Quit While You're a Head

Medical Breakthroughs v. Medical Ethics

When we think nothing is impossible for us, we’re in the most danger of doing the unthinkable. I’ll explain, next on BreakPoint.

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John Stonestreet

These days, breathtaking medical breakthroughs are the stuff of daily headlines. What used to belong in the realm of science fiction has become commonplace. But every now and then something so bizarre pops up it should remind us that what is medically possible is not always morally permissible.

Sergio Canavero, an Italian neurosurgeon, sparked a worldwide debate last month when he published detailed plans to perform what’s known as cephalosomatic linkage. For those of us without a medical degree, that means he thinks he can sever a living human head, and transplant it onto another person’s body.

Holy Frankenstein, Batman!

The procedure has been tried before on dogs and monkeys with limited success, mostly because the technology to splice spinal cords wasn’t yet available.

Well, “Tomorrow is today,” declared Canavero in a recent interview. “What was impossible can happen now.”

According to Canavero, the “head-transplant” procedure (which is really a body transplant, since consciousness resides in the brain), would require 100 surgeons over the course of thirty-six hours, and cost around $12.6 million per surgery. But doctors would have just one hour to complete the critical spinal and circulatory attachments.

Given the laundry list of minor miracles that would need to occur to make a body transplant successful, skeptics in the medical community are probably right to doubt Canavero when he says he should be able to perform the procedure within two years if he receives the necessary funding.

But it’s worth it, he argues, in order to alleviate desperate suffering. And that’s exactly the sort of people cephalasomatic linkage surgery will appeal to: the desperate.

A body transplant, says US News, would provide a last-ditch option for those with conditions which leave the brain functioning while affecting the rest of the body—people with diseases like progressive muscular dystrophy and terminal cancer.

The problem is the ethics involved—or more precisely the lack thereof. The idea of preserving a person’s life by fusing their head with another body or a machine has been explored by science fiction authors for years. But unfortunately, it isn’t something many ethicists have taken seriously.

Imagine the questions involved: Is body donation morally equivalent to organ donation? With our gender confusion should we attach a living man’s head to a woman’s body, or vice-versa, and if a body recipient then has children, who is the real parent?

Even Canavero admits this kind of procedure would have the power to “disrupt society.”

Well, there’s an understatement.

This goes to the heart of how we define human life and death, and the purpose of medicine. Are human beings a mere assemblage of organic machinery? Does attaching a new body qualify as “healing?” And, just because we can, does that mean we should?

These are questions science can’t answer, but having been divorced from ethics, theology, and philosophy, it will, just as it has in embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and fetal screening. This is the essence of scientism—the idea that all questions, including ethics and morals, should be the domain of science.Newsletter_Gen_180x180_B

C. S. Lewis warned about this in “The Abolition of Man,” and demonstrated it more poignantly in the third novel of his Space Trilogy, “That Hideous Strength,” where, yes, a disembodied but seemingly alive human head plays a major role.

Physical science, Lewis argued, has no moral capacity in itself. Unlike his contemporary, H. G. Wells, Lewis saw trusting fallen scientists to restrain themselves as a sure road to “Un-Man,” not utopia. We would do well to heed his cautionary tale before we continue going places we’d rather not go, and more science fiction becomes science fact.

Further Reading and Information

BP-Takeaction_71713Quit While You’re a Head - Next Steps

Advances in biotechnology have presented novel and challenging questions for us to consider. These questions cannot be left strictly to the scientific realm, which deals with the technical question of what's possible. They need to be more fully engaged with ethically as well. For an enlightening and engaging perspective on the problems that emerge when science attempts to arbitrate on ethical issues, read C.S. Lewis’ “That Hideous Strength.”

Another great resource to begin your research on bioethical matters is BreakPoint’s This Week where John Stonestreet discusses bioethics with Biola University’s Dr. Scott Rae.


"Could an Italian Scientist Pave the Way for Human Head Transplants?<"
Allie Bidwell | US News | July 11, 2013

Possibility of First Head Transplant Fraught with Ethical and Medical Dilemmas
Honor Whiteman| Medical News Today | July 5, 2013

Hawthorne's Cautionary Tales
Diane Singer | | May 17, 2010


That Hideous Strength
C.S. Lewis | Scribner Classics | 1945


This Week: Everyday Bioethics Part 1
John Stonestreet | | July 12, 2013


Once a pon a pun

Yes, you may, as far as I'm concerned. I noticed it too, but didn't mention it because I thought that it was obvious and that everyone else got the joke, too. And I'm saying that as a punster from way back, myself. Now, I didn't post another comment just to say that.

As long as you have brought up the subject, let me just say that a similar pun was used many years ago by the Christian singer/songwriter Carman. In the song "God Don't Care (What the Circumstance)", on the album "Sunday's on the Way", he sang, of David's triumph over Goliath, "He decapitated his fallen foe to make sure he was dead, and showed everyone there he was someone who really knew how to get a head." Or something very similar.
Can I just chime in to say that I immensely enjoyed the pun in the headline?
Why not?

While I agree our souls and spirits are immaterial, they seem to be associated primarily with the brain. We don't know what the connection is, nor do we even have words to describe it if we did know. The material world seems more mysterious than ever now, thanks to Quantum Mechanics, but the Spiritual World is more so. How can we answer questions like "What is a quark made of?" and "What is a spirit made of?"? We usually answer such questions in terms of ever smaller particles or force fields, but does that really ultimately answer the question? Surely the seemingly infinite regress of smaller and smaller particles must end somewhere, so then what do we do? All we can do is describe the the God-given laws that govern how the ultimate particles and fields behave. As for questions like "Why does God exist?" and "How can He be outside of time?", I will not touch those with a fork!

To me, asking how we know my consciousness will remain with my brain if it is transplanted is like asking how I know it will remain with me as I move from my living room to my kitchen, or from my home to my office. It just always seems to tag along wherever I go. And no matter how many organs are transplanted into my body, I'm still me. The next logical step is to transplant the whole body, and I have no reason to doubt that will still be true. Perhaps God makes sure it remains true, at least in the case of organ transplants. If for some reason He doesn't do so if I get a body transplant, then what? I suspect in that case, the surgeon would say, "The operation was a success but the patient died."

It is true that some "thinking" occurs outside the brain, in other parts of the nervous system. But by and large, the mind, the memory, our thoughts, our will, our intentions, all seem to be largely associated with the brain. I have heard of people changing their tastes in food or other things after getting an organ transplant or even a blood transfusion. I was concerned about this before I got a transfusion three years ago, but I am relieved to say I'm still me. Or maybe my memory of what I was like before the transfusion is faulty, like the man in a science fiction novel I read when I was in high school about another dimensional world called The Twisted Zone. It is a place where, if you go there, everything is different, but you might not notice that because your memory is affected as well. The man I mentioned found himself in The Twisted Zone, but the green sky, two suns and three moons reassured him he was still on Earth.

As a Christian, of course I look forward to Eternity with God and the other saints, in the New Jerusalem. But since suicide is not an option, while I am here I have to wait for God to call me Home, regardless of the state of my physical body. If my head was okay but my body didn't work, a body transplant would make it easier to wait for that call.

I agree with The Bechtloff that there are reasons someone might want a body transplant, although maybe not as many. Perhaps I am not as imaginative. The obvious reason, of course, is total paralysis. Now I don't want to be the first to try a body transplant. But after the operation had been pretty much perfected, if I were in that situation and if someone was willing to pay for it, or I somehow had sufficient funds myself at the time, I think I would want it myself. How many times would a person get a new body? Until funds ran out, or until the head wore out. Then the body would be available for someone else, I suppose.
@The Bechtloff
Actually, I've made no comments on the morality of this procedure. I'm really tackling the metaphysical. What do we really want to achieve? What are we expecting? What is the reality? Are we able to truly grasp the ramifications? Is the reality beneficial to anyone? We should have these conversations. If Andy wants to continue to live through a body/head transplant how does he know he will be "Andy" when the transplant is complete? I can't see this as being the same as replacing a liver. Since countless people live through and are benefited from all sorts of operations, how many of us remain ourselves once our head is severed? Who will guarantee ambitious Andy will retain his mind, personality, spirit,and soul while his head is moved to a new location? Though I applaud many advances in medical science, medicine should always opt for "do no harm". I also recognize that no matter the advances, our bodies (along with our heads) deteriorate, break down and eventually shut down, and our time here is finite. This goes with the laws of nature that says all things are winding down (see the Second Law of Thermodynamics.) How many times should we do such a transplant procedure to replace a worn out body? But Christianity shows us that though we are winding down in a temporary body, our soul and spirit have a presence and consciousness that is NOT finite and physical, and will have a final and eternal destination in one of two places. I pray for more to find new life in the eternal and glorious home which is available to those who acknowledge their brokenness and receive forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and live eternally in the Presence of God. I have learned to have a different perspective in view of eternity. May God bless you as you wrestle with the questions we come upon in this life. All the best to you.
Well there's obviously a great deal about consciousness we don't understand, but from what we do know it's relationship to our brains seems to be similar to that of your computer's hardware vs its software.

Now would it be possible to transfer consciousness from one brain to another? I don't know. Frankly I doubt the switching heads is feasible, at least in the forseeable future. As for what reason someone would have for wanting to do a consciousness transfer I couldn't say. As for transplanting a head onto a donor body, or possibly an artificial one, I can think of dozens of reasons that one would want to do that.

My main point regarding the idea of a "body transplant" is simply that I fail to see how it is any real different than a simple organ transplant. It's the same thing, just on a far more ambitious scale. How can you find moral fault with one and not the other?

-The Bechtloff
@The Bechtloff
You said, "My mind, though intangible and mysterious, is located in my brain. Nothing about my putting my head on another body would change who I am on a mental or spiritual level anymore than a heart, lung, or liver transplant would."

How do you know this is true?

Are you assuming the doctor transplants that which is unseen and intangible?

What actually facilitates the transfer of the unseen?

After an hour surgery is the person really there or is it just a physical brain that can be "reanimated"?

What contains your personality and spirit? Can the surgeon transplant consciousness?

Do you think it's possible to transfer the consciousness without the head? Would you be interested in that process? If so, for what purpose?
@Kevin V
"Where in that post did I question the ethics of it?"

That's my bad my post was a little unclear. The first line was meant in response to your post, the second line more just a general statement. Sometimes things don't com across on the screen the way they sounded in your head, so that was my fault, again I wasn't trying to jump on you there.

-The Bechtloff
I can replace any organ in my body with a donor's (assuming the medical science can do it) and still be me EXCEPT for my brain. That's where I am. Not my arm, not my heart, not my foot. My mind, though intangible and mysterious, is located in my brain. Nothing about my putting my head on another body would change who I am on a mental or spiritual level anymore than a heart, lung, or liver transplant would.

This is no different. You can not logically be inherently opposed to the idea of a "body transplant" without being opposed to the idea of organ transplants in general. It's the same thing, but on a larger scale. Whether or not it's feasible is one thing, but there is nothing about it, in and of itself, that is morally wrong.

-The Bechtloff
Where in that post did I question the ethics of it? My concerns were strictly scientific, regarding the viability of the procedure. I honestly don't know where I come down on the morality of it. To be honest, almost anything that could have helped my mom when she was dying of ALS would have been okay with me.

If you don't want Christians having a knee jerk opposition to things like this, maybe you could reciprocate by not assuming that any questions about it must originate from an anti-science mindset.
To: The Bechtloff
You said: "What is the difference between this or just a heart or lung or blood? The only organ that contains who you are is your brain." So is your point the heart,lung, etc. as equally dispensible as your brain? Or is one organ (your brain) your essence? You seem to say both, but both can't be true. I say none of the above. Yes, our brain functions in the physical realm to operate our body, but we are so much more complex than a physical blob. The mind is different from the brain. It induces thoughts, reasoning and logic yet we can't fathom a way to "measure" the mind. We also demonstrate distinct and individual personalities, will, creativity,emotions (such as love) and moral choices- none of which can be explained by the physical body. There is uniqueness in each person and I marvel at the One who chose to offer a world with so much complexity and variety. You are so much more than transplant material.
@Kevin V
I suspect this isn't nearly as far along as this doctor would have us believe.

That being said I still contend this is really no different than a heart or a lung transplant. If you see one as ethical why not this?

-The Bechtloff
The thinking is that this procedure could be used to help people with crippling diseases. I wonder how sure they are that no part of said diseases resides in the head and wouldn't proceed to spread into the new body.

Another question this raises for me is regarding the spine and nerves. If this doctor believes he can succeed at completely severing a spine and making it work again, shouldn't he be able to demonstrate such mastery by repairing some spinal injuries?

No one is being forced to do this. If a desperate person knows the risk and wants to take the chance who are you to stand in their way?

And as for these vague "whole person" arguments they strike me as irrational fear. What is the difference between this or just a heart or lung or blood? The only organ that contains who you are is your brain.

-The Bechtloff
No, Christians don't meet "every medical advance with fear." But we refuse to surrender to the technological imperative that because something can be done, it should be done. The essence of morality is to say that we refrain from doing some things we are physically capable of doing, because they violate standards of behavior.

And some of us would say that the issue with this procedure is not merely that it might be abused, but that it is inherently abusive.

It's abusive of those desperate people who will be the guinea pigs as surgeons work out the kinks in the procedure (does anyone seriously think the first few participants are likely to even leave the hospital?).

It's abusive of those who need hearts, lungs, kidneys, etc., that will not be available for transplant because the whole body is grabbed for the transplant. (My cousin was in excellent condition when he was felled by a stroke at age 45, which probably would have made his body a good candidate for this procedure; five people got new life from his donated organs.)

It's abusive of our understanding of what it means to be human and to be a whole person.

It's abusive of our healthcare system, as millions of dollars are sucked into the procedure and its aftermath.

The problem of grafting a male head onto a female body isn't just a "drag queen" laugh. There is a complex interaction of hormones and other signals between the brain and the rest of the body (and that's going to be an issue even if you don't mix genders). To think that a doctor can anticipate and prepare for all of these issues can only be described as hubris.
Must we meet every medical advance with fear simply because it might be abused? This is why Christians have the reputation of being anti-science. If an organ donor died and their body was intact what would be wrong with putting another head on it? Many Christians used to oppose blood transfusions, some still do. I don't really think I'm ready to stand in the way of a major medical advance because some gays might abuse it to become ultimate drag queens. I really don't see how that potential bad behavior on the part of a very small group of people outweighs the potential benefits of this. It's important to ask questions, but let's not accuse every scientist and inventor of "playing God" just because they might invent or discover something we can't immediately fit neatly into our worldview boxes.

-The Bechtloff