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Beauty at High Cost
Cover Stories Series 2012> Beauty at High Cost
UPDATED: December 20, 2006 NO.32 AUG. 10, 2006
Face Forward
As China's first facial transplant patient is recovering, debate on the ethics of such a surgery continues

If there are suitable face sources, I will conduct such an operation. I believe that facial transplant surgery will be generalized to a larger range of cases after applicable laws are developed and completed. However, when we conduct such operations, we must first and foremost respect the patients' privacy and tell them the worst possible scenario because there will be many more problems after the face transplant than before the surgery, according to current surgical techniques.

Can you share some details of how surgeons prepare for a face transplant? Have you encountered any pre-surgery problems?

At present, the biggest problem I'm facing is a lack of face transplant sources. After I put the "face donation" announcement on my website, more than 10 people contacted to say they want to donate their faces after death. However, these persons are still alive so I don't have access to the sources right now.

It's a very complicated process to obtain face sources. Although the government has established an administrative regulation on organ transplants, it is hardly workable and does not include face transplants, presenting many obstacles to our work. For example, an old man in Beijing said he was ready to donate the face of his wife, who had been dead for a few days. However, because there is no clear law or regulation concerning facial transplants, as a hospital, our hospital had to abandon this opportunity. To the contrary, maybe some local medical institutions have more flexible methods to grasp such chances.

What is the current process for face transplant surgery?

Because of the lack of applicable laws and regulations, there is no uniform process for facial transplant surgery. According to the principle of "no penalty without a law," any hospital can conduct a face transplant without the authorization of an administrative department.

However, in practice, regarding the principle of self-discipline, hospitals will apply to their senior administrative departments of health. At our hospital, for example, we should go through three steps. We should first apply to the academic committee of the Plastic Surgery Hospital. After this application has passed, we should apply to the professional committee of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. At last, when that application has passed, we should apply to the Ministry of Health and wait until the proposal has been approved by its ethics and legal committees before performing the surgery.

Some worry that lower quality medical institutions will abuse the capacity to perform face transplants in order to earn money, taking advantage of the lack of relevant laws. What do you think of this concern?

I have no such worry. At present, face transplant surgery still remains in the experimental phase, and most hospitals will not continue to undertake such surgeries after conducting one or two face transplants. I have mentioned that there are many complications after the surgery. So hospitals will be cautious in conducting such surgeries and they will not take chances.

How do you think the Chinese Government should regulate and promote the development of face transplants?

A related issue is that the practice of recognizing a person's identity by his or her face in our country must be changed. In 2001, one of my patients went to New York for higher education. When she was ready to leave the airport customs, the police stopped her because the photo on her identity card looked unlike her. She had just received cosmetic surgery in my operating room and the police could not recognize her. At last, the customs let her go, after our hospital provided a medical certification with Chinese and English explanations, but she had missed her airplane and had to take the next one.

As well, I have met many people who want to avoid legal responsibilities and have asked for a face transplant. As a doctor, I have no thoughts of refusing them because they are only patients in my eyes and I do not distinguish between good and bad people. According to this condition, I think the government should establish a regulation to prescribe that people who want to undergo face transplant surgery must receive a certificate from the local public security agency. Of course, because face transplants involve many problems, the Central Government ought to establish a special law or regulation.

A face transplant is such a complicated procedure that no one hospital has the ability to do it alone. It takes the cooperation of many scientific fields to achieve it. In my opinion, in the next eight to 10 years, face transplant surgery will not make big breakthroughs and, because there is no chance of the surgery becoming popular, the government will not pay much attention to such a matter.

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