I adore stories that clarify ethical distinctions, and this is the third one we’ve had recently. First we had the classic “Awww! Factor” case of the Down Syndrome cheerleader. Then, close on its heels, we got “Downton Abbey’s” finale, which illustrated the ethics fallacy of Consequentialism as deftly as any textbook.
Now we have the startling report of impending head transplants:
The world’s first attempt to transplant a human head will be launched this year at a surgical conference in the US. The move is a call to arms to get interested parties together to work towards the surgery.
The idea was first proposed in 2013 by Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy. He wants to use the surgery to extend the lives of people whose muscles and nerves have degenerated or whose organs are riddled with cancer. Now he claims the major hurdles, such as fusing the spinal cord and preventing the body’s immune system from rejecting the head, are surmountable, and the surgery could be ready as early as 2017.
Canavero plans to announce the project at the annual conference of the American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons (AANOS) in Annapolis, Maryland, in June.
Predictably, this news prompted a wave of “Futurama” jokes and bad puns. It also prompted dozens of hysterical stories online and in print pronouncing the yet-to-be performed operation as “a terrible idea” and obviously unethical. A Daily Beast “expert” with the trust-inspiring name “Docbastard” condemned the practice with this wisdom:
That’s the funny thing about ethics—it may be impossible to say why something is wrong, but can be easy to see that it isn’t.
Yeah, that is funny. It is also false, and incredibly stupid. If one cannot say “why” something is wrong–you know, things like interracial marriage, interracial adoption, homosexuality, gay marriage, plastic surgery, income tax, integration, eating meat on a Friday…gee, let’s see how far back into cultural history we need to go to get the list up to a thousand! My guess: no further than 1900, if that far—there’s an excellent chance that it only seems wrong because 1) nobody’s bothered to analyze it thoroughly and objectively, and 2) the Ick Factor, which is when we mistake strangeness, shock and surprise, all visceral, emotional reactions, for ethics.
Let’s actually think about the “Doc’s” provocative questions about the theoretical procedure that he seems to think clinch the argument that head transplants are “easy” to identify as unethical. He writes,
• Prior to attempting this feat in humans, we would have try it using small animals followed by monkeys. What ethics review board would approve such a thing? Would this not be considered animal cruelty?
1. Of course we would. 2. The same boards that approve other animal experimentation. 3. This is a question about the ethics of animal experimentation, not the procedure.
• If the trials were approved and then proved successful, who then would be the first human guinea pig?
I don’t know: who’s going to win the 2017 World Series? An appropriate, consenting subject will be the first human to be subjected to the operation, as with every other new procedure since the beginning of medicine . Are heart transplants unethical? Were yellow fever vaccine trials unethical?
• What if the head survives the surgery but not the body? What if the body survives but not the head?
Operations fail. That doesn’t make them unethical.
• Are either of those scenarios even possible?
Is the author still vaguely aware of his topic? What does this have to do with ethics?
• How would the person react to someone else’s body on his head when he woke up? The psychological trauma alone would be immeasurable.
I’m sure it can be measured, or at least evaluated. How does someone react to waking up missing a limb? Without a voice box? With a mechanical heart? With breasts the size of casaba melons? Being able to see for the first time? Again, this question, unless the answer is “Screaming in horrible, searing unbearable pain that lasts the rest of the patient’s hopefully brief existence!,” is a factor in every form of serious surgery with permanent after-effects.
• What if the head is rejected? Would they then try a second body transplant?
Well, if I’m the head, I sure as hell will hope so!
These questions have nothing to do with the ethics of the procedure itself. They are just random concerns, stimulated by the prospect of something unexpected, that show that such a procedure has questions and unresolved problems connected to its development and use, exactly like every other new medical treatment or procedure.
Are there unethical ways such a technique could be used? Of course. So what? You ban those. No stealing bodies. No animal-human hybrids, like in “O Lucky Man!” No such transplants without the head owner’s informed consent. No putting kid’s heads on adult bodies. No using bodies that still have living heads with functioning brains attached. There will be a lot of rules. There are always a lot of rules governing surgery.
The ethics question about head transplants really is simple. If such a procedure can be perfected using ethical means, transplanting a human being’s head whose body is diseased or disabled to the healthy body of a patient who is brain dead and who has previously approved the use of his or her body for that purpose is ethical. One human being is better off than he would have otherwise been, and another is no worse off: he’ll just require a shorter coffin.
That is ethical. The reactions of the hysterical critics, in contrast, are based entirely, and erroneously, on ick.