Margaret Brazier
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Your living body
‘Temple of the soul’
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Chapter 7 examines the attitude of the common law and canon law to the living body. It asks how far your body was truly yours to do as you chose with. The answer proved to be – ‘not wholly yours’. Were you a married woman, the several legal incapacities imposed on married women effectively granted sovereignty over your body to your husband. While the courts developed trespass against the person to affirm patients’ rights to say no to their doctor, common and canon law placed limits on what any individual could choose to do or have done to their body. The law set its face against any notion that men or women owned their bodies prohibiting many but not all forms of self-mutilation. The antique crime of maim which limited what any subject of the Crown could have done, or do, to their bodies is considered. And it will be shown that even if maim is obsolete its ghost lives on. Re-attired as ‘public interest’, the House of Lords in R v Brown held that the victim’s consent alone was insufficient to render infliction of actual bodily harm lawful. Harm must be justified in the public interest. In nearly all cases surgery, be it performed in 1500 or 2023, involves harm above the bar set in Brown. But it will be shown that the legality of reasonable surgery was tacitly acknowledged. The gradual recognition of the ‘medical exception’ justifying responsible medical treatment is addressed.

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Law and healing

A history of a stormy marriage

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