Would Transplanting a Human Head Be Unethical?


Credit: Dreamstime/Konstantynov

Last month, a couple of Italian surgeons published an article in Surgical Neurology International outlining how a human head transplant might be done. Assuming that it could be done, should it be done? An article over a Popular Science asks just that question, "Would a Human Head Transplant Be Ethical?" One consideration is that if surgeons had the ability to transplant a head onto another body, it is likely they would have the technologies and the skills needed to fix a lot of what is wrong with any particular patient without having to remove his or her head.

In any case, Stanford University bioethicist Dr. Christopher Scott grapples in the PopSci article with some other intriguing bioethical issues:

In true bioethicist fashion, Scott notes that the surgery would raise some thorny philosophical questions, chief among them what makes us human: "What is the donor and what's the recipient?" he says. "We all have an idea of personhood, right? Of what a person is. You know, a baby or a human becomes a person. And this procedure turns it on its head. Is this a person that the body belongs to, or the person the head belongs to? It's a chimera, a hybrid person. …Those are some of the deeper questions that we should have a real discussion about."

It surely is the case that the "person" goes along with the head. Grafting an older person's head onto a younger body would also be a kind of longevity treatment. After all, experiments connecting the circulatory systems of young mice to those of old mice, rejuvenated the old mice.

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  1. this procedure turns it on its head.

    Hurr Huuuuuurh!

    1. my classmate’s step-sister makes $80/hr on the laptop. She has been out of a job for nine months but last month her paycheck was $13897 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more….. http://www.CNN13.Com

      1. Working on laps is not the same as working on laptops. I think that’s the source of your confusion.

        1. If you work in a strip club, does that make you a laptop?

  2. Bailey is really ahead of the game on this one. He better not lose his head over the debate, though. It’s heading places no man should go.

    Puns are stupid.

  3. This ethical dilemma is easily solved. Raise millions of clones, and chop their heads off right before the transplant procedure is performed. There is no ethical or moral concern whatsoever in this. None. No, really.

    1. You ever see that Sam Rockwell movie ‘Moon’? That’s the future right there!

    2. Raise millions of clones sans brains, just empty, superfluous flesh sacks where the head goes.

      Actually, here’s a question for the dubious field of bioethics: is growing something without a cognizant nervous system purely for human utility unethical? For that matter, would engineering genetically lobotomized chickens for human consumption finally appease PETA?

      1. Watch the unintended consequences. We already know such a voting block is strongly progressive.

      2. Actually, here’s a question for the dubious field of bioethics: is growing something without a cognizant nervous system purely for human utility unethical?


        I’d say that for ethics to even enter into it, the thing in question would have to be capable of experiencing … something.

        (And no, it wouldn’t appease PETA, but they’re dedicated to not being appeased – they exist to be outraged.

        I suspect they’d find a way to be angry about lab-grown meat that had never even been properly speaking a living creature of any sort; probably “because it legitimizes real meat” or some bollocks like that.)

    3. Clones are people too.

  4. I don’t really see the ethical issue here.

    Assume we had one person whose body was non functional for some reason (MS maybe), a second who was brain dead but otherwise healthy.

    Assume that the first agreed to be used as an experiment in the hopes that the surgery was successful and they could live a better life and the second agreed to be an organ and tissue donor.

    How is there any possible ethical issue?

    The place where it does become an ethical issue is when we get to the point where the surgery is perfected to the level where it has a very high rate of success because it could then create a black market in “manufacturing” brain dead bodies to use as destinations for working brains but that is not an ethical problem for the basic concept of a head transplant

    1. How is there any possible ethical issue?

      The only ethical issue I can see is the cadre of bioethicists trying to justify their paychecks by making mountains out of molehills.

      1. Well…you’re a mad scientist so of course you would see it that way.

    2. Fortunately, the government will be deciding who lives and dies by then, which should place it in the role of deciding whose heads go, and whose heads go on the bodies of those whose heads went.

      1. When buying and selling heads is legislated, the first thing to be bought and sold is legislators’ heads.

        1. Sadly, I think those will be the heads that get new bodies, regardless of whether the heads on those bodies agree or not.

          1. “Mr. President… We can not afford… a cloned-body gap!”

    3. A brain dead human can’t consent to anything. And it’s alive and has human DNA and stuff.


        Keep your hands off my new body!

        1. Yeah, but it’s, like, big.

    4. I agree on the basic lack of an ethical issue — this is nothing more than a heart/lung transplant, plus a liver transplant, plus a kidney transplant, etc. I don’t see any more of a “manufacturing bodies” issue than there currently is with organ transplants, though.

      I also question Bailey’s reference to the ability to perform a head transplant implying the technology to fix most medical problems without one. Russian scientist Sergei Brukhonenko was doing this at least semi-successfully with dogs in the late ’40s. However much his work was “embellished”, I think it’s clear that there would have been long-term successes with this sort of surgery within just a few decades, (and absolutely by the end of the 20th century given recent successes in saving “internal decapitation” victims (see Wikipedia for that, I can’t seem to post a link here because it’s “too long a word”) if not for the squicky “mad scientist” factor and various clinical ethical obstacles discouraging follow-up experimentation.

    5. It seems to me that Bailey is picking the weakest part of his opponents case, eliding over the actual ethical concerns, and then implicitly declaring the controversy resolved in favor of transhumanist utopianism.

      I guess Bailey doesn’t have an obligation to discuss every aspect of head/body transplants in his short article. That said, The Atlantic had a better article on this. Here’s what one of the surgeons had to say:

      “When the head would wake up, the facial expressions looked like terrible pain and confusion and anxiety in the animal. … It was just awful. I don’t think it should ever be done again.”

      1. Now that would be interesting… What if the body’s sensory signals didn’t quite line up with what the head was used to?

  5. If only they could do something productive and figure out to remove people’s heads from their asses, the world might stand a chance.

    1. This thread is over. Brett L is the champion!

    2. Won’t work. If Tony can’t put his head up his own ass he’ll rationalize some reason why he deserves to put it up someone else’s.

  6. Is this a person that the body belongs to, or the person the head belongs to?

    Is this the kind of thinking required to be a bioethicist, at Stanford no less?

  7. Shouldn’t this be called a “body transplant”, as opposed to a “head transplant”?

  8. Unethical compared to letting someone die? Gee, I guess not.

    1. What if the choice is between letting somebody die and spending $13M to revive somebody just enough that they get to spend the next week in horrible, agonizing pain before dying anyway?

      Or if the choice is whether or not to perform inhumane experiments on countless animal and human subjects in order to eventually perfect the technique?

      1. 1) That’s up the person themselves.

        2) As long as the human subjects agreed to the experiments, do it.

        1. Just because something would be legally permitted in Libertopia doesn’t mean that it’s ethical. If you know that the experiment is likely to have horrible results for the patient, a doctor may have a moral obligation to say, “no, I’m not going to do that.”

          1. Why?

            If the patients know about the outcomes and wish to try anyway, why does the doctor have an obligation to stop them?

            And remember, the alternative here is not “well, they just keep on living happily with no body transplant”, but “they die“, because that’s the sort of reason for doing one in the first place*.

            Does a doctor really have an obligation to let a patient die because trying to save them – with their informed consent – is “too risky”?

            Thinking like that would’ve prevented us from ever having an artificial heart, eh?

            (* Yeah, once it’s perfected and we have those notional brainless clones, people might decide to get a body replacement on less intensive grounds of need.

            But at that point it’s precisely far less obvious that there’s any “duty” to refuse to perform the operation, because it’s so well understood and routine.)

  9. I’m contemplating Jessica Alba’s head on my wife. If I recover I shall be back to comment.

    1. I’d much rather go the other way, my wife likes me and wants to have sex with me and putting Jessica Alba’s body on her would definitely be fun. Flip that around however and it is a fair bet that Jessica Alba with my wife’s body would not really be interested in me at all

    2. I was thinking about my head on Alba’s body, so I could play with myself all day

    3. Wait screw that, put my head on Jessica Alba’s body and I’ll never have to leave the bedroom.

      1. On, in, all good.

  10. Ethical, not sure. But lots of awful speculation.

    Ellen deGeneres’ head on Anderson Cooper’s body, for example.

    The disgusting possibilities are endless.

    1. Odd that you should suggest a match in which either head on either body would result in the same creature. I wasn’t sure that could be done until you pointed it out.

    2. In Iran they could use body transplants to “cure” gay people.

  11. Grafting an older person’s head onto a younger body

    This is totally a Golden Girls plot line.

  12. It’s completely unethical. Leave those heads in the Head Museum where they belong.

  13. How about just keeping the head alive? Is that possible? I know it wouldn’t be like in Futurama with just a jar of liquid but maybe something tool chest sized on wheels….

    1. It’s not “just a jar of liquid”! They’ve got a …collar…thing.

    2. Not possible… yet.

      But given that people, well, seem to prefer to have bodies, when considering such options, why would we want heads-in-jars, rather than body transplants?

  14. I just want to know how I’m getting a head job out of this whole thing.

  15. Is a head transplant really a head transplant or more an everything-but-the-head transplant?

    1. Ask Mary Shelly.

  16. While it would be cruel to behold an ethicist locked in argument with its extra head as to what to tell the rest of the world to do next, ethicists employed by newspapers remain ideal head donors, as their public discourse could only be improved by the removal of that vestigial organ.

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