Room: Hall 10 - Exhibition

C491.5 Full body transplantation, is it allowed?

Kristof Van Assche, Belgium

Research Professor in Health Law
Law Department
University of Antwerp


Full Body Transplantation, Is it Allowed?

Kristof Van Assche1, Assya Pascalev2.

1Faculty of Law, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium; 2Department of Philosophy, Howard University, Washington, DC, DC, United States

Introduction:In May 2016, an international medical team announced plans to perform the first full body transplantation (sometimes controversially designated as “head transplantation”) before the end of 2017. In their eagerness to cross what they call “the final frontier in transplant surgery”, team leaders Sergio Canavero and Xiaoping Ren brush aside all ethical and legal concerns, emphasising instead the (alleged) medical prospects for hitherto incurable diseases, such as progressive muscular disease and intractable cancer without brain metastases. In recent interviews they indicate that, although the estimated timeline will not be met, their project is going according to plan.
Materials and Methods: We conducted an extensive Internet search of the popular media and academic journals, collecting news items and articles that have been published on the topic, since Canavero first outlined his idea of spinal cord fusion in 2013. In addition, we consulted leading handbooks on the medical and criminal liability of medical professionals, examined relevant international guidelines, and analysed the few academic articles discussing medical experimentation in organ transplantation. Finally, we applied the relevant insights that emerged from this research to the topic of full body transplantation and investigated the legality of the procedure under the current state of medical knowledge.
Results and Discussion: We found that full body transplantation currently does not conform to the conditions that allow experimental and high-risk medical interventions to be legitimately performed under international and national law. Similarly, we discovered that full body transplantation, where this would be characterised as a research project instead of as a medical experiment, currently fails the conditions set out in international and national regulations. We concluded that it is very unlikely that prior ethics approval would be obtained, and that physicians who engage in full body transplantation are very likely to be found liable for medical malpractice. If this procedure would result in the death of the patient, the physicians involved would run a considerable risk of being held criminally liable for negligent homicide. The participating physicians will also risk severe disciplinary sanctions for professional misconduct, with a real possibility that they will be suspended or even banned from medical practice for life.
Conclusion: Under the current state of medical knowledge full body transplantation cannot legally be performed. Physicians attempting the procedure are very likely to be found civilly liable and to face severe disciplinary sanctions. In addition, they may under certain circumstances even be held criminally liable. Before an attempt to perform full body transplantation would be acceptable, the formidable surgical challenges first need to be resolved and the major ethical issues addressed.

Presentations by Kristof Van Assche

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