Our Bodies, Whose Property? by Anne Phillips (Princeton), $27.95/£19.95
What, if anything, is special about the body such that it should not be put up for sale? Do we own our own bodies? Do we have a right to decide what happens in and to our bodies to the extent that we can do what we want with our bodies? These are timely questions, not just for current research about organ donation or the sale of body parts and surrogacy, but also for philosophy, since the topic of a right to bodily autonomy has not been very widely tapped, even though it is routinely appealed to in medical ethics and feminist literature.
Anne Phillips argues against the notion of bodily ownership, citing it as the source of individualistic views that stand in the way of altruism and seeing ourselves as part of a world in which we have in common our bodies and their vulnerabilities. She urges moving away from the notion that “It’s my body and I can do what I want with it, short of trampling the rights of others.” Phillips believes that we have bodily integrity, and likely believes that we have a right to bodily autonomy, but her focus is on bodily ownership and whether this notion is a useful frame for bodily rights, which she denies.
The notion of self-ownership is appealing, especially to marginalised persons, because it can be used to ground prohibiting others using one’s body, and to assert self-control. For feminists, probably the most important issue that has relied on the language of bodily ownership is that of rape: rape has been seen as theft of what one owns, or as an illegitimate boundary crossing, or as merely a mind crime in the sense that it is merely sex minus consent. Phillips objects that the theft and mind crime interpretations are wrong because they treat the body and the mind as two distinct entities and thus do not acknowledge rape as an embodied experience suffered by the whole person; they bracket out the body in a way that is problematic because the body is what links us to every other person. The boundary crossing interpretation is wrong in part because it denies that sexuality is an activity and not a mere physical act; as such it recommends that the victim disconnect herself from others who cross her boundary, when reconnecting with humanity – by allowing others to acknowledge the victim’s equal humanity – is crucial to regaining autonomy.
The main reason Phillips urges us away from thinking of the body in terms of property we own is that property talk is alienating in that it keeps persons apart when we are connected by the fact that we all have in common our bodies and their nourishment, pain, and potential vulnerability. Thinking of others in these terms helps prevent unequal treatment. Nevertheless, I think that property talk is significant for feminists. For example, on the issue of abortion rights: “It’s my body and I have a right to determine what happens in and to it,” is an important dictum, one that acknowledges the fundamental fact that we come into the world and go out of it with our bodies, that our lives and deaths are necessarily and inevitably solitary events, and that we each feel pain and pleasure only in our own bodies, not in the bodies of others.
Despite Phillips’s emphasis on the body, she finds it difficult to say what is special about the body that would ground restrictions on surrogacy, organ sales, and the like. She says surrogacy should be completely banned, or allowed only between close relatives and friends, or it should involve compensation for the surrogate rather than being seen as a gift or as a paid service. That is, she does not want surrogacy on the paid market for fear of exploitation, but for those women who agree to bear a child for someone else under strict conditions of consent and such, they ought to be compensated for their labour. Her argument for compensating surrogacy is that many surrogates get satisfaction out of providing this service to infertile or gay couples. At the same time, she acknowledges that surrogacy reinforces a traditional gender-hierarchical division of labour, where women are seen as mainly mothers. Property rights play no role in this argument, the emphasis being instead on group harm.
In contrast with Phillips, I think that group harm arguments often get their grounding in individualistic concerns; we first notice limitations on surrogates’ bodily freedom, and then notice that it is solely women’s bodies that are mistreated, realising that women are expected to undergo such treatment because they are stereotyped as mere baby machines. Perhaps we simply need to revise what we mean by property: we own our bodies in the sense that we are our bodies … and in a more literal sense than we “are” our books or our friends. We live and die with our bodies, feel pain and pleasure with them, and we just don’t experience life with other people’s bodies in the same way. These facts should undergird any arguments about what happens in and to our bodies.