World’s first head transplantation: a surgical brilliance or an unethical experiment? My opinion

The world’s first head transplant. A ground-breaking operation expected to take at least 36 hours has been scheduled to take place in December of 2017. A Russian man named Valery Spiridonov, who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman’s, a muscle wasting disease which has left him in a wheelchair, has volunteered for the procedure that will change his life. But is the operation ethical? Should it take place? Personally, I believe that if we have the skills and ability to perform an operation of this kind, it would be unethical not to try. History has taught us this time after time in all aspects of life.

The operation will be one of the greatest scientific accomplishments of the century. It will involve severing the spinal cord of a donor body and the head of the patient, transferring the patients head onto the new donor body, then fusing the two spinal cords using polyethylene glycol, as well as connecting muscles and blood supply. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before on a human, but Doctor Sergio Canavero who intends to conduct the operation, believes that it is possible. Canavero says that after a month long coma, the patient would be able to move, feel and speak with their same voice, with the ability to walk following a year later, with the help of physiotherapy. An incredible progression for a patient who was previously on death’s door.

The outcome of a successful operation of this scale would be incredible. With success it will open up new doors for medicine providing severely disabled patients a normal life and their own independence. Valery Spiridonov who has volunteered for the operation has stated that, “If it is successful, it will help thousands who are in an even more deplorable state than me in the future.” If this is the case, what’s holding us back from a medical phenomenon, which is right around the corner?

According to the English Federation of Disability Sport there are 9.4 million disabled people in England with 27 per cent of young disabled people suffering from a severe disability relating to ambulation. What gives us the right to hold back from attempting head surgery that if successful, could guarantee these young people better, safer lives, and a more comfortable future. On top of this nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of people have admitted they avoid disabled people because they don’t know how to act around them. There are also one hundred and eighty disability hate crimes being committed every day in this country. Dr Canavero’s work could change all of this for the better. This isn’t just a surgical brilliance, it is a huge leap forward for medicine, and humanity.

However, a big question is whether the operation is ethical? One could almost compare the surgical procedure to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. After all, the procedure does involve reanimation of a previously dead human body. A scientist obsessed with his creations and pushing the boundaries of science creates a monster he can never reverse. Obviously something as extreme as this is unlikely to occur from the operation, but it opens up questions about whether it is right or wrong, and what happens if we go too far. But what if we don’t try? How is medicine supposed to progress if we don’t test our limits?

It is a possibility that this surgery could lead the patient to develop severe mental conditions. It is an irreversible operation and the patient would have to live the rest of their life knowing that they’re walking with a dead person’s feet, breathing through a dead person’s lungs, and touching their loved ones with a dead person’s hands. Not only may some patients be unable to live with this knowledge, but is it right for us to mess with creation of life itself? We are taking two separate life forms, formed from two separate families and four separate gametes, then fusing them together to create a mix of two human beings. This has never been done before, and there are therefore lots of ethical questions about something like this. What will the family of the body donor think, knowing that their previously deceased loved one is walking the streets with a different face? How will the genetics of the body be affected, and what will the child of the patient look like, if they have children? The psychological repercussions for all involved are profound.

Previously in science, discoveries have been made which have changed life forever, and have given us things which we now take for granted. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, which changed medicine by introducing the use of antibiotics, which we now use on a huge scale. Four out of every five Americans are prescribed antibiotics each year, according to a study by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. There are non-scientific examples as well. 10 years ago, everyone was questioning Bill Gates as to why he needed a computer, 10 years later, 75.6% of American households contain a computer, with 7 in 10 people in the UK owning a smartphone. The internet is a great example as well. Since its launch in 1960, 73% of adults in the UK connect to it each day (Office for National Statistics – 2013). These examples show us how scientific advances very quickly becomes common place necessities.

One of the biggest examples of an ethically questionable medical event is the discovery of contraception. This was a huge advancement for the lives of women when invented in 1961, as they were previously expected to stay at home and care for expanding families. With the introduction of the contraceptive pill they were suddenly given the choice on whether they wanted a child after sexual activity, which changed the future of women and the world forever. According to the Office of National Statistics, babies born to women aged under 25 in England and Wales fell from 47% (369,600 live births) in 1971 to 25% (180,700 live births) in 2008, showing that the contraceptive pill was a revolutionary discovery, able to control the exponentially increasing world population. The pill is seen by some as unethical, as it is viewed as a form of abortion, however without it, global population size would be much larger than it is today, and that would contribute to the increasing issue of depleting food sources, and overpopulation. The concept of a head transplant is no different. Without performing it, some may view it as unethical, as it is difficult to see the huge benefits it will provide to the people who need it the most. Unless a person is directly affected by the issues of disability and the possible need for head transplantation, they may struggle to see how much the positives outweigh the negatives. I personally suffer from an eyesight disability in one eye known as optic nerve hypoplasia, and I know that if I was to ever become completely blind, I would definitely want something to be found to help my condition, and restore my life back to normal. I would certainly be upset and angered if there was a possible treatment that wasn’t being investigated. This head transplant can give millions of severely disabled people normal lives, and they would want this transplant to be attempted. If we don’t try, we can never succeed.

When it comes to disability involving limb abnormality and loss, we are more than happy to transplant mechanical hardware in place of limbs, for example bionic arms or legs. Why then does society view it as unethical to transplant biological hardware such as a human body onto a patient who requires one? The body itself has no personality without commands, so is effectively just machinery, which can be controlled by anyone once it is connected to the brain. Why then is this transplant viewed as unethical? There will be no change to the personality of the patient, it will only provide them with a better life, and a brighter future. The human body is merely a machine controlled by the computer that is our brain. Replacing a part, or indeed the whole of the body whilst still allowing the brain to control it is surgical brilliance which should surely be explored.

I can understand that there are ethical problems relating to this operation, but one has to see the bigger picture. If we perform a successful operation like this, it could change the face of medicine forever. Severe disability has always been a problem in the world, and we have never had a real solution to it, but now we have the opportunity to explore one. How can we choose to let people suffer when we have the ability to solve the situation? It is natural for us as humans to survive whatever nature throws at us, and we have continually proved that we can overcome any obstacle. Often the wildest ideas turn out to be the most brilliant inventions and innovations. Why hold back now when the greatest advancement in human history could be right on our doorstep, yet we won’t open the door because we’re afraid there might be a stranger on the other side.

An image of Dr Sergio Canavero, the leading surgeon of the head transplant
An image of Dr Sergio Canavero, the leading surgeon of the head transplant

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