Friday, September 22, 2006

Switching your bait and tackle

The world's first penis translant took place recently and a report on the operation will be published next month in European Urology. But the press has already given out some of the non-technical details. A 44-year old Chinese man had an accident this year that left him with a 1 cm long stump where his Johnson should be, and rendered him unable to urinate or have sexual intercourse. The parents of a brain-dead 22 year old man agreed to donate their son's organ to the older man, and the Chinese microsurgeons went to work. Medically, the operation seemed fairly successful, but after two weeks the man decided to have his new penis removed, because it was causing psychological problems for both the man and his wife. Better no penis than someone else's, seemed to be their rationale.

It is an interesting ethical issue. On the one hand, a penis seems to be not as personal as those controversial tranplant items, i.e. faces or hands. As the cliche goes, if you have seen one, you have seen them all. On the other hand, the penis is both flesh and symbol, deeply prized, fetished and the source of multiple anxieties, as David Friedman has illustrated in his A Mind of its Own: The Cultural History of the Penis. Whatever the penis' magic power may be, you don't just sew somebody else's on and expect things to be fine.

Or don't you? As we have seen with other developments involving reproduction, what is first an object of revulsion may become an object of desire. With all the consumer demand for penis enlargement and drugs to combat erectile dysfunction, who knows, maybe some healthy men, in search of enhancement, will want a penis translant if the technique is made safe and has good results. One can count on someone saying that having a longer penis, via transplant technology, is a human right. And no doubt, an underground market in male members would emerge, similar to markets now in kidneys and lungs. The movie possibilities are endless.

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