The Upgrade Conundrum

By | March 20, 2012

Earlier this week on Better All the Time I took a look at the tremendous progress that is being made in producing artificial limbs, concluding with this cheerful prediction:

How progress will play out in the realm of artificial limbs is not difficult to imagine. Before long, Matthew and others will have access to replacement limbs that look exactly like the real thing, but that are stronger, more durable, and more sensitive than the original equipment. If that sounds far-fetched to you, just imagine how the video above would have sounded 20 years ago.

So far it’s all good news, right? Well here’s a potentially disturbing scenario: what if somebody decides to replace a living limb with a better-functioning artificial version. If your hand offends you (or simply doesn’t work), can you cut it off?

Nicola Wilding, 35, lost the use of her right arm in a car crash 12 years ago.

Nerve transplants have returned some movement to her upper arm, but she’s been told she’ll never be able to use her hand again.

Now, having seen a Newsnight film on the work of Austrian surgeon Oskar Aszmann, she is actively considering having her hand cut off and replaced with a bionic prosthesis.

Here’s a clip from the film that inspired her:

Is this controversial? How controversial does this need to be?

The only argument I can think of against elective amputation is the possibility that new treatments might restore function to her hand. These aren’t available now, and apparently their possibility isn’t even something that her current doctors are dangling in front of her. But 10 years from now, there may be a way to recover use of her hand that currently doesn’t exist. Should that occur, would she be sorry she let her hand go, or glad that she has enjoyed a decade of being able to use her new hand?

And, of course, 10 years from now such a treatment might not exist. And it might not exist 20 years from now. Or ever. Should she be forced to wait?

Okay, one other argument: slippery slope. Let people remove living limbs because they don’t work at all and pretty soon we’ll be cutting them off because they don’t work very well or because they could work better. You know, that’s a risk we face anyway as technologies move in the direction I described above. I don’t think that argument holds up.