Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Break and Grow

William Saletan at Slate has an article up. It centers around a woman named Hajnal Ban, now 31, who eight years ago voluntarily underwent a "treatment" in which doctors deliberately broke bones in both her legs, then slowly stretched them out. Nine months later, Ban was three inches taller.

Saletan's main point is that traditional medicine has relied on restoring people to a healthy or at least less-unhealthy state, with "healthy state" determined by that person's own baseline. In Ban's case, however, doctors were treating her to correct not a flaw relative to her own baseline state, but a flaw relative to a social-standard baseline, which is, as Saletan puts it, "dictated by others." At first blush, this feels like more of the "therapy and restoration versus enhancement" discussions which will only grow stronger as the years (and medical advances) pass, but there is another bit here ... a number of people, usually but not always of self-described "spiritual" bent, often complain that too many people are too focused on living up to other people's expectations, at the expense of fulfilling their own desires and needs and missing out on what makes them special. While I don't wholeheartedly buy into this -- if nothing else, keeping up with the Joneses is an important driver of developing the richly-abundant society we enjoy today, but that is fodder for another post -- there is a lot to it. Do we really want to encourage people to undergo surgery, especially procedures which, as is true in Ban's case, "can cause nerve damage, joint damage, arthritis, and chronic pain", all to pursue some ideal of what they think other people want them to be? It's also worth noting that Ban herself now questions whether she would do it again: "I guess had I not had this operation I probably wouldn't be insecure about my height at this age because I would just accept who I am. As you get older as a woman I think you become more mellow and you become more comfortable in your own skin.
Saletan loses me, though, with his closing paragraph:
So here's the question: How far should we let cosmetic surgery go? If [Connie Culp, the woman who received the face transplant] is a compelling case against prohibition, isn't Ban a compelling case for regulation? How much trauma and risk should we let people endure for the sake of looking the way we want them to look, especially when they might otherwise learn to accept themselves as they are? I'm all for freedom. But cosmetic leg-breaking? Isn't that a stretch?
This is, of course, way too authoritarian for my taste. Property rights begin with one's own body, and while I agree with people who are reluctant to fund such procedures out of their tax dollars, the reasons to prohibit them are strongly outweighed by a people's right to adjust and modify their bodies as the can and see fit.

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