Replicating spinal cord injuries in Saudi Arabia

Last week there was a news story about a man who faced the prospect of having a spinal cord injury inflicted on him surgically in Saudi Arabia as an Islamically-prescribed retaliatory penalty. The usual penalty for bodily injuries in Islam, if the victim insists on it, is retaliation in kind whether the injury consists of a punch to the face or the loss of an eye — or both. For someone to be surgically paralysed is going to seem somewhat extreme to a lot of people even if they would normally understand the principle of retaliation.

The best version of this story is this one from the New Zealand Herald. What it makes clear is that the leading hospital in Saudi Arabia, the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, said it couldn’t be done and wasn’t ethical according to the Saudi newspaper Okaz. Whether any other hospital will do it remains to be seen. Cutting through people’s spinal cords isn’t exactly what doctors do every day but the surgery has its uses — people with spinal cord injuries often experience spasms, and if you cut below the level of an existing injury, it can relieve that problem. A lot of doctors will consider that deliberately paralysing a healthy man, even in these circumstances, is against the oath they took when they became doctors.

As brother Abu Eesa points out here (and here), the norm is for the judge to really beg the victim’s family to pardon the assailant or accept financial compensation. In addition, if it is not possible to replicate the exact injury, then retaliation is no longer an option and financial compensation is what is appropriate, and this is particularly true with internal injuries. It is virtually impossible to replicate the effects of one spinal cord injury upon another person, particularly if the injury is incomplete, because everyone’s nervous system is slightly different.

But depending on where the injury happens, even a complete injury can have very different effects from person to person. The C4 area (the fourth vertebra down in the neck), for example, is one where there is a great deal of variation: some may have some arm function, enough to steer their wheelchair (invariably a powered one), feed themselves or drive; others have no arm function at all. Some with a C6 injury will be able to look after themselves entirely, others will need someone to help wash and dress them, and so on. Spinal cord injuries also often lead to complications, and they will be different from person to person (some will become incontinent, others over-continent and needing to use a catheter, for example). These are, I imagine, impossible to replicate.

So, despite this story grossing out a lot of people and becoming another excuse for people to call Islamic law barbaric (much as happens every time an obscure scholar from the Saudi interior issues a bizarre fatwa), there is a strong chance that the punishment won’t in fact happen at all. What has been reported is that the victim has demanded it — two years after the event, and after his assailant has already done jail time — and that the judge has investigated the possibility, but that’s not the same thing as a man already having been paralysed.

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