? Ask your doctor if a head transplant is right for you!” Gag.
  3. The poor could easily be exploited. This is already a problematic issue around the world. If a poor person is in need of money, they might sell their kidney to try and feed their family or pay back a debt. The same applies with a full body: If a close relative dies during difficult times, a poor person may be pressured to sell their body.

Despite the issues that may arise, I believe head transplants can be ethical in many cases. If we can decrease the suffering of someone like Valery Spiridonov, I believe we have the obligation to do so. In fact, one could even argue it would be immoral to prevent the option of this treatment to people that just want to live a normal human life.

As medicine and technology continues to evolve, so will morality and the ethics of human well being. Head transplants may still seem like part of a fantasy horror novel concoction to many, but I think we may be looking at the tip of the iceberg of human evolution.

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