Ethical issues in limb transplants

Donna Dickenson, Guy Widdershoven

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


On one view, limb transplants cross technological frontiers but not ethical ones; the only issues to be resolved concern professional competence, under the assumption of patient autonomy. Given that the benefits of limb transplant do not outweigh the risks, however, the autonomy and rationality of the patient are not necessarily self-evident. In addition to questions of resource allocation and informed consent, limb, and particularly hand, allograft also raises important issues of personal identity and bodily integrity. We present two linked schemas for exploring ethical issues in limb transplants. The first, relying on conventional concepts in biomedical ethics, asks whether the procedure is research or therapy, whether the costs outweigh the benefits, and whether it should be up to the patient to decide. The second introduces more speculative and theoretically challenging questions, including bodily integrity, the argument from unnaturalness, and the function of the hand in expressing personal identity and intimacy. We conclude that limb transplants are not ruled out a priori, unlike some procedures that are prima facie wrong to perform, such as amputation of healthy limbs to relieve body dysmorphic disorders. However, their legitimacy is not proven by appeals to the interests of scientific research, cost-benefit, or patient autonomy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)110-124
Number of pages15
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2001

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