Last week, a Cleveland Clinic announced that the first US face transplant patient had been discharged. Her identity and the circumstances surrounding her loss of face have been kept a closely guarded secret for obvious reasons, unlike Isabelle Dinoire, the French lady, whose face was partially chewed off by her dog, was mawkishly paraded in front of the world’s media.
What does it mean to have a face transplant? Unlike other transplantation procedures, the face transplant is not necessary to prolong life but rather it allows those who are hideously disfigured to re-enter a society.
But what of wearing someone else’s face? What are the psychological implications? We have just had an academic paper accepted for publication which examines our essentialist anxieties concerning organ transplantation from another individual. In a hypothetical situation, we asked adults to rate how happy they were to receive organ transplant from others after learning about their moral background. We are much happier to accept an organ donation from someone who has led a morally upright life but much more adverse to receiving a life-saving organ transplant from a murderer. It’s a massive effect.
Fairly obvious and all hypothetical you might argue, but in 1999, a fifteen-year-old girl with terminal heart disease was forcibly given a heart transplant because she refused to agree to the life-saving operation because she thought she would lose her own identity. Psychological essentialism is not just an abstract academic pursuit of mine. It has tangible consequences for the way we reason about decisions regarding the assimilation of other people’s bodily tissue. For example, it not only influences the way we regard organ transplantation but also whether we are willing to give consent for the donation of organs from loved ones. After all, many relatives believe that their deceased loved one lives on in the new body.
A face transplant must be the most difficult challenge to the sense of one’s own identity. Good luck to the poor women.