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Why are some forms of surgical body modification legal and others illegal?

“Two men admit removing body parts in ‘eunuch maker’ case”, reports the Guardian.

Two men have admitted removing body parts of a man who is accused of carrying out castrations and broadcasting the footage on his “eunuch maker” website.

Nathan Arnold, 48, a nurse from South Kensington, west London, admitted the partial removal of Marius Gustavson’s nipple in the summer of 2019.

Damien Byrnes, 35, from Tottenham, north London, admitted removing Gustavson’s penis on 18 February 2017.

Gustavson, who is originally from Norway, is said to have been the ringleader in a conspiracy involving up to 29 offences of extreme body modifications, the removal of body parts, the trade in body parts and the uploading of videos.

Given that these people were all consenting adults, I do not understand why their actions (other than the theft of the anaesthetic) should be a criminal offence, particularly as surgical operations to remove people’s penises are legal in male to female sex change operations. Does it make a difference in principle whether the appearance aimed for when surgically removing a penis is female or eunuchoid?

My question is not designed to provoke the reaction “Of course it should be legal to do this, just as it is legal to perform sex change operations”. Nor is it designed to provoke the reaction “Of course it should be illegal to perform sex change operations, just as it is illegal to do this.” I can see reasonable justification for saying that changing someone’s body to be like lots of other people’s bodies is much more likely to go well than changing their body to a form few others have. By “go well”, I mean be likely to increase the wellbeing of the person upon whom the operation is performed, or be less likely to decrease it, and also to go well in the same ways that any surgical operation is judged a success or a failure.

Related earlier Samizdata posts:

Discussion point: circumcision from October 2013.

Discussion point: can children consent to puberty blockers? What about other drastic treatments? from October 2020.

If you feel moved to comment, please seek neither to be offended nor to offend, and try not to get hung up by questions of terminology.

8 comments to Why are some forms of surgical body modification legal and others illegal?

  • bobby b

    All such surgery is likely legal when performed by someone whom society has credentialed as a surgeon. Libertarian beliefs aside, I would prefer to have my surgery performed by someone who has taken the training and testing required by society to become certified, and so I support this requirement.

    It strikes me as being the same as if I had my house rewired by someone not trained or certified as an electrician.

    They might do a fine job, identical to what the licensed electrician would have done, but the lack of that credential means, to society, that the work cannot be trusted.

    (Who “partially” removes a nipple? Either remove the whole thing or leave it.)

  • Kirk

    The question is, where do you draw the line?

    Let us say that one man engages the services of another, unqualified as surgeon, to remove his testicles because they bother his peace of mind. Another uses the handlebar gooseneck of his mountain bike to accomplish the same thing. Still a third trains his dog to savage the groin, and gives the command while he is the only one in the room…

    Who are you going to prosecute? Who committed a crime? Only the first is unequivocally “self-willed”, and the other two are nearly impossible to determine. You’d have to get into the minds of the subjects, and if they’re already sufficiently deranged as to be willing to damage their bodies, how are you going to be able to determine either sanity or intent?

    The whole thing is, flatly, an issue of sanity. If your grip on things is such that you feel the need to maim yourself, well… What is to be done? How different are these people from alcoholics? Other drug users?

    You start down this slope of slipperiness, and the eventual end state is going to be prison for overeating and underexercising, because what you’re essentially doing is criminalizing self-harm. Which is a pretty subjective thing… You say “The science says that this is the ideal BMI… You’re over the line, jail…”, and the reality is that the people who made up the BMI were mostly delusionals who had no idea that other idiots would pick it up as the standard.

    I could see, in the coming years, a situation wherein it was considered criminal not to “take care of oneself” such that you minimized health care costs, and were able to contribute the maximum you potentially could to society. After the coming population implosion, I could see something like that coming in, to vast acclaim: You must do your fair share, and to do that, you must maintain your ideal physical condition, do your reproductive duty to the species, and on and on and on…

    The control-freak mentality infesting our society could very well do that. Imagine a health-monitoring app on your mandatory smart phone, that monitored your daily life to the point where you could be jailed for not getting enough sleep, etc., etc., ad nauseum into the brave new world.

    Frankly, we’re probably going to be getting to something like this, eventually. Start an account for a fetus, before birth: How much “social resource” was expended on you, from conception on? How much have you paid back? What are your “social costs” through life? Are you a net contributor, or a net parasite?

    Who gets to determine these “costs”? Who gets to determine the “value” of your return “contributions” to society? What do we do with net losses? Do those people get culled, somehow? Do we want to look at the question from the viewpoint of family lineages?

    Used to be, things were chaotic enough that nobody cared about these things: It all evened out, in the end. What if we go into a regime where we decide we must track these issues, and provide “incentives” and “dis-incentives”?

    How do you want to track this stuff?

    I’m of a mind that we often do the accounting on many issues entirely improperly. It’s all about the way you look at it… I know of one case where a business that went bankrupt and had to sell to a competitor suffered that fate because of the same guy they were paying massive sales bonuses to right up until they had to sell the company. Why? Because, nobody ever asked the question “Hey, is all this “business” this guy is bringing in actually making us money…?”

    Turns out, dude in question was not a “profit center” as the boss thought, but a genuine disaster. He was selling (this was in the HVAC industry…) all these wunnerful, wunnerful HVAC systems where the deal looked great on paper, but the actual costs for installation and maintenance were simply not working out for the company–None of the installations were ever “one and done”, they were all ongoing nightmares because genius-salesman had specced out systems that were too big, too small, or too complicated for the job. The end state was that he’d bring in what looked like a really good project, they’d get down to installation and so forth, and then it’d be twenty unbudgeted trips to get things to work even half-way right. And, because of the sales incentives and the stuff that the manufacturers were handing out as “goodies”, he’d make money but cost the company far more than they were taking in. The actual owner was sick and in retirement mode after a career in the business going back 40 years, so he never noticed what was happening… Different colors of money, see?

    “Social costs” are a lot like that. You see a guy who is “Captain Fitness”, out trail-running and making all the local triathlons… What you don’t see is what he’s cost his health insurers and others for things like rescues, treatments for injuries, and all the rest. Factor all that out, and Mr. Fitness actually turns out to cost a mint, way more than Bob the Slob does. And, if you go out from that, what you might find is that Captain Fitness is actually rather more of a social drag than he is anything else, because of his influence and all the other social costs like that damn mountain rescue helicopter that crashed trying to get to him for an injury when he was trail-running…

  • William O. B'Livion

    I could see, in the coming years, a situation wherein it was considered criminal not to “take care of oneself” such that you minimized health care costs,

    I used to think that too. But then the Fat Acceptance movement came about, and now we have lard butts demanding they be *GIVEN* a second OR THIRD seat on airlines because they’re too undisciplined to keep their weight within reason.

  • Ben David

    PLEASE do not dredge up circumcision… one small chink of light in the Trans movement has been that the sheer scope of the surgeries pushed aside 70s-era anti-circumcision fanaticism… Of course, as a religious Jew I still must endure the “Your Traditional Family Is Destroying the Planet” crowd…

  • Kirk

    @William O. B’Livion,

    You’re right, but the thing you have to remember is that this could change on a dime; what is the “politically correct” thing of the moment pivots on a dime, and then it’s out.

    This is one of the maddening things about all this progressive BS; none of the participants seems to have the mental acuity to recognize the shifts and pivots, as they mouth the current shibboleths. They’re entirely self-unaware; they don’t see the contradictions, never experience cognitive dissonance. You point out that a few short years ago that they were saying the diametric opposite of what they are today, and they can’t process it, can’t acknowledge the reality that they are doing just that.

    So… Yeah. As an observer, I expect these cretins to be mandating every woman do her duty, and every occasion where they don’t will likely be punishable as a capital offense. All it’s going to take is for the idjits to realize “Hey, we can’t tell people what to do… If there aren’t any, ya know… People.”

    Look at China. It wasn’t that long ago that they were doing the “One Child” thing with mindless enthusiasm, the same way they did the Red Guards. Now? OMG, we’re running out of people… Incentivize children!!! No, wait; they’re not having them… Make it mandatory, dammit!!!!”

    It’ll come. Watch. I think the world population is going to top out, assuming that the current stats are at all accurate (which they likely aren’t, because we’ve incentivized lying about it all…), at around 8 billion people. And, then it’ll crash, and crash hard. I don’t know how you maintain an economy when most of your people are edging into senescence, but we’re gonna be finding out shortly, like before the end of this century.

    Most of this crap is due to sheer hubris and utter stupidity on the part of the “elite”, who’re dumb as rocks and who can’t seem to learn from failure. Mostly because they never experience the effects…

  • Fraser Orr

    I don’t really care if you want to cut off your balls, and I don’t care who you have do it, as long as you know what you are getting in to. Me? I’d prefer any surgery performed on my body be by someone who has appropriate training and accreditation, but I’m certainly not going to make you make the same choices as me. After all, I don’t think Hawaiian pizza should be illegal (just very, very frowned upon.)
    Now if you are a kid, or have some sort of mental defect that means you don’t have the capacity to make decisions then you certainly shouldn’t be doing that. And your parents shouldn’t be doing anything much outside of societal norms to you either.

    But it also makes me think about one of the deadliest consequences of the hazy area of “your body your choice, except when someone powerful doesn’t like your choice”, namely the right to sell your organs and body parts. Tens of thousands of people die every year due to lack of access to transplant organs, and there are many organs that could reasonably be transplanted. From living donors kidneys and partial livers. And from the recently deceased many other body parts including lungs, hearts, skin, corneas, blood vessels, tendons, bones and so forth. That mom whose is faced with the horror of a husband dead from a car crash, trying to keep her three kids in order knowing that the death of the breadwinner will leave them destitute, she has to decide to GIVE the organs away for free. That despite the fact that everyone else, the nurses the doctors, the hospital, the transplant coordinates, heck even the gift shop sales lady, are making money off the transplant. The one person who can’t is the one making the biggest contribution, and the one probably most desperately in need.

    Maybe we fat and happy westerners might look down on it in horror, but $10,000 to a healthy man from a poorer country in exchange for his kidney might be utterly transformative both to him and his family. Better to live fifty years with one kidney than 18 months before you and your kids starve to death or expire from one of the many other mortalities of poverty.

    Anyway, that is what I think of in this situation rather than some dumb, moronic attention seeker, who is so befuddled by the stupidity of modern, vapid philosophy, that he thinks cutting off his nipple will make him happy. In America you have a right to be a moron. So far, you are not obliged to be a moron, though I should expect that law to pass before the end of Joe Biden’s second term.

  • Paul Marks

    When societies, civilisations, start to fall apart – such conduct happens more often and becomes “normal”.

    The Roman historian Tacitus said “the more corrupt the state is, the more laws there are”.

    Double edged comment – partly because all these laws corrupt society, but also as society becomes corrupt the state may (perhaps) desperately pass laws to try and stop things that no would have thought of doing only a few decades before.

    For example, no one when I was young wanted laws to “ban Gay Marriage” – as people did not have a clue what “Gay Marriage” was.

    “Should we have laws to stop men castrating each other?”

    If society has got to the stage where this is popular behaviour – then it is already doomed (whatever the laws are).

    Still, on the other hand, a Roman Emperor (I forget which one) did ban castrating slaves – and the law did seem to work.

  • Paul Marks

    I remembered to look it up – it was the Emperor Domitian who banned castration. Not a nice man – he enjoyed sodomising at least one castrated boy himself. Why he banned the practice is unclear – castrated slaves continued to be imported into the Roman Empire, but castration within it was banned. Although, centuries later, the Emperor Justinian brought castration back – as a punishment for sodomy. As a Christian Emperor Justinian was against such things as baby killing (which was the first thing the Christians banned when they took control) and homosexual acts – although some Christians thought that Justinian, a cruel man, was much too harsh in his punishment of sodomy.

    In the later Ottoman Islamic Empire both castration and baby killing were common – although under Islamic law neither could be done to a free Muslim. The Ottomans were not just being cruel – they could point to a massive slave revolt, centuries before (early in Islamic civilisation) in what is now southern Iraq – African slaves (the slave trade from Africa did not start with Islamic civilisation – but it was massively expanded in the time of this civilisation) had revolted and there had been a terrible war that had lasted many years. Importing a population group who can be clearly seen as different (in this case because of skin colour) can lead to terrible conflict – and later Middle Eastern civilisation dealt with this problem by castrating black men and killing black babies that slave owners had with female black slaves.

    A better solution would have been to not have a slave trade or slavery at all – but there were theological and religious law difficulties in actually banning the slave trade and slavery. However, all Muslim countries managed to find ways round those historic problems and officially banned slavery by the 1960s.

    The behaviour of Christian enslavers has less theological excuse – as Jesus (unlike Muhammed) had never been involved in the trade. Indeed the hypocrisy of some of the Christian powers is stunning – for example it was recognised in England as early as 1102 (yes 1102 – under King Henry the First) that selling human beings was a terrible wrong – yet the slave trade kept coming back, even inside England, till Lord Mansfield’s judgment of 1772 – in spite of all the judgements before this (in the Tudor period, and at other times including the early 1700s with the judgements of Chief Justice Sir John Holt). Even that butcher William the Conqueror had banned selling English people as slaves overseas (a common practice in the Viking Age) – but Bristol and other places kept falling back into slave trading (with slaves from other places).

    In France King Louis the tenth (Louis X) admitted that slavery was a terrible violation of natural law (natural justice) – but cunning lawyers later pointed out that “Louis X did not mention the colonies of France”.

    Louis X did not mention the colonies of France because France-had-no-colonies in his time – but wave gold in front of some (some) lawyers and they will make any case (no matter how twisted and dishonest).