Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Who Owns Our Bodies – and Who Says So?

Think philosophy is dry and esoteric? Think again. Last week’s edition of “Philosophy Talk” on NPR featured a lively, provocative discussion on who really owns our bodies. You can’t get more up close and personal than that.

We’ve had a divisive and simmering debate for decades about a women’s right to make her own reproductive choices, including aborting a fetus. But what about other “who’s really in charge” questions such as does a country have a right to draft men and women as soldiers, can a state mandate parents to submit their children to vaccinations and should local communities add fluoride to municipal water supplies or schools make it easy on campus for kids to buy soda pop and candy?

surrogacy for hireAnd that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They are more subterranean questions that raise deeper emotions. Should a woman be allowed to lease her womb as a surrogate mother or provide sexual favors for cash? Or what about people selling off body parts when they die – or, in the case of a kidney, before they die? Should people decide when they die?

Philosophy is the quest for universal meaning in thought. Philosophers try to bring order to chaotic ideas and events. They strive to illuminate why things are by describing what things are. Is the table real or just a perception? Do people have free will or are they predestined to their fate? Is truth found through empiricism or intuition?

Arguments have raged for centuries and are likely to continue until the end of time, at least time as we know it. For most people, the search for truth has the same quality as blah, blah, blah. But make the search of truth about your body and you grab attention.

Body with price tagsWhat’s quickly clear is that many of us aren’t consistent in our thinking. Some us believe women have the right to make their own reproductive decisions without interference by the state, but we also believe the state should compel parents to see that their children are vaccinated. Others have the exact opposite point of view on those subjects. Both sides have a rationale, but neither side is consistent.

The inconsistency comes into clearer focus when you extend thought to what may be called more extreme examples. If women should have the right to decide whether to have an abortion, might they also have the right to lease their womb? If people can be conscripted to fight a war and face the threat of losing a limb in battle, should they have be able to sell a body part if they die?

Most of us are unprepared – or unwilling – to wrestle with such questions, especially on a quiet Sunday morning after reading the newspaper and sipping coffee. The enduring value of philosophy is that it doesn’t let questions like that slip quietly into the night. Ready or not, here they are, plopped squarely in front of your face.

I honestly don’t know what I think about commercial surrogacy or selling your body parts after death. However, contemplating these issues suggests stepping back from strongly held views long enough to consider more fundamental principles.

Philosophers and donutsPhilosophical debates rarely produce consensus, and perhaps aren’t really to intend to harmonize the world. Their role is to question and to provoke with the aim of a higher-level understanding of facts on the ground. Many times the results of philosophical debates is to see with greater clarity where disagreements lie and how they may be overcome or accommodated.

There is little hope the debate over abortion will ever be civil again. It is as polarized as it is polarizing. But placed into a larger context of who controls our bodies – and on what authority – could help all of us see beyond our own view to greater truth. And that may come in handy sooner than we think when issues we never barely imagined – such as tinkering with the genetic raw material of life or implanting electronic devices in our bodies – suddenly fall into our laps.


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