Face Transplant Raises Ethics Questions

A history-making face transplant in France is generating controversy around the world. Aside from the medical problems involved in transplanting a human face from one person to another, there are also ethical and moral considerations.

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A team of French doctors made medical history last month when they transplanted a dead woman's face onto a woman with horrific facial injuries. It sounds radical, but medical advances have made all kinds of transplants possible, and reconstructive surgeon Dr. Anthony Brissett of Houston's Methodist Hospital says he wasn't surprised -- a face transplant was just a matter of time.

Dr. Brissett says from a purely technical standpoint, there's nothing overly complicated about a face transplant. It's just a matter of transplanting skin and connecting arteries, veins and nerves. It's what happens after the surgery that's generating debate. The powerful anti-rejection drugs the recipient has to take for life can also cause serious problems, including infections and even cancer. Brissett says he doesn't see a face transplant happening in Houston anytime soon, but it will happen in another city sooner than you may think.

The French surgeons have been accused of violating medical ethics for not exhausting traditional reconstructive surgical possibilities before subjecting their patient to a face transplant. Questions have also been raised about the mental health of the donor and the recipient, both of whom reportedly attempted suicide at one time. Many people say this procedure raises troubling ethical and social concerns, but philosophy professor Mary Catherine Sommers of Saint Thomas University in Houston has no problem with it.

Dr. Sommers says many people are unnerved by the idea of someone getting a different face, because our face is such a personal and important part of who and what we are. She says it comes down to the motives of those doing the surgery and the person receiving it. She agrees with Dr. Brissett that a face transplant should only be done as a last resort, when it's the only way to repair catastrophic facial injuries so a patient can live a normal life. She says it should never be done for cosmetic reasons -- just because someone wants a new face.

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