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Rethinking the body and its boundaries

Editorial for the 9(1) issue of the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry

By Leigh E. Rich, Michael A. Ashby, and Pierre-Olivier Méthot

Until recently, the idea that the nature of the body is a contested matter may have seemed to many people, whether inside or beyond the ivory tower, as but another sign of the silliness of the academy. Advances in biotechnology such as organ transplantation, assisted reproductive techniques (ART), genetics, stem cell research, enhancement, and regenerative medicine have made use of and manipulated bodies in increasingly fantastic ways, offering us—academician and layman alike—new eyes with which to view the body and unprecedented vantage points from which to consider what it means to be embodied. The discussion on the nature and limits of human bodies is a special case of a more general problem: a matter of individuality and individuation of biological entities. The human body is a particular instance of living organisms, and the frontiers of the body in the case of an animal constructing its milieu are sometimes no less clear than in the more familiar cases of organ transplants, and so on. The necessity of understanding the body as more than “natural object,” of course, is not new (see, e.g., Wolfe and Gal 2010 for a discussion of the body as both an “object” and an “instrument” of research, knowledge, and power in the 17th and 18th centuries). Western scientific history has papered its ivy-covered walls with bodies that have been curiously prodded and oftentimes callously dismissed; we need only look for such horrific evidence to the anthropological collections of indigenous bodies, the anatomical dissection and pathological displays of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the medical experimentation on vulnerable people and populations in the name of progress or profits, the removal of pituitary glands for growth hormone, and the development and use of cells lines (see, for example, Skloot 2010 and the story of Henrietta Lacks). Today, however, the obligation to attend to the body as something more than biomedical plastic—even as we fracture it into smaller and smaller parts—hits closer to home, and theoretical movements such as embodiment and bioethical exhortations to contemplate what human dignity might exist in bodily tissues appear less the “touchy-feely,” liberal thinking of professors with too much time on their hands and more a real danger that needs to be taken seriously. This is because biotechnology has brought the cause to its own shores: to bodies in the developed world, not merely those of “others” from a century ago or cultures one might read about in National Geographic. [continued …]

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Rich, Leigh E., Michael A. Ashby, and Pierre-Olivier Méthot. 2012. Rethinking the body and its boundaries. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 9(1): 1–6.

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