In the name of science, Rich Lee has done things to his body that most of us wouldn't dare imagine. He's implanted permanent earbuds in his ears that allow him to listen to music on the sly. He's implanted magnets in his finger and experimented with eyedrops that would allow him to see in the dark. Most recently, he installed tubes of armor under the skin of his leg to act as a sort of built-in shin guard.
Lee is what's known as a grinder, part of a community of biohackers that use their own bodies as laboratories to push the limits of the human form. The human body, they reason, is a machine that can be "hacked" for improvement in the same way you might add features to a computer or a car. Lee sees himself as a mad scientist, tinkering with his own physicality in search of perfection.
But to Lee's ex-wife, his biohacking isn't just an odd hobby—it's a disturbing and potentially dangerous one that makes him a worse parent. She's arguing in court that it poses such a hazard to their kids that Lee shouldn't get custody of them.
When Lee divorced from his wife last November, they split the custody of their 9-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. Then last month, after Lee's shin surgery, his wife filed a motion to give her full custody, citing Lee's biohacking as the primary reason.
"I stopped sharing joint physical custody," the motion says, "because Rich has chosen to expose our children to his disturbing behavior of do-it-yourself surgeries and bio-hacking."
His ex-wife did not respond to a request for comment through her attorney, but her court filings lay her position out clearly. "I am disturbed by Rich’s self-destructive behavior," the motion reads, "and believe it has a negative impact on our children."
Lee's tinkering, in other words, isn't self-improvement—it's self-mutilation. Lee counts himself among the camp of hackers and scientists who don't necessarily view the human body in its natural form as better. Their growing contingency, though, faces a stiff opposition from a majority of people who feel messing with nature is a slippery slope.
When he's not playing mad scientist, Lee manages a warehouse for a packaging sales firm in southwestern Utah. He got into biohacking back in 2008. He was flipping through old magazines left behind by his recently deceased grandmother, and found himself upset by headlines from decades past promising things like the end of disease and eternal life.
"I was upset at futurism," he told me. "All these predictions just never came true."
If Lee wanted to live in a transhumanist utopia, he decided he was going to have to make it for himself.
He started small—a magnet in his finger, an RFID chip in his hand. Over the years, Lee's experiments playing Frankenstein with his own body became increasingly extreme. He documented them on YouTube, turning him into a fixture of the grinder community. His latest project in development is the Lovetron9000, an implant he hopes will turn his man parts into a bionic, vibrating penis.
"Making implants and other kinds of mad science is my passion in life," Lee told me. "And my kids have always been really proud of it."
According to her legal filing, Lee's ex-wife had always been disturbed by her husband's surgeries, but she says they became more extreme recently.
"He has gotten several implants this past year and they are increasingly more invasive and dangerous," his ex-wife's motion reads. "It also concerns me that he is dismissive of the impact his self-surgeries have on the children. He posts them on social media and YouTube; our kids can easily access either."
Lee's ex-wife argues that exposing their kids to the sometimes gruesome world of DIY implants is not good for the kids.
In addition to restricting custody to just visitation rights, her motion asks the court to bar Lee from "involving the children in or exposing the children to his bio-hacking/trans-human/grinder lifestyle and activities."
But Lee argues that his kids have always been curious and enthusiastic about his strange hobby. He doesn't let his kids see the grizzly stuff. And his kids, he said, love bragging to friends about their "cyborg dad."
Horrified at the thought of losing custody of his kids, Lee started a GoFund me campaign to raise money for a lawyer, asking people to "help cyborg Dad regain custody."
"I strongly believe that one's body is theirs to do what they want with. I choose to customize mine through various technological interventions.," he wrote on his GoFund me campaign page. "That does not make me an unfit parent and shouldn't make my kids love me less. I fear that the courts system in my small conservative town will not understand that parents being into body modification and biohacking ARE NOT FORMS OF CHILD ABUSE."
So far, he's raised more than $6,000 and sparked outrage among the biohacker community. In a time when technophobia is in the zeitgeist—when Americans are wary of the effects of genetic engineering and other sci-fi sounding advancements—it's easy to view Lee's case as a referendum on biohacking itself. Implanting armor into your shins doesn't just make you audacious and perhaps a little wacky—it could make you unfit to be a parent to your kids.
"I believe in a person's right to augment their body however they want," Lee told me. "If one parent is trans or gets a tattoo or whatever, it doesn't change their ability to love a kid."