Frankenstein Science: Head Transplants Are Now Possible?

“Potentially unethical.”    

That’s how one expert described an Italian scientist’s plan to perform a “head transplant” by severing two heads at the same time, then cooling and flushing out the ‘recipient’ head before attaching it to its new body with polymer glue.

That is “POTENTIALLY unethical?”  

Making one person out of two, and throwing away the unused halves, is only “potentially” unethical?

Shock and awe.

*     *     *     *     *

Neuroscientist Sergio Canavero is undeterred by criticism, however.  Canavero now reports that it’s possible to merge bone marrow, surgically cut with an ultra-sharp knife, when fusing one person’s head onto another person’s spine.  

The Local, a website for Italian news in English, reports that Canavero’s research was published this month in the journal Frontiers of Research.  Canavero, a scientist with the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, explained that the operation would be made possible using special membrane-fusion substances called fusogens, which would be injected between the two stumps cut in the spinal chord.  As proof of feasibility, he cited research conducted at the University of Dusseldorf, where rats had fully recovered use of their limbs after the procedure.

Canavero’s research goals
came to light last year, when he published a paper in the June 2013 open source journal Surgical Neurology International.  He cited what he called the “first successful primate head transplant,” which had been performed in 1970 by Dr. Robert White.  According to Canavero’s report,

“The monkey lived 8 days and was, by all accounts, normal, having suffered no complications.”

Dr. Jerry Silver, a neurologist from Case Western Reserve University, was present for that 1970 experiment and remembers the story differently, however.  Dr. Silver told CBS News last year,

“I remember that the head would wake up, the facial expressions looked like terrible pain and confusion and anxiety in the animal. The head will stay alive, but not very long…. When doctors attempted to feed the re-connected head, the food fell to the floor.  It was just awful. I don’t think it should ever be done again.”

Dr. Silver calls the proposed human head transplant “bad science” and warns that it should never be attempted.

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What does the Catholic Church teach regarding human head transplantation?

Canavero’s research is so grotesque and so outside the realm of common experience that I did not expect to find a quick answer in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  I was wrong, however; the Catechism DOES speak explicitly about experimentation on humans, and on the morality (or immorality) of organ transplantation.   Here, from the section on Respect for the Person and Scientific Research, are paragraphs 2295 and 2296:

2295 Research or experimentation on the human being cannot legitimate acts that are in themselves contrary to the dignity of persons and to the moral law. The subjects’ potential consent does not justify such acts. Experimentation on human beings is not morally legitimate if it exposes the subject’s life or physical and psychological integrity to disproportionate or avoidable risks. Experimentation on human beings does not conform to the dignity of the person if it takes place without the informed consent of the subject or those who legitimately speak for him.

2296 Organ transplants are in conformity with the moral law if the physical and psychological dangers and risks to the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient. Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as a expression of generous solidarity. It is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent. Moreover, it is not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • So who’s dumb enough to volenteer to get or give a head transplant? I don’t think I would want the brains in that head…lol. This idiotic, let alone immoral.

    • oregon nurse

      People said that about the first face transplant too and look where we are now.

      • Yes, I agree. I’m surprised we can’t put together an artificial face based on the person’s original features. But perhaps the interface is more complicated than I imagine.

  • oregon nurse

    IMO, solid organ transplantation, especially those from cadavers and “brain dead” donors represents the worst moral theology we have. There is absolutely nothing in natural design or our religion which would lead us to believe that God condones taking parts from one human to extend the life of another. How one gets the dignity of the body out of that is beyond me. Yes, I know I am disagreeing with the Church.

    The juxtaposition of those 2 paragraphs is interesting. Organ tranplantation as a medical specialty was highly experimental for years, each transplant being a learning opportunity for the next. On an individual basis, transplants are still rather experimental since outcomes are highly variable even when protocols are followed. And then of course there is the whole ethical issue of who get the organs.

  • Would be more accurately called a “body” transplant.

    Oregon- I agree with your lamentation regarding “brain death,” but we must not oppose organ transplantation categorically. Why the differentiation between “solid” and “liquid” anyway? (by which I assume you approve of blood transfusions). Body and soul together make the person, yes, but that does not mean we must be purists with respect to the former.

    However, the medical industry must indeed radically reevaluate its definition of death, and never take a vital organ from someone who cannot be deemed with moral certainty to be dead.

    • oregon nurse

      Blood and bone marrow bother me less (I still have reservations) because they are substances the body naturally replenishes or re-grows if you will. My objection isn’t really about bodily “purity” per se – I’m OK with artificial joints, etc. It’s about scavenging one body to keep another body going once its natural organs have failed. Our bodies are sacred and uniquely belong to one person – not something to be parted out and re-built like a car. It feels very much like reducing the donor’s body to a utilitarian object and thereby stripping it of its human dignity. It also seems like a kind of God-defying attempt to refuse to live within the limits of our physical nature. Almost everything in medicine is about healing or maintaining the body we have. Transplantation is about replacing what we have and that’s a leap into an entirely different realm.

      I don’t mean to hurt anyone who has been involved in donating or receiving organs. It’s a position I have come to after many years of pondering what we are doing and where it is going.

  • AugustineThomas

    God save us from these monsters!

  • inspokane

    Can you see to the ends of this. The haves and the poor…all that is left now in the future. So the Elitists the Self proclaimed Gods and Royalty of the world. So the now
    rich old dude whose euthanasia policies’ have been put in place when he was a young upcoming politician now faces it himself…but wait. I could pay for one of those young Christians Bodies who we are killing anyway because religion is the cause of all that is wrong in the World. yes…in-fact, Lets make it a law. You can take what was going to be an abortion and let it live and grow and then use it for your head transplant!!! or what ever young body comes along. I think
    we are making headway now! Sorry!

  • quartz

    This topic was an article in the National Enqui

  • quartz

    Head transplants Now Available were the headlines in the National Enquirer in the 1970’s. Guess they still have not figured it out.

  • Phyllis Nevins Dietel

    Given current events, i.e. the death of James Wright Foley, I find this article to be in such poor taste it is almost beyond explanation! My disappointment with your site and daily email for publishing this tabloid-like article at this point in time is enormous! Your choice to run this “news’ on the same day you headline an article about Mr. Foley’s horrible death is in this readers eyes, grossly akin to sensationalism! To encounter such articles in a supermarket tabloid is sadly to be expected but to see this in “Seasons of Grace” is both sickening and deeply offensive!

    • kathyschiffer

      Um, Phyllis– First, this article was posted two days BEFORE James Wright Foley’s death, and was in no way intended to minimize the horror of that event. If you’ll look at my article on August 20, you’ll see that I hold Mr. Foley and his family in highest esteem.

      Seasons of Grace covers many topics, but I do try to keep my readers informed about current trends. The unfortunate “head transplant” issue is not merely lewd and unpleasant; it is actually being proposed. There was a time when killing of children in the womb (or after birth) was equally horrific; but look where we are now?! No, we need to be forewarned in order to be forearmed.