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.
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
Quit 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.