On Wednesday, November 22, the Philosophers’ Café held a public debate at the Nanaimo Regional Library. The topic was “How Far is Too Far” when deciding how to handle individual life and when to decide that a potentially life-saving procedure costs too much.
The topic was raised because of Valery Spiridonov, a 31-year-old man working as a software developer in Vladimir, Russia. Spiridonov has a rare disease called Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, a genetic disorder that affects muscles and kills motor neurons. Spiridonov was interested in being the first person to have their head transplanted onto a deceased body.
The concerns brought up during the event include: will the procedure work? Is there enough scientific research behind the procedure? Is it ethical to spend up to one hundred million dollars on one person’s life, and is it ethical to give an entire body to one person, when there are so many others waiting for organs? What would this procedure say in regards to consent—would it be murder? Is someone in such a great state of desperation able to make such a life-altering decision? Finally, how much of ourselves can we change before we aren’t ‘us’ anymore?
Dr. Shanner, researcher and consultant in healthcare ethics, chaired the debate and first explained some of the complications involved with the procedure.
“Problem number one, you will have to take his head off of his body. You will also have to find a donor body, which is hard because it is hard to find someone who wasn’t damaged too much. If we find a donor and a head, then the question is, can we regain consciousness, or will it fail?”
She also explained the question of ‘how much of ourselves can we change before we lose who we are?’
“If you had someone else’s body and you felt butterflies, what would that feel like? Are they still your butterflies? As well, what makes you who you are? And through how many changes does that make someone different?”
Kristin Ross, a philosophy student at VIU, spoke out on how in her opinion, this procedure would in fact be going too far.
“I think that any given person can change quite a bit—both mentally and while still ‘staying themselves’, but when it comes to replacing parts of the body with either biological or artificial substitutes, I do think there is a limit to the percentage changed before the person is, fundamentally, not the same person,” she said.
“My father had a heart valve replaced with a mechanical, artificial substitute because the original was failing him,” Ross continued. “Is he a different person afterwards? Fundamentally, no. The same goes for any person who has had a limb replaced with a prosthetic; they are not a different person just because they have an artificial leg or arm. But the brain is not something that can be replaced or substituted without some detrimental effect taking place. Usually, when a person suffers severe brain damage, there can be some personality or behaviour changes that come along with it. Sometimes it can be reversed, other times it cannot. So, I believe that, theoretically, you could replace everything biological in a person down to the nervous system with artificial parts that do exactly the same function as the biological ones did, but you cannot replace the biological brain with an artificial substitute that functions the exact same way the original did. You could get a replacement that functions similarly, but there is no modern equivalent right now that can do exactly everything that the brain does.”
In addition, Carolyn Swanson, a philosophy professor at VIU, said in her opinion, as long as the patient is aware of the risks, she thinks it is okay to go ahead with the procedure. She believes, however, that the issue lies with organ supply.
“I thought a risky procedure was okay if the fellow wanting it gave informed consent (i.e. he knew the risks and still wanted to go ahead with it). Or, at least, that wasn’t being unfair to him. However, there was another issue of organ allocation. If someone is brain-dead and their organs are suitable for transplant, we could potentially donate their organs to several people—one needing a heart, one needing a pancreas, one needing a liver, one needing kidneys, etc. Most people on waitlists for an organ end up dying because of the shortages of available organs. They never get the organ they needed. So, if we take a whole body and give it to one person, we save just one person. But if we take a body and distribute its organs to five or six or more people needing them, we save five or six or more people. Saving several people is better than saving one,” she said.
According to an article by the Daily Mail, Spiridonov will not be doing the procedure and will be taking alternative steps. The Philosophers’ Café will be holding another debate on January 17, 2018, on the topic “The Trolley Problem and Moral Truth”, which will be hosted by John Black.