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Please don't 3D print me when I'm dead

Wed, 07/23/2014 - 8:49am
David Mantey, Editor-in-Chief

When I die, please don’t grow pieces of me. Whether the practice is in the name of science, art, or engineering, after I’ve been harvested of all viable organs in my remaining vessel, do not reconstruct and 3D print any body part to be kept alive inside a case of "nourishing liquid."

Now, I don’t really hold the same historical weight as Vincent van Gogh, or the ear that he lopped off during a psychotic episode, but I figured that throwing a sweeping declaration out into the collective consciousness couldn’t hurt, particularly if anyone ever challenges my estate for the right to rebuild – oddly enough, I’ve never contemplated the many places that could contain traces of my DNA. I now have to add incineration instructions to my last will and testament.

In early June 2014, the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany displayed a copy of Vincent van Gogh’s ear that was 3D printed using genetic material provided by the great-great-grandson of Vincent’s brother Theo. According to the artist, Diemut Strebe, the cells were reshaped to resemble van Gogh’s ear by using science as "a type of brush."

I will rarely stifle advancements in science and engineering, as I feel that creatively pushing boundaries, both technological and moral, can lead to life-changing advancements, but this seems superfluous. Sure, it’s just an ear, but what happens when we "grow" historically relevant individuals "for display purposes only."

Can we not surmise what van Gogh's ear looked like from a bronze bust or one of his many self-portraits? Do we need a living, breathing clone suspended in nourishing liquid? A few years ago, I was lucky enough to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; it painted a pretty clear picture of the man, even without an ear exhibit.

Scientists have tried to extract the artist’s DNA from an envelope, but were unsuccessful. However, they are currently working with a female relative to include mitochondrial DNA for future museum installations. Which appendage will be on display next? Let’s start a body part pool; I’ll take the hands. 

The global organ donor shortage is real, so I can respect efforts to grow compatible body parts to help extend life expectancies. For my family members and loved ones, if you’ve hollowed me out and run out of options, by all means print yourself a kidney — especially if your organs are genetically programmed to fail. But if your plan is to rebuild my head to personalize my spot in the crypt/mausoleum/fireplace — wherever you’ve stashed the remains of my hallowed carcass — please refrain from making any unauthorized reproductions.

What I find more unsettling is the interaction with the body part. In the exhibit, visitors can speak into the ear through a microphone. This isn’t exactly the desecration of a corpse, but it’s not far removed from it either. Perhaps I need to copyright my likeness, even my DNA. Maybe it is too much to expect such protections without legalese.

What are your thoughts? Do you side with the artist or the ear?

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