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Do we own our bodies? Should we be able to?

What legal rights do citizens have regarding their body when it comes to selling body parts, selling oneself up for prostitution, or choosing to destroy one's body? This ethical debate is analyzed through the cases of Yearworth v North Bristol NHS Trust and Mr. Alain Cacq.

The law has been hypocritical regarding whether someone can truly own their own body. If the former was true, this indicates that you would be able to sell your body, such as through organs, prostitution, or slavery. Furthermore, it means the ability to decide whether to destroy it, yet up until 1961, suicide was seen as an immoral crime. However, this may have resulted from the need to prosecute these planning or encouraging suicide, which is illegal to this day, rather than for people who had already succeeded in the act.  

Yet, this rule has been subject to changes as a result of the advancement of medicinal fields, which allows for former parts of our body to be deemed as property. This is illustrated in the case of Yearworth v North Bristol NHS Trust. The claimant had deposited semen samples with a clinic before partaking in his chemotherapy treatment for cancer, as the therapy could have made him infertile. However, the hospital failed to store the sample with care and was damaged, as the man in the case suffered a psychiatric injury, thus resulting in his infertility. The ultimate issue within the case was that because the salmon was no longer a ‘part’ of his body, the lawyers could not claim for personal interest, as the law would not have recognized bodily fluids as personal property. 

At the end of the case, however, the court decided that seen samples were indeed personal property as the men had control over it, and could decide what to do with it, despite some restrictions set by the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Act 1990. The claimants could therefore then claim damages from the psychiatric damage which resulted from the negligent damage of property from the clinic. 

This case makes logical sense based on the right decision of facts, but opens a whole area of law which previously had not been recognized. The relationship between one’s control and ownership of the body may extend to greater applications apart from semen storage. This, however, may result in similar cases whereby, following the logic of Yearworth v. North Bristol NHS, the claimant is justified and ‘right’ however the outcome is much more uncomfortable. The court must draw the line regarding numerous ethical conflicts within the law. This may extend to instances such as selling one’s kidney to help a person in need, or if you are donating a kidney to a friend, which is subsequently managed by doctors, and you suffer mental distress as your friend can no longer have a transplant?

A modern-day example of the case mentioned is the recent dispute between a terminally ill Frenchman, Alain Cocq, and the French President Emmanuel Macron. Cocq had suggested to Livestream his death previously this week, with predicted 4-5 days of living as he refused food, drink, and medicine since Saturday. This ‘right to die’ case has been closely watched by global media, sparking debates over legislative regulations and the right to one’s body. 

Euthanasia is illegal in France, yet Mr.Cocq called for the law to be changed, allowing terminally ill people to die as they wish, yet this has been opposed on moral grounds by influential groups such as the Catholic Church. In July, Cocq had written to the President describing his ‘extremely violent suffering’ and asking to die ‘with dignity’. Mr. Macron stated that he was moved by the letter, yet could not comply as he was not above the law. This event spurred debate over whether Mr. Cocq had the right to his own body and thus the right to die, or if the law stipulated that he must continue to live through his suffering for years to come. Mr. Cocq, after realizing the impact of his work, began eating again as he was ‘suffering too much’ and is expected to return home in the next 10 years where a medical team will be provided.


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