A few years ago I took a class called History and Ethics of Body Modification. Great class, great professor. I learned a lot. What most surprised me, though, was how closed-minded a lot of the “open-minded” people were.
We talked about Gender Identity Disorder (GID) and as a class it seemed we all agreed that it was perfectly reasonable for a person who was “a man born in a woman’s body” or vice versa to receive treatment and surgery so as to allow them to have the body that matched their internal identity. This is something I fully agree with on a number of reasons. First, my strong belief in personal autonomy and doing what we want to our own bodies so long as it’s not harming others. Second, if a person isn’t happy with who s/he is and can change that, then why shouldn’t s/he? Who am I to judge how a person wants to live his/her life and change his/her body?
This led on to a discussion about Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), something that I had read about in the past (I tend to go through phases of wanting to learn about new diseases and disorders). The gist of BIID for those who don’t know is that a person feels like s/he is living in the wrong body, as if his/her body should only have one leg or one arm, or some other body part. In general, people with BIID feel like a part of their body doesn’t belong to them and shouldn’t be a part of their body. Usually this unwanted piece is a limb, and sufferers know exactly how much of the limb “isn’t part” of them. In the minds of sufferers the cure is removal of the offending body part.
When I first read about this I felt the same as I did for GID. This person is unhappy with who s/he is, there is a part of his/her body that doesn’t feel right; they are an amputee living in a body with four limbs. Why wouldn’t we just allow them to remove the offending body part and continue with their lives? I think that I was the only person in the class who saw this as acceptable, as just another version of the same thing: “My brain is telling me I am something, but my body is not the way I feel”.
The majority of people are against allowing BIID sufferers to remove the offending body part. They see it as a severe mental disorder. Some people suffering with BIID will go as far as attempting self-amputation so as to get rid of the offending limb (somewhat akin to those with GID in the past who, without the option of surgery, would attempt to remove their own genitalia). As a society we are appalled that a normal, healthy person would want to make themselves disabled, to want to stop themselves being normal. But isn’t this the same view that was taken not long ago of men who wanted to become women? “Why would you want to become member of the inferior gender? Look at all you’re giving up.”
I am not saying that the two problems are identical. From a purely practical standpoint, in today’s world whether you are male or female you doesn’t necessarily need to be taken care of or receive disability payments. An amputee might. Note, that they only might. Yes, they’d need surgery and aftercare, but so does a person going through gender-reassignment surgery.
I bring this up because I think it’s important to note the similarities between problems that we generally deem to be so different. A lot of people wouldn’t consider the similarities between a person who feels like s/he is trapped in the body of the wrong gender, and a person who feels like s/he needs a limb amputated, but I think there are a lot more similarities than people would like to think.
Am I arguing that we chop any person’s leg off who asks for it? No. But maybe consider that it’s not as weird as you might think. You might think it’s crazy to remove a perfectly healthy functioning part of the body…but what about the genitals in gender-reassignment surgery? Maybe people with BIID should be treated like those with GID. Given the same psychological and medical hoops to jump through to prove that this is what they really want. Live life for two years as they would post surgery (in a wheelchair, on crutches, etc), and go to therapy for that time. If at they end they still feel the same then why can’t they have the body part removed? It’s their body after all.
As an aside, I understand there are issues with burden of care upon society, but there are many amputees and people with disabilities today who function in society without being a burden so I see no reason to assume that these people would. So I am making my case for allowing people with BIID to have the treatment they desire assuming that they would not become a burden on society.