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Keep Your Laws Off My Body
Dale Carrico   Mar 22, 2004   BetterHumans  

The feminist politics of choice should embrace all forms of bodily freedom

For me, the slogan, and the feminist politics of choice, have always described more than an attitude about reproductive freedom. They've described a broader sensibility. I use the term "morphological freedom," which I have taken from an essay by Anders Sandberg, to name this broader conception of the culture and politics of choice, especially the technologically constituted proliferation of choices available for the genetic, prosthetic and cognitive modification of human bodies today and in the near-term futures we can reasonably anticipate.

The feminist politics of choice has sometimes already connected the defense of reproductive choices to other political struggles?for example, to the politics around queer forms of family and affiliation, transgender rights and resisting the disastrous contemporary War on Drugs. I think that it should be expanded further, to accommodate an affirmative politics of genetic medicine, the support of increased scientific research and education, and the protection of multiplying therapeutic options.

Exploiting ignorance and unease

On November 5, 2003, President George W. Bush signed into law the so-called "partial birth" abortion ban. The moment of the signing was captured in an image that is perfectly emblematic of the larger historical stakes in play for women in this moment. The President is seated at his desk, document and pen before him, staring a bit blankly into space. Behind him are six grinning and enthusiastically applauding men. Looming behind them are six American flags. There are no women present at all. For the bodies of women, you must turn to the text of the document itself, for the bodies of women are treated as texts on which these men are presuming to write.

I have described this law as the "so-called" partial birth abortion ban because, as it happens, no such medical procedure exists. Medical literature contains no references at all to this banned and vilified procedure. "Partial birth abortion" is a public relations creation of the anti-choice (so-called "pro-life") right, designed to conjure up a scene of profound violation that can, for the lack of a clear reference in reality, be attached in the popular imagination and subsequently in the application of law to an ever-broadening range of legitimate and affirmed medical procedures.

As technology continues to blur established biological lines, such obfuscation will only get worse.

The trajectory of technological development has introduced real perplexities into the status of profound biological experiences such as pregnancy, sexual maturation, illness, aging and death. Already, the susceptibility of organisms to prosthetic and pharmacological intervention has transformed the status of "viability" as a stable measure of just when lives can properly be said to begin or to end, or as a benchmark against which to leverage intuitions about the proper scope of such intervention.

Consider the impact of the emotional investments sometimes occasioned by early-term ultrasound imaging of fetuses in the womb, or the sometimes disturbingly agile machine-assisted afterlives of the brain-dead or irretrievably comatose. These technological spectacles delineate a crisis in traditional meaning that is exacerbated by contemporary technological developments now on an almost day to day basis.

The appalling effectiveness of the rhetoric of "partial-birth" abortion and similar anti-choice interventions lies in their exploitation of ignorance about specific procedures and capacities, as well as in their exploitation of a deep uneasiness provoked by such technological development about the biological limits of recognizable human lives more generally.

Socially conservative bioethicists such as Leon Kass, current chair of the influential US President's Council on Bioethics, deploy this kind of uneasiness like a cudgel in support of their anti-choice agendas. Kass, for instance, has notoriously urged that there is a "wisdom" we should heed in the involuntary shudders of repugnance that accompany for some the confrontation with new genetic medical technologies.

Like a divine intervention, this admonitory shuddering seizes Kass himself whenever he contemplates abortion, physician-assisted suicide, in-vitro fertilization, the radical amelioration of the diseases of aging, embryonic stem-cell research or the merest suggestion of cloning. Since a shudder of repugnance need offer no reasons in support of itself for its decisive force to be felt, one has to wonder (even if you find his particular sympathies and antipathies personally congenial) just how Kass would distinguish his own instinctive recoils from those occasioned in his predecessors in generations past by the contemplation of anesthesia, interracial marriage or consensual sodomy.

Family resemblance

There is a decisive family resemblance between conventional anti-choice politics that try to hijack the concept of "life" and the recent effort of many conservative bioethicists to hijack the concept of human "dignity" in the service of projects to ban and restrict therapeutic choices and avenues of medical research just to better reflect their own parochial interests and tastes (and very often it is literally the same people who are making these parallel arguments).

Conservative anti-choice politics take amazingly diverse forms, but the broad contours always seem suspiciously familiar to feminists long-used to conservative arguments against abortion rights. Last year, for example, I read about an Illinois bill to restrict surgically splitting the tongue lengthwise to produce the appearance of a snake- or lizard-like forking. Shannon Larratt, a Canadian who had his tongue split in 1996 for esthetic reasons, argued that it "can be a dangerous procedure. Now they'll force people who want this?and there are a lot of people who want this?into untrained hands."

Sound familiar?

Where should progressive futurists look to find allies in the struggle to articulate and support our morphological freedom? Facile libertarian technophiles? I judge the conceptual and strategic resources available to the feminist culture of choice far more relevant and more robust to the delineation and defense of what I am calling morphological freedom than, say, the comparably anemic "negative liberty" of the libertarian. When feminism embraces the technologies and therapies through which a desired but otherwise unavailable pregnancy is initiated, or through which an unwanted pregnancy is terminated, these reproductive freedoms provide more than a simple defense of a woman's liberty, but represent instead moments in a profoundly emancipatory technologically mediated struggle for equality and self-determination inconceivable in any "state of nature."

Already feminist sensibilities contribute indispensable perspectives to the negotiation of complex bioethical dilemmas that a "negative libertarian" framework will hopelessly oversimplify. Should growth hormone be administered by a parent to confer a positional advantage on an otherwise developmentally normal child? Does plastic surgery consolidate or subvert arbitrary and in fact damaging standards of bodily attractiveness? Will preimplantation genetic diagnosis diminish valuable human diversity even as it certainly diminishes human suffering? Is the advocacy of physician-assisted suicide a way of defending individual autonomy or does it amount instead to encouraging valuable human beings to leave the scene rather than spending the resources in health care and social support that would help many who are suicidal feel their lives are worth living? And so on.

Added benefits

While adding a welter of new technological quandaries to the politics of choice may seem to risk an evacuation of the real urgency of pro-choice politics in the specificity of their reproductive applications, emphasizing the range of their affinity and connection to other vital struggles seems to me just as likely to strengthen them in that specificity even as it illuminates those other struggles.

By embracing the technological forces that would expand the reach of reasonable individual choices over once-definitive biological limits, a hopeful radical feminist politics of choice can seize the initiative away from the conservative politics of fear in this most intimate collision of technology with individual human bodies. This more hopeful politics of technological possibility is necessary to turn the tide against recent conservative successes that limit our access to contraceptive procedures and reproductive technologies as well as to reasonable and life-saving sex education practices and a whole host of related issues.

It would also put us in a more credible position to resist a few developmental pathways that really are too dangerous by objective measures (reproductive cloning, at least for now, is such an example), to protect our right and capacity to choose the ways in which development impinges on our own narratives of personal meaningfulness, as well as to plausibly regulate technological development to ensure that its costs and risks as well as its benefits are distributed fairly among all the stakeholders to that development.

Human dignity, surely, is not diminished by a proliferation of the choices available to us, nor by the spectacle of the play of the choices we make. Dignity, it seems to me, demands freedom above all.

This column is a version of a paper entitled "Keep Your Laws Off of My Body!" that was delivered on March 11, 2004 at the 13th Annual Boundaries in Question Conference. Held at the University of California at Berkeley, this year's conference had the theme "Feminists Face the Future: New Feminist Perspectives on Biotechnology and Bioethics."

Dale Carrico Ph.D. was a fellow of the IEET from 2004 to 2008 and is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

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