Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
An Italian neuroscientist has announced plans to perform the first human head transplant next year—and he's found an intrepid volunteer who hopes to make medical history by trading in his entire body for a new model.
The volunteer patient is wheelchair-bound Valery Spiridonov, a Russian who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffman disease. Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a rare and often fatal genetic disorder, breaks down muscles and kills nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The disorder has left Spiridonov's limbs shriveled and his movement impaired.
So Spiridonov has agreed to permit Dr. Sergio Canavero to decapitate his misshapen body and attempt to attach his head to a donor body. “Attempt,” that is, because there's a good chance that Spiridonov will not survive the risky, never-before-attempted procedure.
But say it does work, and Spiridonov emerges months later from a medically induced coma, replete with new arms, legs, torso, everything.... If that happens, does that prove that the head transplant is a morally and medically acceptable procedure?
Most of Dr. Canavero's fellow doctors say no. Dr. Jerry Silver, neuroscientist at Case Western Reserve University near Cleveland, insists that even conducting the experiments is unethical. The proposed transplant, he told CBS News, is bad science and should never happen.
Two Italian bioethicists, Anto Cartolovna and Anto Spagnolo, have disagreed with Canavero's belief that transplanting a patient's head and brain onto another body would automatically transplant his entire self including his mind, personality and consciousness. The two co-authored a letter of opposition to Surgical Neurology International, the journal which published Canavero's detailed plan last year.
The well-known American bioethicist Arthur Caplan said, in a 2015 interview in Forbes magazine, that head transplants would be “...both rotten scientifically and lousy ethically.” Never one to mince words, Caplan wrote that Dr. Canavero is “out of his mind” for wanting to attempt a “noggin tranplant.”
A second question raised by Cartolovna and Spagnolo was that of parental rights. If the patient were to reproduce using his new body, the offspring would have the DNA of the donor; and there is the possibility that the donor's family or heirs could demand custody of the children.
Scientific Inquiry Unchecked by Theology
The question of head transplants sounds extreme, but isn't it really just another manifestation in a continuum of bizarre bioethical perversions already created by a scientific community which is bereft of moral safeguards? When atheist academics demand that faith be severed from science, that scientific inquiry and experimentation be permitted without interference by philosophy or religion, then scientists can pursue all manner of ungodly endeavors.
In 2012, for example, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of fetal brain tissue in laboratory experiments. The brain tissue was extracted from aborted unborn babies by StemCells Inc. in an attempt to treat macular degeneration.
And in August 2016, the National Institutes of Health announced plans to lift a moratorium on funding of controversial experiments that use human stem cells to create part-human, part-animal embryos, called chimeras. The National Institutes of Health invited public comments on the proposed new policy, but the deadline for comments is approaching. Concerned citizens must submit their comments by 11:59 p.m. on September 4, 2016, and the NIH could start funding projects as early as January 2017.
As scientists broaden their research to include never-before-seen experiments, new problem arise: frozen embryos and resultant embryo adoption; human cloning; the increasing popularity of egg freezing; and more.
The Catholic Church's Teaching on Organ Transplantation
Full-body transplants are, to be sure, uncharted territory. To this date the Church has not, in its documents or in its teaching, specifically addressed the issue. However, we can apply guidelines which have been imposed regarding organ transplants in general.
In an address to a meeting of the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said that organ donation (that is, from a living donor) could be a form of witness to charity. He reiterated that donations must not place a person's health in serious danger, and he repeated the objection to the sale of organs.
But what if the organs (or in this case, the entire body) are taken from a donor who is deceased? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that it is not acceptable to hasten or bring about the death of a person so that there will be organs available for donation. Vital organs can be removed after death.
Paragraph 2296 of the Catechism explains:
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.
But in an era when bodily functions can be maintained on life support, how do we know when a person has actually died? Scientists have debated how to define the point of death of a person. Since organs deteriorate very quickly after death, there is pressure to remove them as soon as possible. But on the other hand, the Church insists that vital organs must not be removed before a person dies, thus contributing to their death. Ending a life prematurely is never acceptable, since all persons have human dignity and the right to life.
All of this addresses only indirectly the matter of a full-body transplant. It stops short of asking where, exactly, the soul resides within a person. Is one's identity contained in toto within the brain? Or are you, as the Italian bioethicists Drs. Cartolovna and Spagnolo warn, by affixing another's body to your head, adopting some measure of his personality, his being—or are you forfeiting a part of your own identity? It remains to be seen.