Who Owns Your Body?

Disclaimer:  There’s a yucky photo in this post and reference to some yucky stuff so if you keep reading, don’t complain about the yucky.

With the murder of Dr. Tiller, the whole abortion debate has once again gained a spark of life. I don’t want to debate abortion, though, because we’ve heard all the arguments back and forth from both sides for what seems like forever now.

As we know, the essence of the pro-choice side is that a woman has the right to make decisions involving her own body. My question then is,  do all competent, consenting adults have the right to make any decision they want about their own body? And, do they have the right to expect others to assist with that decision? Because in most cases people will need help.

Suicide for instance. Do people have the right to take their own life? Is it okay that they ask someone – a doctor, a family member, a friend – to help them if they are no longer able to do the deed themselves?

If a loved one was terminally ill and asked you to help them end it all, would you do so unhesitantly? Unless you’ve actually been in that situation, it’s difficult to fathom what an enormous task that would be. You’ll always wonder if the loved one had absolutely no hope. You always hear of miracle recoveries, new treatments. You’ll always wonder, what if?  And you’ll always think of yourself as someone who has taken a human life. That’s a heavy burden.

Remember that story about Armin Meiwes and  Jürgen Brandes? The bisexual cannibals who hooked up on the internet’s Cannibal Café? Armin was looking for a nice young man to kill and eat and Jürgen was chosen out of all the other applicants.

Germany had a hell of a time figuring out how to charge Armin. Neither suicide, assisted suicide nor cannibalism is illegal in Germany.[1]  And, Armin had documented the entire selection process, showing how other applicants were turned down or how he made no attempt to persuade those who declined. He videotaped Jürgen talking to him about how he would enjoy being killed and eaten. (I won’t even go into the part where the two of them hacked off Jürgen’s penis, fried it up and ate bits of it together. [It was overcooked, so not very palatable apparently])

So, okay, that’s an extreme example and an argument could be made that perhaps Jürgen was not quite in his right mind and hadn’t considered all the options and consequences/impacts of his decision when he thought it would be a fun thing to do.

But the same argument could be made for anyone contemplating suicide and maybe even for anyone contemplating abortion. Or people who have 8  kids at once, or who do gruesome things to themselves with plastic surgery or who do stuff like this to themselves.


What about a patient’s right to refuse medical treatment? This is a real dilemma for doctors, especially when the patient refuses potentially life-saving treatment. The doctor will try to persuade the patient and very often will administer treatment against the wishes of the patient.

Kant believed that a human beings capacity for self-determination is all-important; that autonomy of the will is the very essence of being human. Most of our ideals about humans as autonomous beings come from the writings of Kant.

Do you believe in absolute autonomy or in a more holistic approach – a balancing and weighing between autonomy and the greater moral good;  taking into account the possible incompetency of the individual to make a rational decision? And who decides on the competency?

Either approach could potentially lead to the proverbial slippery slope.

[1] They managed to find something to convict Armin of eventually and he’s serving a life sentence. He is now vegetarian and an active member of the Green Party. Seriously, this is, bar none, the craziest story I’ve ever heard in my life.

27 responses to “Who Owns Your Body?

  1. You must be kidding.
    The state owns your body, and your soul if one exists.
    You are not allowed to dispose of your body as you wish, just try to get an open air cremation for instance, or getting buried in the back yard.
    Ad that’s the way it should be.
    Individual autonomy is a myth created to keep the masses compliant.
    If you try doing much of anything out of the ordinary however you can expect the authorities to intervene.
    My fathers generation died like this, One alcohol related early death, three slow rottings through Alzheimer disease.
    If I try to choose a relatively painless suicide over that hell, I or anyone helping me will have our own kind of hell to go through.
    We wouldn’t however do that to a dog, literally.

  2. THANK YOU for the heads-up…it really helped me to fortify my internal ickiness indicator before I read your post anyway because I’m sick like that. Yikes. That cannibal business IS the most bizarre story I’ve ever heard. The penis portion pushed me over the edge.

    I like to say I believe in autonomy but I’m glad when these kinds of ominous precedent-setting decisions have to be made by OTHER people. Other countries, even better. I’d rather bury my head in dirt than choose for someone else. Shameful.

  3. You didn’t even mention the freaks that want to cut off their arm or leg(s) because “it would make them feel better.” I say they should reopen all the asylums and toss those people in. Psychiatrists love to study those people and it would get them out of the news and out of our lives. As for assisted suicide, I’m all for it. What? We’re not as good as cats and dogs?

  4. My gut reaction is to say you should have complete autonomy as long as your autonomy doesn’t infringe on someone else’s. (No, you may not kill yourself by driving head on into my car and killing me, thankyouverymuch). That’s the crux of the Pro Life/Pro Choice issue — is the fetus a part of the woman’s body and thus under her autonomy or is it it’s own entity with it’s own autonomy.

    But I realize that there are deep and much-debated aspects to such autonomy that make that statement too simplistic. The line between sane and insane or moral and immoral is very fine, and not the same from person to person or culture to culture. Cultures that embrace cannibalism, for example, would probably consider Armin Meiwes an extraordinarily decent and normal chap. And cultures that embrace extreme body modifications wouldn’t bat an eye at the fella in that picture. One can perhaps argue that we have a moral obligation to offer help or support to someone who we feel is hurting themselves, but offering help and support is not the same as forcing that same help and support. Ultimately, I think we have to accept that, while we might not like the road someone is on, sometimes we have to let them make that trip.

    Would I help a loved one end their life? Probably not. (I realize that’s a double standard when I would do it for a pet.) And I would never expect someone to do that for me, even if I broke down in the moment and asked. But I would not necessarily try to stop them if they did it themselves because, again, it’s their chosen road.

  5. Man, that photo grossed me out.

    My grandmother died just two days ago, and given the chance, I absolutely would have helped her end her life a few days early. Her body spent this past week shutting down — she was in pain, completely unaware of her surroundings and suffering. She would not have been happy to see herself in this state.

    But would I have helped her six months ago, when she was relatively healthy but depressed and unhappy and unwilling to take care of herself to try to prolong her life? A tough call. I’ll have to think about that one.

  6. I think that as long as you’re not hurting anyone else… but then… Ah hell, I dunno.

    OK, the Armin thing – That’s just fucked up on so many levels. It’s way too extreme to use as an argument. As for the guy on the pic, it would really hurt me to see him with a major cold or allergies – why is that the first thing that came to mind when I say that piercing? I do NOT need that image in my head.

    Regarding suicide. How can it be illegal? if you miss, who’s gonna throw you in jail? Would I help a loved one commit suicide? Today, no. Going to jail is not in my plans, no matter how much I love someone. There have been a few cases in Quebec where people stood trial for doing just that. If it were legal, it’d be a difficult decision to make, but ultimately I think I would. Like Geewits, I think we need to give as much consideration to humans as we do to animals.

  7. Bandobras – That’s a whole other area I was going to mention, but in the interests of relative brevity, didn’t. If your loved one says when he dies he wants to be buried and leaves a whole list of specifics behind as to how and in what and then when he dies are you allowed to decide that all the money you would spend on the burial could be better used to feed his family and also you don’t believe in burial, so you just have him cremated. Do people get to make decisions about their bodies after they die? What about organ donation? He says, “under no circumstances let them give my organs to someone else” but there he is brain dead and some kid really needs a liver or will die. What do you do?

    Lola – I didn’t think that disclaimer was going to deter anyone. Well, there’s no reason you have to worry about making any of these decisions unless you actually have to make one yourself one day. Knock wood that won’t happen.

    Geewits – In theory, allowing or helping someone to commit suicide when they’re really in pain and suffering and have no expectation of much more life anyway, sounds humane — as you say, we do it for our pets. Even that’s a difficult decsion, though for most people and they leave the pets suffering for much longer than necessary. Humans are different. I was faced with this decision once and hated myself for not being able to do it, but I’m almost 100% sure that I would have hated myself more if I HAD done it. It’s always better to err on the side of life than to wonder forever if maybe, just maybe you did the wrong thing. I think that tiny, tiny doubt would eat away at you forever.

    Louise – So, someone has maybe a month left to live and is in extreme agony and wants to kill himself and you make no attempt to stop him. Fair enough. If you saw a physically healthy person about to leap to his death from the roof of a high building, would you attempt to stop that? Where do you draw the line? Someone has been told they have only a year to live and will die a particularly ugly and brutal death. They choose to end it now before the disease gets hold of them. Would you attempt to stop them?

    Lynn – Can you imagine that this is someone’s child? A child they took great care of as a little one – making sure he didn’t get any boo-boos, bandaging up all his little scratches and bumps? A child whose cute face you were so proud of on his school pictures. Ye gods!!! Anyway, I’m very sorry to hear about your grandmother. It’s good that you didn’t have to make that decision, I think. Whatever the decision would have been, I think it would have been a difficult one to live with.

    Jazz – I know the Armin thing was extreme, but I can never get that story out of my head. The craziest thing of it all to me was that there were a number of applicants. And I think they can charge you if you attempt suicide. Usually they just put you in the “hospital” for a while. See my response to Geewits, too. And maybe my response to Bandobras as well.

  8. IMO attempting to stop is in the same category as offering help. I probably would not drag the person in from the ledge against their will nor would I physically block the ill person from ending it if talking failed to change their minds…unless I was in a situation where I had a legal duty to save them. Like Jazz, I don’t particularly want to end up in jail over the issue.

    RE: your control over what happens to your body after your dead — As long as you’re sure I’m really, really dead and that I’m not going to suddenly wake up while someone in harvesting body parts or after I’ve been buried six feet under, I don’t particularly care what’s done with the body I leave behind. Use it for spare parts, feed it to a lion…whatever. As a living human being, I would hope that whatever we do with a dead body is at least respectful (I’d appreciate not being thrown in a landfill as that would be a waste); as a dead human being, I really have better things to think about.

    “It’s always better to err on the side of life” — There we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m more about personal choice trumping life-at-all-costs.

  9. 1. The Criminal Code and Euthanasia

    A number of Criminal Code provisions impinge upon the issues of euthanasia and cessation of treatment.

    Section 14 of the Code provides that:

    No person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted on him, and such consent does not affect the criminal responsibility of any person by whom death may be inflicted on the person by whom consent is given.

    In the medical context, a doctor who, at a patient’s request, gives the patient a lethal injection would be criminally liable.

    2. The Criminal Code and Aiding Suicide

    Under section 241 of the Criminal Code, it is an offence to counsel or to aid suicide, although suicide itself is no longer an offence:

    241. Every one who

    1. counsels a person to commit suicide, or
    2. aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.

  10. Honestly, I do not believe that mankind is destined for greatness if given unlimited self determination. Without moral guidance, history has shown that civilizations degenerate to chaos and collapse.

  11. Louise – Really? Interesting. I would think it’s my moral obligation to stop someone from jumping off that ledge and would do whatever it took to get them off because in that moment of despair they may think their life is over, but you never know what’s around the corner. Maybe with a change in meds or some other form of treatment they could live long and productive and happy lives. It’s interesting to hear from someone so far on the side of Kant though. Thanks

    Bandobras – Thanks for the legal updates. Good to know that suicide is no longer illegal.

    LGS – You are assuming that self-determination equals immorality? Or are you saying that we often need the perspectives and/or intervention of community in order to make the best decisions.

    Grouchy – Instead of worrying about your antibodies, I would try to do something about all these “enemies” of yours.

  12. You know, I had a long comment all ready to go and then realized, hey, I have a half-finished blog post on the subject of suicide that maybe I should finish instead of taking over your comments section. 😉

    RE: Kant — I’ve never read Kant so I think I’ll add him to my to do list. Sounds like a man I’d find interesting, although all that’s going through my head right now is Monty Python’s “Philosophers’ Song“.

  13. Oh my. This is is a slippery one with several layers and all sorts of twists and turns. Love it.

    Meanwhile, I felt Armin’s selection process to be a little unfair and perhaps a little bias towards Europeans. I jumped through his hoops, listed my own recipes and even offered to cook what I could before I passed out from blood loss. Not to mention, I’m way tastier than anyone named Jurgen and my penis would take a lot longer to cook. I’m still a little bitter. I mean, bitter in the can’t get past it sense, not bitter to the tastebuds, just in case anyone else out there is looking to kill and eat someone. Let me know.

  14. My “link appears to be broken” so excuse me if this posts twice…
    I don’t think there’s a right or proper answer to most of these situations. I think it all depends on the situation. My mother was terminally ill for a long time and each time she had a stroke I secretly wished she would “let go”. Would I have done it for her if she’d asked? No. But that’s just me.

  15. Freaking Germans…..
    I have friends who have done as much as that guy in the picture – its no big deal really.
    And to quote a short story I once read – sometimes Love means – “use the needle”

  16. Louise – Excellent! That’s how I often get my best blog post ideas — by starting a comment on someone else’s blog. Monty Python/Kant .. Same difference

    Mayopie – I’m sure as a vegetarian you would be much tastier than someone filled with toxic animal proteins. I can’t help actually connect you with the sort of once-in-a-lifetime experiece you’re looking for, but as a fellow vegetarian, I’d be more than happy to provide you with a delicious letter of reference. Let me know and best of luck!

    Charlene – Ya, I agree. You want them to let go when the time is right, but it never feels right to help them along the way.

    Lebowski – DUDE! Where have you been? Nice to see you again. And the guy in the photo? Okay, it may be no big deal, but it’s not attractive. And it can’t be healthy and I’m pretty sure he’s going to have at least a twinge of regret about it all one day.

  17. i have heard about that story from germany and it is “off da hook” as the kids say. or used to say…

    you pose a lot of very questionable questions about human rights and the like.

    i think folks should be able to decide for themselves what to do with their bodies, including abortion and funky piercing and tattooing, that dude in the pic above is FREAKY. WHO would date that person? not me, that’s what i’m sayin’.

    i support assisted suicides but agree it’s a slippery slope of something that people try to put into black and white categories but they simple are not, or ever will be black and white issues.

    i do think that women who decide to have babies should go through some type of testing and education before they actually deliver the child.

  18. Socialism vs self determination? Whoo — you do pick the topics.
    According to my marriage vows, my husband has rights to my body. According to the state in which I live, there are things I cannot do with it. Such as kill it.
    Would I assist an end of life suicide? Yes, as long as I had a reasonable hope of doing it on the qt. Why? Because I sure as hell would want someone to help me if I wanted out and couldn’t do it myself.
    The guy on the roof? I think I would offer help, but I wouldn’t grab him if he was a terminal disease person. See para above.
    Would I do a Latimer? Yes, probably, after I had investigated every option possible for pain relief. Dog analogy again.

    You know, each decision is a personal one with a huge number of factors at play. That’s the trouble with the state making laws; the laws cannot take all circumstances into account. Look at all the conditionals in some of my off-the-cuff responses. In real life there would be a huge amount more. Maybe we should try and give people tools to make the decisions, not decide ahead of time.

  19. Beth – You were wise to miss this one. It’s been haunting me for years.

    Leah – Just off the cuff i would agree that people should be able to make choices about their own bodies, but even that is not a black and white opinion. there are so many variables. I don’t have any answers and I’m very suspicous of those people who claim to have answers to these questions.

    Mary G – Ya, I don’t know what I was thinking blogging about this. I guess it was the murder of that abortion doctor. Pro-Lifers indeed…I can’t even imagine what Latimer went through before making that decision. As armchair commentators it’s relatively simple to say we’d do the same thing, but when you’re actually faced with such a huge decision it’s far from easy.

  20. I think the question is whether or not he would do that to a person against their will if he doesn’t find somebody willing. Keeping proportions, i think we can somehow ask ourselves the same question above applied to sex. I mean, raping someone is a horrible thing to do, and i believe that anyone who does it should rot in prison or be castrated. But if the person you want to have sex with agrees, then it is no longer called rape, but a very very good time 🙂 If a woman is willing to have her mouth stuffed by 2 large penises it’s ok (almost anything is ok in bed as long as she or he wants it, right?). So, judging by the verdict the german sickboy got, wouldn’t it mean that every consensual sex act should in fact be regarded as rape ?

  21. addition to my comment:

    After all, who are we to deny that man the pleasure of having his dick chopped off and eaten ? If that’s what it works for them.. Even if it’s a sick mind, we cannot deny it pleasure. I believe that as long as you do not disturb or harm others (against their will), you should be allowed to do whatever it takes to enjoy life the way you want it.

  22. Matei – Well, that’s an interesting question. I guess the issue with the German cannibals was that consent can only be given if it’s done freely and with a sound mind. The courts assume that anyone consenting to having his dick chopped off and eaten can’t be of sound mind. That’s a judgement call. Same thing with underage sex. We arbitrarily decide what the age of consent should be when some “kids” are quite mature at 16 and some are still children. A very complicated issue, but thanks for your input and for visiting the blog

  23. XUP, dont mention it ! thanks for replying. So i guess that this all comes to the conclusion that the courts decide what you are allowed to like and dislike. Sure, a person with such desires is a deeply disturbed person indeed, but in this case, that doesn’t change the fact that those two wackos did no harm to anybody else. Of course, we can assume that if one is capable of such grotesque actions, maybe next time if he doesn’t find someone deranged enough to want to be killed and eaten he would just go out and kidnap somebody, and do it against their will. So i see the threat he presents to society. But this is based only on the gravity of the situation. However, i don’t think that he should be put in the same pot with psycho serial killers and child rapists and sentenced to life in prison (maybe in a mental institution, or under strict supervision?). Those guys never ask their victims if they want to be tortured and killed, but are treated the same way this guy is. I think that the guy who responded to the add is way more deranged than armin meiwes. I also think that further psychological tests should have been conducted on this guy in order to determine if he would give in to his sick urges and do this to somebody against their will.

    Anyway nice blog, i usually find blogs boring, full of bull crap and a waste of time. But yours touches very interesting issues, and i will be keeping my eye on it 😉


  24. I would expect that someone who is willing to have someone else cut off his penis and eat it falls into the same category as people who long to be an amputee. It’s deemed a mental disorder but where is the line between fetishes that are acceptable and fetishes that aren’t? So many sexual proclivities that are socially acceptable now would not have been decades ago. so the line is clearly a moving target.