Saturday, July 25, 2015

Do we have the right to modify our bodies?

by Gideon Lasco, MD

Recently, Italian neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canevero announced plans to conduct the first “head transplant” on a 30-year old Russian man, Valery Spiridinov, who suffers from a rare muscle wasting disease that has left him severely handicapped. In the planned procedure, Mr. Spininov’s head will be transplanted into a healthy body.

Scheduled for 2017, this plan has reignited a conversation about the limits of medical technologies. “Will it create a new human being?” pundits have asked, with bioethicists, scientists, and religious scholars weighing in on the debate. Spirinidov himself has defended his decision, saying that he is volunteering for the sake of scientific advancement.

The head transplant debate may be dismissed as hypothetical or premature, but it strongly resonates with a broader question that is salient for our time: In this age where individuals are increasingly assertive about their rights and their autonomy in questions of their own identity, do we have the right to modify our bodies? How far can we modify our body parts and bodily features?


Before doing a survey of body modification in our time, we must recognise that humans have been altering their bodies since ancient times. Lip-stretching in Africa and Central America, skull-moulding in the Middle East and in the Philippines, and footbinding in China, are just a few examples; some - like the wearing of neck rings in Myanmar - continue to be practiced today. Our “shock” over radically-altered bodies should be balanced with the realisation that body modification is as old as humanity.

Contemporary examples of body modification, meanwhile, are at the heart of many current issues and debates. When Olympic champion Bruce Jenner revealed that she is now a woman by the name of Caitlyn Jenner, her announcement was accompanied by a completely-transformed body, made possible by hormones and surgery. Arguably, her transformation - and that of the Philippines’ BB Gandang Hari before her - was as much physical as it was social.

In June 2015, the parents of US civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal claimed that she was a white woman pretending to be black. A majority derided her for her masquerade - it had emerged that she had tanned her skin and curled her hair - but others defended her right to identify with the ethnicity of her choice. Importantly, however, her ability to claim a black identity was made possible by the ways in which she modified her body.

Of course there are more quotidian ways of body modification. Circumcision continues to be a rite of passage for boys in many parts of the world. Teens endure braces for several months or years to straighten their teeth; women and men in many Asian countries are applying all kinds of products to whiten their skin. Men struggle to attain “six-pack abs”, while women undergo regimens of diet and exercise for a slim, curvaceous figure. What emerges from these examples is the body as a source of distinction, aesthetic worth, and personal satisfaction.

Finally there are also instances of body modification for financial gain. In Iran, a person can legally sell his or her kidney for $2000-$4000, and though this is banned elsewhere in the world, the black market for organ trafficking spans many countries and millions of dollars.

The morality of these practices can be very contentious. Even when individuals consent to their kidneys being sold, for instance, critics point out that such a choice - often in circumstances of poverty - violates human dignity. Female circumcision has almost-universally been called a “mutilation” and outlawed in almost all the countries in which it occurs, but some circumcised women have defended the practice as part of their cultural heritage.

These debates are animated by arguments coming from various fields. Some religious scholars assert that the human body is imbued with a natural dignity that must not be tampered with. Medical experts focus on questions of safety and harm. Political economists look at the ways in which body modification practices privilege the rich (i.e. those who can afford to be “surgically beautiful”) while disadvantaging the poor (i.e. those who sell their kidneys). Finally there are transhumanists who assert that humans should embrace being cyborgs as the logical next step in our evolution. The multiplicity of voices speaks of the contentiousness of the body, and its centrality in many of the debates of our time.


Perhaps the very limits of technology will set boundaries on what we can do to our bodies. If the head transplant in 2017 fails, then it will settle the debate - at least for the time being. On the other hand, we cannot discount technological successes beyond our imagination. Just as the first heart transplant in 1967 captivated the world, a head transplant fifty years later will surely provoke a similar - if not greater - response. There is simply no precedent, save for the world imagined by science fiction, on the ramifications of such futures.

How far can we modify our bodies? The answer is for different societies to decide. But it is safe to say that the frontier is going further and further, pushed by technology and enabled by a moral milieu in which individual rights are increasingly taking precedence over long-held belief systems.

Perhaps there will come a point when people will collectively agree that enough is enough. Or perhaps we will come to realisation that what is truly “natural” for us humans is the urge to modify ourselves.

Manila, Philippines
July 25, 2015