pregnancy loss

Who owns my body?

by Ciaran Guilfoyle a guest blogger who works in local government and lives in Derby with his wife and two sons.

There are perhaps three key ideas that are repeated over and over (and over) again in Ann Furedi’s book The Moral Case for Abortion. The first of these is that all morality boils down to the individual choice not the wider outcome; the second is that the concept of ‘person’ is reserved only for those humans who are self-aware and who know what they want out of life; the third is the least contentious (but equally wrong) proposition that women are the owners of their bodies. It is the least contentious idea because in these ‘liberated’ times everyone assumes it to be a truism. Indeed, a common response to the pro-choice argument which invokes this idea is to counter with the argument that the child carried by the pregnant woman also has a right to its own body, which the woman has no right to subvert. Both the mother and baby have body-ownership rights, and – provided neither impinges detrimentally on the other – both should be respected. This was in fact the position which until 25 May 2018 was preserved in the Irish Constitution.

In her book Furedi claims not only that ‘the right to ownership…is central to women’s right to abortion’ (page 105) but also that ‘this notion that “my body belongs to me”…lay behind the introduction of [the legal principle of] habeas corpus (that persons cannot be detained without cause) in 1628′ (page 112). In the chapter entitled ‘Because Women Are People’ Furedi invokes the notion of body ownership many times, and presumably she believes that this is the best defence against the state assuming ownership of an individual. But ownership of one’s body is not as straightforward as all that, and certainly not the bulwark of freedom she thinks it is.

For one thing, to claim ownership of a body conceptually separates the body from its owner, and we are left with two entities instead of one. Any legal rights then attach to the owner, and the body becomes merely a piece of property to be dispensed with alongside other valuable belongings. Such property rights include the right to buy and sell. So, in theory, if one owned one’s own body then one could sell oneself into slavery.

The abolition of slavery was a great leap forward in human freedom. But perhaps the current concern with modern slavery – with its highly exploitative labour processes and its methods of confining modern slaves (usually against their will) – has obscured our understanding of what slavery actually was. Classical slavery did not necessarily mean such harsh working and living conditions. Indeed, in Greek times many slaves (certainly those with generous and humane owners) enjoyed more privileges than free men. So slavery is not defined by working and living conditions. Its key characteristic is rather that of property ownership. To state the obvious: the slave owner legally owned the body of the slave. The abolition of slavery therefore consisted not in improving conditions, but in abolishing the legal concept of ownership of human bodies.

The legal sphere has proven quite resistant to the re-introduction of this concept, as numerous cases concerning ownership of dead bodies illustrate. Even after death, when it is truly an inanimate object, the body cannot be owned. Unfortunately, however, a number of judgements in relation to body parts have in recent years begun to undermine this position. When artist Anthony-Noel Kelly used body parts taken from the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) to make an art installation for the London Contemporary Art Fair in 1997 he was charged not with outraging the public decency but with theft, which carries a higher sentence. So, for the sake of a stronger conviction, the court had to grant that the taken body parts were in fact the property of the RCS, which had (according to the court) invested its time and skill in their removal. The Alder Hey organs scandal in the 1990s also added to this commodification of the body by introducing the idea of ‘consent’. It is now legal for a hospital to be the effective owner of a body part, provided consent has been obtained. But consent from whom? If a body cannot be owned in the first place, who can really grant consent? So despite the fundamental legal protection against slavery contained in the notion that a body cannot be owned, there seem to be occasional moves to undermine this idea.

The strongest argument against both slavery and outraging the public decency is not to say “I own my body” but rather “No one owns my body; I am my body”. Ann Furedi no doubt prides herself on the work she does seemingly in the name of freedom, but her pro-choice argument about women being owners of their own bodies does nothing to protect anyone (female, pregnant, or neither) from future incursions on freedom that could result from the body being seen as someone’s property. Her way of looking at things takes us a step closer to a society in which slavery becomes once again imaginable.

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