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Ethical dilemmas ahead as face transplants ahead

Media Release
For Immediate Release

Major ethical dilemmas ahead as face transplants come to the fore
says University of Otago expert

Recent reports of doctors attempting a face transplant is questioning our core beliefs and begs the question: is a human face just tissue or a window to the soul? Asks Grant Gillett, Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Otago’s Medical School.

“If a living person has a severely disfigured face, is it not right that they be given the opportunity to receive a face transplant, which is simply the transfer of a piece of tissue? However, in contrast to this view, Aristotelian philosophy teaches us that an individual’s body and its functions are essential to that person’s humanity and individuality.”

Professor Gillett says while society is getting used to heart, kidney and even limb transplants, a human face is another matter.

“There is evidence, albeit anecdotal, that people who have received transplanted organs have taken on traits of the donors. In the case of the face, it may be possible that facial characteristics and expressions may be transplanted as well, even though the donor face would be placed on a different bone structure,” says the University of Otago expert.

The neurosurgeon says society isn’t fully aware yet of how we respond to facial expressions and characteristics, whether they be perfectly sculpted noses or so-called imperfections like wrinkles in conveying the humanity of an individual. These are issues that go beyond conventional notions of physical appearance, and nor are they easily quantifiable.


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