[ JBEM Index / Volume 4 / Number 1 ]

Book Review:

If We Can Keep a Severed Head Alive … Discorporation and U.S. Patent 4,666,425

I expected this book to be sensational and superficial. It is, however, quite substantive and provocative. Chet Heming is a “polinym”, a public name to “retain some degree of privacy” The author is not a Christian but believes that “religious” leaders should be consulted to ethical answers for this bizarre technology.

For more than a decade the author has been on a sort of “quest” about the matter of “discorporation”, the technical name for keeping a severed head “alive”. This quest “partly” caused him to go into patent law, specializing in biotechnology. For five years he studied “as much as I could” about biochemistry and medical technology. He has even applied for and been granted a patent (#4,666,425) from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, entitled, “Device for Perfusing an Animal Head”. This patent gives him the right to “stop or slow down discorporation research in America unless any researchers agree to follow certain safeguards…”

This man is serious! He has a concern about which he has taken steps to allow ethical discussion before the technology is actually successful.

Chapters 1 – 3 review the actual research that has been done in this area. Most research was done in the 1960’s with little being done since. Readers may be surprised to find, however, the degree of success that was achieved and that makes discorporation less than a scientific fantasy.

Chapters 4 – 7 discuss the legal issues and is an interesting discussion of patent law and the legislation necessary to govern such research.

Chapters 8 – 9 discuss what the technical possibilities are, what life would be like as a severed head, who might get the operation, and how society might be affected.

Chapters 10 – 11 discuss “Religious issues.” The author’s attempt in this area is a breath of fresh air for ethical discussions by non-Christians.

“Instead of trying to ignore or belittle their input, scientists should welcome them (religious leaders) to the discussion and treat them with respect, with the hope that they will contribute instead of disrupting the debate.”

While he is limited in his accuracy of Biblical knowledge because he is not a believer, he makes a detailed and honest attempt to apply Judeo-Christian ethics to discorporation. On the one hand some criticisms that he makes of some Christian positions are all too accurate and humbling. On the other hand his religious answers lack the Biblical depth and specificity that is both needed and possible.

Chapters 12 -16 discuss various technological and ethical issues.

The book is some 500 pages long, considerably more than one would expect to be devoted to a narrow topic. Part of its length is due to some redundancy of various subjects and issues. At times his detail is too extensive, causing tiresome reading.

Overall, it is a book that I recommend. The author has a style that is interesting and stimulating. He is honest about his concerns and is obviously committed to play whatever role that he can to bring attention to this issue. He is a wise man from whom others can profit in many areas. For example, he discusses how to deal with the press, a subject that many Christians in the spotlight should learn (p. 118). His work provides virtually everything a Christian ethicist would need as background to bring Biblical principles to bear on this grotesque possibility of modem science.

[ JBEM Index / Volume 4 / Number 1 ]