Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Keep Your Laws Off My Body

I first heard the slogan, "Keep your laws off my body!" as an activist well over a decade ago, when I was still in my 20s. But I cannot remember if it was in a rally decrying the sodomy laws that were still on the books in Georgia, where I lived at the time, or in a march to defend a woman's "right to choose" against conservative legal assaults.

For me, the slogan, and the feminist politics of "Choice," have always described more than an attitude about reproductive freedom. They've described a much broader, much more radical sensibility. In fact, I tend to think the conventional word "choice" is altogether too anemic to capture what is at stake in this broader sensibility. At the heart of the politics of bodily self-determination, or "choice," is much more than the "right" of docile liberal consumers to select options from some menu created and maintained by others.

Bodily self-determination is a project to expand the sphere of bodies and of embodied lives that are taken as socially legible, as lives worth living, as lives with standing. It is a demand for freedom construed as a responsibility enabled by responsiveness, as a self-creation enabled by collaboration, as an autonomy enabled by interdependence, as an informed consent enabled by the permanent possibility of forgiveness.

Too often "choice" amounts to little more than a sad stand-in for and domestication of the freedom that is at stake in that joyous and righteous demand for bodily self-determination: Keep Your Laws Off My Body!

And so, I use the term "morphological freedom," which I have appropriated from an essay by Anders Sandberg, to name this broader conception of the culture and politics of bodily self-determination and "choice." I use it especially to connect up the cultural politics of responsible embodied self-creation with the problems and promises inhering in the emerging technologically constituted proliferation of techniques available for the genetic, prosthetic and cognitive modification of human bodies and embodied human lives today and in the near-term futures we can reasonably anticipate.

The feminist politics of bodily self-determination have sometimes already connected the defense of reproductive decisions to other political struggles -- for example, to the politics around queer forms of family and affiliation, transgender rights, end of life issues, resisting the disastrous contemporary War on Drugs, and so on. I think that the feminist politics of bodily self-determination should be expanded further still, to accommodate an affirmative politics of genetic medicine, the support of increased scientific research and education, and the facilitation of multiplying therapeutic options.

Ignorance Has Its Uses

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 a host of grinning and enthusiastically applauding men. Looming behind them are a host of 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 occasionally banned and vilified procedure. "Partial birth abortion" is a public relations creation of the anti-choice (so-called "pro-life") conservative Right, designed to conjure up a scene of profound grisly violation that can, for the lack of any clear reference in reality, attach in the popular imagination and subsequently in the applications 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 embodied life-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 as well as cultural limits of recognizable and hence meaningful human lives more generally.

Socially conservative and bioconservative bioethicists such as Leon Kass, retired chair of the influential United States President's Council on Bioethics, eagerly 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 seem to accompany for him and some others practically any 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 bioconservative 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).

Bioconservative technophobic politics take amazingly diverse forms, but the broad contours will 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?

But where should technoprogressives look to find allies in the struggle to articulate and support our morphological freedom? To the usual facile market libertarian technophiles for whom the demands of freedom require little more than signing on to a contract, however prevailing conditions might duress its terms? I judge the conceptual and strategic resources available to the feminist culture of bodily self-determination or "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 market 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.

Morphological Freedom Fighters

While adding a welter of new technological quandaries to the politics of "Choice" may seem to risk an evacuation of the real urgency of conventional "pro-choice" politics in the specificity of their reproductive applications at a time when women's rights to bodily self-determination are under attack as never before. But I think and hope that emphasizing the range of affinity and connection to other vital struggles for responsible embodied self-creation is just as likely to strengthen feminist politics in that specificity even as it illuminates those other struggles.

By embracing the technological forces that would expand the reach of reasonable self-determination over once-definitive biological limits, a hopeful radical responsible feminist politics of self-creation can seize the initiative away from the conservative and bioconservative politics of fear in this most intimate collision of technologies 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 decide ourselves and in private secure consultation with trusted authorities the ways in which technological transformation will impinge 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 all distributed fairly among all the stakeholders to that development.

Human dignity, surely, is not diminished by the proliferation of the decisions we can make, nor by the spectacle of the ongoing play of human self-determination in all its promising, forgiving, coping, pleasure, suffering, standing. Dignity, it seems to me, demands freedom above all.

This piece is a slightly edited and expanded version of a column that appeared at BetterHumans, March 22, 2004. That column was adapted itself from a paper delivered on March 11, 2004 at the 13th Annual Boundaries in Question Conference, "Feminists Face the Future: New Feminist Perspectives on Biotechnology and Bioethics," held at the University of California at Berkeley.

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