Would A Human Head Transplant Be Ethical?

A couple professors sound off about the ethics of transplanting one human's head onto another human's body.

Two days ago, we reported on a controversial paper by Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canaveri about human head transplants. The paper, entitled “HEAVEN: The head anastomosis venture Project outline for the first human head transplantation with spinal linkage,” makes a claim straight out of science fiction: that the technology required for successful human-head transplantation is finally here, and that it could be used to help people with irreparable damage to their bodies and spinal cords.

But is it ethical?

Before human head transplantation could enter the realm of consideration, scientists would have to perform multiple successful experiments on primates, Stephen Latham, a bioethicist at Yale University, says. And none of those, he believes, would be condoned by any reasonable ethics committee.

But say the primate experiments did pass the ethics test. And so did the human trials. The fact remains that a head transplant is a bit outrageous for the needs of most patients, Latham says. In the case of quadriplegics, or individuals with full-body paralysis, scientists would perform less invasive surgical procedures before they attempted to replace the patient’s entire body, he says. “If you’d have the technology to attach spinal columns, you’d have certainly developed the technology to repair somebody’s broken spinal column,” he says, laughing.

Which gets at another ethical quandary: doctors might be motivated to perform head-switching operations for all the wrong reasons, Dr. Christopher Scott, a bioethicist and regenerative medicine expert at Stanford, worries. “You’d have to make sure the motivations are around a true medical need, and not some desire to be famous,” he says. “These questions have been raised before, in procedures like face transplants.”

In true bioethicist fashion, Scott notes that the surgery would raise some thorny philosophical questions, chief among them what makes us human: “What is the donor and what’s the recipient?” he says. “We all have an idea of personhood, right? Of what a person is. You know, a baby or a human becomes a person. And this procedure turns it on its head. Is this a person that the body belongs to, or the person the head belongs to? It’s a chimera, a hybrid person. …Those are some of the deeper questions that we should have a real discussion about.”