Face Transplants: Ethics and Myths
The April 27, 2011 report that Mitch Hunter,3o, had undergone a successful face transplant at Brigham and Women's Hospital, has revitalized curiosity as well as some persistent myths about this revolutionary surgical procedure. Hunter, from Indiana, is the fourth person in the United States to undergo facial transplantation. It is hard to determine exactly how many of these delicate and controversial operations have been done worldwide, however it's been reported that full or partial face transplants have been performed in Britain, France, Spain, and China.
Face transplantation is a technology that is relatively easy to explain. A suitable donor must be tissue-tested and matched to the patient. The fleshy layers of muscle, fat and skin are peeled away from a donor face, placed on ice and transported, much like a donor heart or liver, to the waiting recipient, where the face is then attached using micro-surgical techniques to ensure that the nerves and blood vessels are properly connected. The patient must then live with a regimen of anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his or her life, taking care not to increase risk factors with smoking, alcohol, substance abuse, or improper care of their new face.
The ethical and psychological questions posed by this medical procedure, however, are more complex, and may not be satisfactorily answered for years to come.
The loss of one's facial features is the loss of an important facet of physical identity. This evokes the following ethical questions:
How much of the human identity is in the face, and is a disfiguring accident or disease an acceptable alternative to the risk of losing one's unique identity through a face transplant?
Will the recipient of a donor face be able to rebuild an identity or recognizable self in the aftermath of the surgery while wearing the face of another individual?Continued on the next page