Ethical Criticism Of The Idea Of Human Head Transplant


Mary Shelley published her novel, “Frankenstein” in 1818 which ventured on the possibility of fusing body parts from corpses, as in solving a jigsaw puzzle and being able to create new life out of it. The story, being a synthesis of both science and fiction, had an unconventional way of redefining – or to be apter – questioning the value of life through extensive biological modification. Since then, several organ transplants were developed successfully for the goal of replacing defective body parts. Such an operation would lengthen the survivability of the patient. United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) reported 33,177 performed transplants as of writing. Based on data in 2018, the kidney is the most commonly transplanted organ, comprising 58.9% of the overall performed transplants. This is followed by the liver (22.6%) and the heart (9.3%).

Earlier in this decade, with organ transplants having gained much clinical importance, Dr. Sergio Canavero of Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy proposed an idea initially on Head Anastomosis Venture (HEAVEN), the first human head transplantation with spinal linkage using the GEMINI technique. This idea of Canavero was first published in 2013. Previously, similar attempts were conducted on animals such as rats, monkeys, and dogs.

Human head transplant has been in a constant wrestle with ethics while gaining various criticisms from experts in the medical field, overall labeling Canavero’s plan as unethical. Be it possible for a live head transplant to be successfully carried out by Canavero and Ren or not, they will undoubtedly not be the last ones to make such an attempt. Therefore, this issue should be addressed with urgency with considerations to its ethical implications. This paper argues that head transplant poses several problems legally and ethically speaking and such horrifying possibility should not be placed anywhere in the present and in the future.


Countless unprecedented philosophical inquiries arise from the possibility of a human head transplant. Among which prevails the question of personal identity of the individual in terms of his/her metaphysical and social status. How is the new identity of the person affected after undergoing head transplantation? Consequently, how will he/she be treated in moral, legal, and social aspects, considering that he/she is now a mix of two distinct and formerly unrelated individuals? It is supposed the gap created in determining the personal identity of the individual is a problem in itself.

The inquiry on the personal identity of the individual demands explanation with respect to the major philosophical approaches, animalism and reductionism. Animalism attempts to provide an answer to the personal identity of the resultant individual in terms of the nature of the human person. Pascalev et al. (2015) presented in their study the application of animalism approach to identifying the relation that exists between the head and the body. It is previously established in this approach that the donor refers to the individual who survives the head transplant in spite of the new and unfamiliar mental contents. Another claim, with the implication that the head holds superiority over any other parts of the body, states that the survival of the head would be enough for the survival of the entire organism. Furthermore, it means that the identity of the resultant individual would be the same as the one whose head survived the transplant.

However, reductionism (psychological continuity) explains personal identity in a different perspective such that the normative ethical theory of consequentialism puts importance on the consequence of an action being the basis of moral judgment. From this, some would argue that the end justifies its means. The problem with the application of consequentialism on human head transplant, however, is that it is insufficient, as the success or the end of the operation is still largely in question. With relation to this, Farhud (2017) puts into perspective an important question, “Is the beneficence of surgery is more than its maleficence?”

The value of philosophy according to Russell (1912) is that it encourages the mind to be more open to a vast collection of ideas in the Universe that were not possible and unfamiliar with the Self. It is also worth bringing up whether a philosophical idea bears the same weight as an action resulting from philosophical reflection. In the same sense, it might be acceptable to proceed with human head transplant since one’s unfamiliarity with the process isn’t enough justification to hinder it.

In Indian Mythology, “The impossible of today will become the possible of tomorrow.” - Tsiolkovsky AT.

“I would not wish this on anyone. I would not allow anyone to do it to me as there are a lot of things worse than death.” – Dr. Hunt Bajer, president elect of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons


Human head transplant poses several problems legally and ethically speaking and hence should not be made possible in this time as well as in the future. Frankenstein died trying to kill his own monster that he created. Would we allow the same to happen to humanity.

01 February 2021
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