In May, 2011 the United States’ third full-face transplant took place. Charla Nash underwent this extensive surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital after having her nose, mouth and hands ripped off by her friend’s chimpanzee in 2009.
In Charla’s statement after the surgery, she expressed gratitude to her donor and the family and said. “I will now be able to do things I once took for granted.”
Face transplantation, once a fantasy seen in the movies, is slowly becoming more common, thanks to the advancement of anti-rejection drugs. So far 17 people have undergone a partial or full facial transplantation procedure.
It is still considered an experimental surgery and last resort for those who have sustained disfiguring injuries that have affected their ability to perform simple acts such as being able to smell, eat and drink.
One of the main ethical issues with face transplantation has been whether it is wrong to expose patients to the risk of infections, cancer and renal failure from the use of immunosuppressive drugs needed to avoid rejection.
It can be argued that face transplantation is not a life-threatening illness unlike kidney or liver transplantation so is not as necessary. Some have expressed that donor families would not want their loved one’s face on someone else’s body.
However, one cannot deny that our faces are central to how people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves. A facial disfigurement can be severe and the psychological and emotional distress can be extreme. These patients also suffer from impairment in their ability to eat, breathe or speak.
Medical experts have stated that recipients do not really look like their donors as the underlying bone structure and facial mannerisms influence one’s appearance.
A shift in people’s ethical beliefs was expressed well by Arthur L. Caplan PhD the director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics. Dr. Caplan used to think that facial transplant was the “ultimate plastic surgery”. Once he met some of the recipients, he changed his thinking entirely.