These days, when we talk about controversy and Oscar Pistorius we tend to think about the tragic events which took place last February. So shocking was that story that we tend to forget that there was another controversy surrounding him, his prosthetic blades and London 2012. Eventually, he would become the first Paralympian to compete with able bodied athletes at an Olympics. But before he was allowed to race he faced a five year battle against opposition from people who believed that his blades would give him an unfair advantage over the rest of the field.
This controversy marked perhaps the first moment in which people started to suggest that prosthetic limbs may be superior to biological ones – that science may already be able to exceed the limitations of human evolution. If we have reached this stage, where even relatively basic running blades are considered to be capable of making you run quicker or jump higher, what will happen when sophisticated biomechatronical (bionic – it’s easier) body parts come into use? This incident highlighted that the ethical questions surrounding bionic bodies aren’t an issue for the future; they’re already happening.
The rate of development of bionic prostheses is startlingly quick. In the last ten years or so we’ve moved from a stage where only very basic devices were available, to seeing prostheses that are close to being fully articulated hands. If the current rate of growth is maintained it can’t be too long before these prostheses outstrip biological function. Dr Bennett Foddy, Medical Ethicist at Oxford University told Newsnight in 2011 that “as the technology improves we will eventually get to the point where prosthetics function better than people’s original hands”.
There seems little doubt that this will happen and when it does the implications will be huge. The fact that in the future, with the help of bionic limbs, Paralympic runners could have a distinct advantage over their Olympic counterparts is one tiny aspect of this. Although it’s strange to think of a world where what we consider ‘disabled’ athletes become quicker, faster and stronger than the rest of the field, the serious ethical questions presented by the growth of bionic limbs will be far wider reaching than the world of sport.
Bertolt Meyer, is at the forefront of an argument that proposes a need to start debating these ethical issues now, before it’s too late. In a recent article in Wired magazine he asked: “If a bionic hand let you type ten times as fast and looked twice as cool as your healthy, natural hand, would you choose to amputate it to accommodate the new gadget?” For him and many others, the problems stem from there.
People are already opting to have their arms voluntarily amputated in order to receive a hi-tech prosthetic hands in replacement. Viennese surgeon, Oskar Aszmann, carries out procedures he calls ‘bionic reconstruction’ after elective amputation. Currently, only people who can prove they suffer from insufficient hand movement can undergo this procedure. But who’s to say that if bionic arms become superior to biological ones that wealthy people won’t start voluntarily amputating?
The pressures on doctors, manufacturers and lawmakers will be enormous. The most basic question is who deserves these expensive prostheses? Currently, more often than not, they go to soldiers but what if somebody who lost their arm in a car crash wanted one? What if somebody was willing to pay twice the cost of making a bionic arm in order to have their own arm amputated and replaced with a prosthesis? Ethically shaky ground perhaps, but undeniably hard to turn down, especially if you can then use the money to help more people.
The issue of money is key, as it always seems to be to everything, to the ethical issues at play. The latest arms cost a hefty £30,000, so there is a limit to how many the NHS can subsidise. A 14-year-old one-armed boy who recently had his application for an i-limb turned down by the NHS offered up the surface of his prosthesis as advertising space to a Formula 1 racing team to obtain funding. And it’s not difficult to imagine a future where the newest, most technologically advanced arms become the latest must have gadget for the rich, just like the latest sports cars or even mobile phones currently are. In a world where money talks we will, as Meyer says, need to seriously consider how we can guard against misuse of the technology.
Things get even hairier the further into the future you look. The more high tech bionic bodies become, the more difficult it will be to control the use of them and many scientists believe the more dangerous things will become. Already, Meyer warns “my i-limb connects to my iPhone, but my iPhone is connected to the internet. Technically, a part of my body has become hackable.” It’s a fascinating, science fiction-like but absolutely terrifying idea, especially when coupled to the potential of elective amputation. What if people start choosing to undergo a procedure to replace their arms only to then be hacked?
If we follow the advance of bionic bodies to its logical conclusion we reach questions that go beyond the concept of voluntary amputation and onto nothing less than the nature of what it means to be human. A recent TV documentary presented by Meyer, How To Build A Bionic Man, was full of references to the warnings in literature about straying too far down this road – giant monitions from our past somehow cautioning us about the activities of our future. One reference which stood out was that of Frankenstein which, though shocking, is, when you consider how advanced current technology is, surprisingly valid. Professor George Annas told the programme: “I think when it comes to our bodies, the danger is that we might change what it means to be human. We may create a new species which turns around to bite us.”
One such danger would be to start altering the way that people think. With the development of chips, that can be put into people’s brains to help improve their memory, this danger is creeping up on us. Is it one thing to use a chip to help somebody with a severe mental illness and another to insert one to improve normal brain function? Or is one merely the thin end of the wedge? As with all these issues we have to ask where the line is and how we avoid crossing it. When Meyer was told about this possibility to improve brain function he asked “should we do that?”. “I don’t know” came the response.
It was a reply that summed where we stand on the ethical issues at play as we move towards the era of bionic bodies. Sometimes it seems as though people are simply not considering the ethical questions behind the advancements, which are wide-ranging and exceptionally important. Are we being shortsighted as Dr Frankenstein was? Blinded by the possibility of advancement and unable to see the potential dangers lurking behind it.
As Bertolt Meyer says, going beyond the limits of human evolution is a double edged sword. We’re on the brink of some incredibly beneficial changes that will improve millions of people’s lives. But are we also in danger of, if going too far itself, failing to think before we leap? Bionic bodies present many complicated ethical questions that need to be asked before it’s too late.