Who Gets To Set Limits On Science?

Some people may regard the idea of a full-body transplant as a Frankenstein fantasy come to life – or potentially come to life, since such a transplant has never been done and is probably not possible with today’s technology.

But as with almost anything else in human history, as soon as something can be done, somebody will likely go ahead and do it, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

When it comes to the idea of placing one person’s head atop another person’s body, there is a good chance that, when it becomes possible, it may get done first in China. The New York Times recently reported that Ren Xiaoping, an orthopedic surgeon based at Harbin Medical University, is conducting research into how to achieve full-body transplants and that he and his team would attempt the operation “when [they] are ready.”

Ren has experimented with head transplants on mice and has practiced with human cadavers, but many medical experts have made clear that they believe the practical problems remain insurmountable for the time being. Most critically, reconnecting severed neurons in a way that restores function is currently impossible. Ren’s proposed solution to this hurdle would be “like if the trans-Atlantic phone cable is cut by half, and someone wants to put it together using Krazy Glue,” according to Abraham Shaked, the director of the Penn Transplant Institute.

Chinese medical research, like much else in the country, is not transparent to international observers. But even so, it seems fair to take those with a background in the field at their word when they claim a full-body transplant is technically impossible for now. Yet the history of medicine suggests that overcoming practical hurdles is often simply a matter of time. Less than 20 years ago, a functional hand transplant was impossible; now, while still not common, the procedure is an established success. Incidentally, Ren assisted in the first U.S. hand transplant back in 1999.

So while Ren may be overly optimistic in thinking a full-body transplant will be possible soon, it is hardly absurd to imagine it will be possible someday. Which leads us to those who object to Ren’s plan on ethical, rather than practical, grounds.

The serious ethical implications of the procedure are obvious. Chinese law can be applied both harshly and arbitrarily, and the country has some of the highest numbers of prisoner executions in the world. Amnesty International declines to publish precise figures due to China’s lack of transparency, but its most recent report indicated that China executes thousands of people annually. The country also regularly harvested organs for transplant from executed prisoners, though it claimed to have stopped this practice in late 2014. As recently as this year, however, international scientific organizations have rejected Chinese research due to the use of prisoner organs, violating global ethical norms.

Is it conceivable that if, say, a future Chairman Mao is in extremis and a prisoner can be found who is a good match, that prisoner’s execution might be accelerated on a timetable that preserves the life (or at least the consciousness) of the top boss? I would have to say yes, it is conceivable. And it is a horrific scenario to conjure.

I am old enough to remember the news of the first human heart transplant back in 1967. Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first transplant in Cape Town, South Africa, instantly making himself an international celebrity. But of course it did not take long for a lot of discussion to emerge over the circumstances and procedures for ethically harvesting vital organs. These discussions continue today, even though only the most extreme opponents argue against transplants under any circumstances.

On one level, a full-body transplant can be viewed as simply a bulk transfer of human body parts. If each individual organ were harvested and transplanted to a different recipient, nobody would bat an eye today, assuming reasonable ethical procedures were followed. Why should it matter if a single recipient receives the entire kit and kaboodle?

The debate will no doubt rage in Western academia when and if such an operation ever comes to pass. If it does, there is a good chance that the Chinese will regard such debate as, well, academic. The procedure will certainly be a point of pride as a display of the nation’s growing technical and scientific prowess. Some Chinese scientists have already chalked up Western ethical concerns to envy over their country’s scientific progress, brushing off objections to research using prisoner-harvested organs and experiments that include the controversial process of germline editing. While Western scientists debate where to draw the lines, Chinese researchers continue pushing forward.

For good or ill – and the reality is, for both – China’s rise is a byproduct of what we loosely call “globalization.” The thing about globalization is that it actually is global. Western values and priorities are not likely to exclusively drive the way in which science is conducted and applied in the decades to come.

About Larry M. Elkin 549 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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1 Comment on Who Gets To Set Limits On Science?

  1. For all you Christians who are against this and are going to say God this and God that, go read about the Spanish Inquisition and then we can debate these two topics. Until then, don’t say anything negative about this.

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