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Posted on September 18, 2015 at 6:09 AM

Frankenstein might want to weigh in on the release of a plan to provide a new body to a Russian man suffering from the rare muscle wasting disease, Werdnig-Hoffmann disease.  Commentators speculate that the proposed fusion of “Mr. Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old computer scientist from Vladimir, Russia” to a donor body is unlikely to ever actually be performed due to the seeming unlikely odds that the technical challenges could be overcome. Nonetheless, this extreme experimental undertaking raises important ethical questions about how far to press the boundaries of surgery. At one time, hemicorporectomy surgery was proposed as theoretically feasible, and though the suggestion was laughed at initially, this procedure has now been done successfully multiple times, albeit with significant risk of mortality. If we are indeed embarking on a new path where the head of one living being can be transplanted onto another, we must attend to the underlying values that we ascribe to mind, body, and personhood. 

In any transplantation and donation scenario, informed consent is a central concern. For convenience sake, I will consider Mr. Spiridonov the ‘recipient’ and the ‘donor’ to be the cadaveric body which would be attached. In truth, we could view the head as the donated organ and the torso with limbs the recipient, but that discussion is deferred for now. Is it possible for either the recipient or donor to provide informed consent to participate in such an endeavor? Certainly, if such an undertaking were to move forward, the risk of death for Mr. Spiridonov would be significant, but additional risks include a vast unknown as to what his lived experience might be once the surgery is completed. As for the donor, it requires some recognition that one’s body would be put to such purpose. Furthermore, it seems likely to require the donor’s family be willing to accept this plan as well. Though many donate their body to be used for scientific study, deceased organ donation allows for the vital organ to be implanted within a recipient’s own body cavity. Where a whole body is concerned, particularly when the head and neck may be severed from the rest of the body, it seems reasonable to expect protest from loved ones.  Although another head, face, and brain would be operating the donor body, would it not still be in many ways – the donor? 

Discomfort seems likely to arise from the concepts related to embodiment – that we are in large part beings that exist and interact with the world through our bodies and elements of identity are intertwined with our physical selves. To transplant a head onto a different body, there is a complete disruption of the physical self. If we accept that the world is experienced in part by our bodies as well as our minds an alteration to this degree seems likely to cause an unimaginable distortion of one’s selfhood. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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