Tongue splitting, bodily harm, and human dignity

BioEdge

Xavier Symons

Contemporary cosmetic surgery has become a tool for realising bizarre personal fantasies. Sometimes it also leads to significant bodily harm. “Tongue-splitting” is an operation whereby a person’s tongue is split from the tip to as far back as the underside base. The operation has become a common alteration for body-modification enthusiasts, who say it heightens their sense of taste and touch.

Some jurisdictions, however, have enacted a ban on the procedure. The operation can be painful, and can temporarily impede one’s capacity for speech.

In a recent post on the blog Practical Ethics, UK lawyer Charles Foster considers the legality and ethics of the procedure.

Foster discusses the case of R v BM, where a Wolverhampton tattooist was found guilty of inflicting grievous bodily harm on a patient after splitting their tongue. Even though the customer consented, the court found that consent was not a defence against having inflicted grievous bodily harm.

Foster argues that the ruling represents a defence of basic human dignity, which transcends the ambit of personal autonomy:

[The ruling] is a salutary reminder that there are limits to the law’s protection of personal autonomy. Factors other than autonomy are in play in the criminal law. I have argued elsewhere that the primary factor (and the foundational factor in the criminal law – in which all other factors, including autonomy, are rooted) is human dignity.

Indeed, Foster argues that in harming another, one does violence to one’s own human dignity:

One might say that X causing injury to Y is doubly culpable because in doing so X outrages not only Y’s dignity but also his own (X’s) dignity…dignity is ‘Janus-faced’.


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