By Perry West
With plans for the first human head transplant surgery looming in the next year, a lead doctor on the formidable project has high hopes for the procedure.
Along with the aim of finding a new body for a yet-to-be-selected patient, the physician says that the surgery – as a first step toward immortality – will effectively disprove religion.
But Catholic critics have called into question not only the ethics of such a risky procedure, but the dubious claim that such a development would render belief in God irrelevant.
“The actual trying of the surgery at this point I think would be unethical because of the tremendous risk involved, and it is an unproven surgery,” Dr. Paul Scherz, assistant professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America, told CNA.
Sherz made his remarks following the news that Italian doctor Sergio Canavero is aiming to carry out the first human head transplant surgery within the next 10 months. It’s a process Canavero hopes will pave the way for the process of transplanting cryogenically frozen brains – and ultimately, in his view, to the eradication of death.
Canavero serves as director of Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group and has teamed up with Harbin Medical Centre and Doctor Xiaoping Ren, an orthopedic surgeon who was involved with the first successful hand transplant in the U.S. The first surgical attempt for the head transplant is expected to take place in China, where the group says they’re more likely to find a donor body.
Cryonics involves the freezing of the brain or even the whole body of patients, with expectations that future science will have the means to restore the frozen tissue and extend life.
Because conscious minds will have experienced “life” outside of death, Canavero said the surgery would then remove the fear of death and the people’s need for religion. He said if the process succeeds, “religions will be swept away forever.”
However, Sherz responded that even if the surgery was a success, it would not disprove the Catholic faith.
“There is nothing in the Catholic tradition of how we understand the soul that would think that if you moved a head or moved the brain that that wouldn’t allow the person to come back to life,” he said.
Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group has already claimed that a successful head transplant has been carried out on a monkey, but not all scientists agree that the operation can be recorded as a success.
Before the monkey’s head was stitched back together, it was removed, cooled, and the blood of the transplant body was cross circulated with an outside source. Canavero and his group claimed the supply of blood was then connected to prove the surgery succeeded without brain damage, but the spinal cord was left unattached.
How the connected blood supply proves the surgery is possible without brain damage was not described, and many bioethicists are skeptical of the publication of the surgery’s success without proper peer review and of the issues around the severed spine.
Because the technology has not yet been developed, the bioethicists worry that the severed spine may never be reconstructed, leaving the patient worse off than before.
Despite the pervasive belief in the surgery’s failure, Canavero claims there’s a 90 percent chance that the human head transplant will succeed. And not only that, its success would allow humans to “no longer need to be afraid of death.”
Father Tad Pacholczyk, who serves as a bioethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, disagreed with Canavero’s definition of being “brought back to life.”
He said to assume death as a necessary product of either the head surgery or brain surgery is gullible and mistaken, as there is potential for the patient to be merely unconscious.
“The patient undergoing the head transplant is not dead, only unconscious,” he told CNA. “There is not any ‘bringing back to life’…There is merely a restoration of consciousness, briefly lost during the movement of the head from one human body to the other.”
Scherz also said that the Church accepts an intimate and mysterious relationship between soul and body, and that the procedure’s success wouldn’t necessary disprove the soul or religion.
“Our neurological tissue has important part to play in our soul…The soul is always intimately related to the body. We are not just souls that are disembodied, right? We are embodied spirits or spirited bodies.”
Most physicians agree that the proposed surgery’s success rate is infinitesimal, and they’ve questioned the morality of a procedure that’s doomed to fail – and the unrealistic hope life extension projects could give to people.
“I am concerned that the rights of vulnerable patients undergoing cryonics cannot be protected indefinitely,” Dr. Channa Jayasena, a lecturer in Reproductive Endocrinology at Imperial College in London, told the Telegraph.
Cryonics, she said, “has risks for the patient, poses ethical issues for society, is highly expensive, but has no proven benefit.”
And the hope for immortal life, Scherz weighed in, isn’t a realistic desire in a fallen world. “Living forever in bodily form is not going to satisfy anyone,” he said.
“If the goal is not to help someone to get back bodily movement or things like that, but to try to live forever on this earth, then I think if you really want to get over the fear of death then you will have to come to terms with the fact that we are mortal.”
“That what’s going to help you to live a better life because you are going to be willing to give your life to things like service.”
In fact, he said that people in transhumanist movements have admitted they would most likely avoid risky behavior in order to preserve their lives.
“If life extension projects come into being there is so much more to lose – and you committed yourself to trying to live on this earth for as long as possible, which stands in contrast to the Catholic tradition and a lot of the philosophical traditions,” Scherz noted.
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