What pacemakers can teach us about the ethics of maintaining artificial organs

Katrina Hutchison, Robert Sparrow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


One day soon it may be possible to replace a failing heart, liver, or kidney with a long-lasting mechanical replacement or perhaps even with a 3-D printed version based on the patient's own tissue. Such artificial organs could make transplant waiting lists and immunosuppression a thing of the past. Supposing that this happens, what will the ongoing care of people with these implants involve? In particular, how will the need to maintain the functioning of artificial organs over an extended period affect patients and their doctors and the responsibilities of those who manufacture such devices? Drawing on lessons from the history of the cardiac pacemaker, this article offers an initial survey of the ethical issues posed by the need to maintain and service artificial organs. We briefly outline the nature and history of cardiac pacemakers, with a particular focus on the need for technical support, maintenance, and replacement of these devices. Drawing on the existing medical literature and on our conversations and correspondence with cardiologists, regulators, and manufacturers, we describe five sources of ethical issues associated with pacemaker maintenance: the location of the devices inside the human body, such that maintenance generates surgical risks; the complexity of the devices, which increases the risk of harms to patients as well as introducing potential injustices in access to treatment; the role of software—particularly software that can be remotely accessed—in the functioning of the devices, which generates privacy and security issues; the impact of continual development and improvement of the device; and the influence of commercial interests in the context of a medical device market in which there are several competing products. Finally, we offer some initial suggestions as to how these questions should be answered.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14-24
Number of pages11
JournalHastings Center Report
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2016
Externally publishedYes


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