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May 29, 2016

My body: Is it really mine?

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Is my body really mine alone? The law thinks so … sometimes. But when it would cost the government money to help me take care of it, then the law tells me that my body belongs to everyone. Bizarre.

Legally, I can change my gender. Legally, if I am a woman I can have an abortion for practically any reason in most Canadian jurisdictions. Legally – once current legislation passes through both our houses of government – I will soon be able to end the life of my body, with the help of a consenting medical doctor and public tax dollars to cover the cost.

But if I try to end the life of my body on my own (i.e. commit suicide) and fail, the law considers me a criminal and I risk being charged with attempted murder. This is also bizarre.

It’s rather interesting that every time the government interferes with my body, an industry is born. For-profit medical clinics have sprouted up all over Canada to serve clients who want sex-change operations, abortions, other interventions or procedures, and very soon, doctor-assisted suicide.

While the law makes it mandatory for me to use a seat belt when driving or riding in a car, in order to protect my body in an accident, it does not care if I abuse my body by smoking, drinking, or putting on weight. On the contrary, it is perfectly legal for large companies to widely advertise products claiming to solve the health and appearance issues caused by our bad habits. They’ve been doing that since my childhood, and before.

But we cannot depend on either major media or government to alert us to less obvious health and body risks that come with everyday life.

To pacify powerful multinational phone companies, for example, the media typically shies away from covering the disturbing link scientists found some years ago between cell phone usage and brain cancer. Perhaps they will wait another 80 years (as they did in acknowledging the link between smoking and lung cancer) when brain cancer treatments are fully covered by our tax dollars.

With the recent diagnosis of aggressive brain cancer in Tragically Hip superstar Gordon Downie, maybe – just maybe – the plight of the high profile Canadian rock band’s lead singer will accelerate both public and governmental awareness.  Perhaps it will result in serious attention being paid to this particularly hideous disease and the tens of thousands of bodies it impacts every year. When major and admired cultural figures go public with such traumatic afflictions they make a courageous choice in sharing “ownership” of their bodies for a higher cause. 

In a far less honorable context, the law allows me to sell the use of any parts of my body for the pleasure of others, as in the sex trade, as long they remain attached to my body.

But in Canada, it is illegal for me to sell separated parts of my body, as in organ removals for sale rather than donation. And the law remains a grey area in the case of women who choose to be surrogate (“womb-rental”) mothers for those who cannot biologically bear a child themselves.

It seems that the law is rife with ambiguities and contradictions when it comes to our bodies and who really has control over their care, maintenance and use. Why is that so?

Actually, it would be a surprise if things were not as they are, for the topics of life and death have occupied us since the dawn of our species and widely differing viewpoints have resulted. Here are only two of them:

In his treatise On Suicide, philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote prophetically, “I believe that no man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping.”

He continues, “Let us here endeavor to restore men to their native liberty, by examining all the common arguments against Suicide, and showing that that action may be free from every imputation of guilt or blame, according to the sentiment of all the ancient philosophers.”

Hume went on trying to explain why “Suicide is no transgression of our duty to God.” He felt that “if suicide be criminal, it must be a transgression of our duty either to God, our neighbor, or ourselves.”

Conversely, Seneca (5 BC - 65 CE) wrote in On the Shortness of Life: “Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has given to us for the highest achievements if it were all invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before it was passing. So it is we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.” (Italics added)

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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