The Body and the Quest for Control: Appreciating the Complex Nature of Human Embodiment

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The situation that we face in our fast-paced, fitness and youth oriented culture is this: bodies are thought of increasingly as the exclusive property of an individual for him or her to do with as he or she sees fit. Bodies are construed as malleable and “constructable.” We are all enjoined to “get with the program,” to hop on board and not remain stuck in superstition that urges restraint or even curtailment of genetic and biological engineering.

The heart of the matter lies in a loss of appreciation of the complex nature of human embodiment. The social imagination declares the body to be a construction, something we can invent. We are loathe to grant the status of givenness to any aspect of ourselves, despite the fact that human babies are wriggling, complex, little bodies pre-programmed with all sorts of delicately calibrated reactions to the human relationships ‘nature’ presumes will be matrix of child nurture. If we think of bodies concretely in this way, we are propelled to ask ourselves questions about the world little human bodies enter: is it welcoming, warm, responsive? But if we tilt the bio-tech constructivist direction, one in which the body is so much raw material to be worked upon and worked over, the surround in which bodies are situated fades as The Body gets enshrined as a kind of messianic project.

In this latter scenario, the body we currently inhabit becomes the imperfect body subject to chance and the vagaries of life, including illness and aging. This body is our foe. The future-perfect body extolled in manifestos, promised by enthu­siasts, embraced by many ordinary citizens—is a gleaming fabrication. For soon, we are promised, we will have found a way around the fact that what our foremothers and forefathers took for granted—that the body must weaken and falter and one day pass from life to death—will soon be a relic of a by-gone era. The future-perfect body will not be permitted to falter. Yes, the body may grow older in a strictly chronological sense, but why should we age? So we devise multiple strategies to fend off aging even as we represent aging bodies as those of teen-agers with gleaming gray hair.

A New York Times Magazine lead article on “The Recycled Generation” extolled the “promise of an endless supply of new body parts” via stem cell research, although that research is now “bogged down in abortion politics and corporate rivalries.”[1] One of the entrepreneurs who stands to make even more millions of dollars in what the article calls the “scientific chase” for “the mother of all cells—the embryonic stem cell”—bemoans the fact that the rush forward is being slowed down by a terrible problem, namely, the “knee jerk reaction” on the part of many people to “words like ‘fetal’ and ‘embryo.’”

The image that comes bounding out of the piece is that genetic innovators who face opposition from religious and superstitious people, who go “completely irrational” when they hear certain words, are nonetheless fearlessly forging ahead in the teeth of sustained opposition—thus reversing the actual situation in which critics are the ones fighting a rear-guard battle against powerful, moneyed, influential cultural forces that, in line with the story our culture likes to tell about itself, represent progress and a better future.[2] The upshot is that, rather than approaching matters of life, death, and health with humility, knowing that we cannot cure the human condition, we seek cures in the assumption that the more we control the better.

As I was working on this essay, word came that a human embryo had been cloned. Probably a fraud, in this particular case, but the most interesting thing is the media reaction to this announcement. Television commentary resounded with the promise that this will make possible, in the future, an endless supply of body parts that can be harvested to indefinitely prolong human life. Thus, even before a grown clone appears—and let us pray this does not happen—the clone is reduced to property to be harvested for the benefit of others.

The underlying presupposition is, of course, that nothing is good in itself, including embodied existence. Thus it becomes easier to be rather casual about devising and implementing strategies aimed at selective weeding out or the destruction of the bodies of those considered imperfect or abnormal or even the bodies of the “perfect” if that human entity is cloned. Questions about whether the path we are racing down might not turn old age itself into a pathology and usher at one point into cultural “encouragement” for the “unproductive” elderly to permit themselves to be euthanized because they are extra mouths to feed and a nuisance to just about everybody are cast as part of a science fiction dystopian mentality.

It is difficult to overstate just how widely accepted the technocratic view is and how overwhelmingly we, as a culture, are acquiescing in its premises. In a review in the Times Literary Supplement of four new books on the genetic revolution, the reviewer matter-of-factly opined, “we must inevitably start to choose our descendants,” adding that we do this now in “permitting or preventing the birth of our own children according to their medical prognosis, thus selecting the lives to come.” This point is considered so unexceptionable it is not argued for but, rather, merely assumed, taken as a given. As long as society does not cramp our freedom of action, we will stay on the road of progress and exercise sovereign choice over birth by consigning to death those with a less than stellar potential for a life not “marred by an excess of pain or disability.”[3]

Molecular biologist Robert Sinsheimer calls for a “new eugenics,” a word most try to avoid given its association with the bio-political ideology of mid-twentieth century National Socialism. Sinsheimer writes: “The new eugenics would permit in principle the conversion of all the unfit to the highest genetic level.”[4] In widespread adoption of prenatal screening, now regarded as routine, so much so that prospective parents who decline this panoply of procedures are treated as irresponsible, we see at work the presumption that life should be wiped clean of any and all imperfection, inconvenience, and risk. Creation itself must be put right.

The New York Times alerted us to this fact in an essay, “On Cloning Humans, ‘Never’ Turns Swiftly into ‘Why Not’” by their science editor, Gina Kolata.[5] Kolata points out that, in the immediate aftermath of Dolly—the cloned sheep who stared out at us from the covers of so many newspapers and magazines—there was much consternation and rumbling.[6] But opposition dissipated quickly, she continues, with fertility centers soon conducting “experiments with human eggs that lay the groundwork for cloning. Moreover, the Federal Government is supporting new research on the cloning of monkeys, encouraging scientists to perfect techniques that could easily be transferred to humans.” A presidential ethics commission, under President Clinton, may have recommended a “limited ban on cloning humans,” but, after all, “it is an American tradition to allow people the freedom to reproduce in any way they like”—according to Lawrence Tribe of Harvard Law School.

This claim is simply a distortion of the historic and legal record. In common with any society of which we have any knowledge, past or present, American society has built into its interstices a variety of limitations on “reproductive freedom.” But the view that “freedom” means doing things in “any way one likes” now prevails as a cultural desideratum.[7] It is, therefore, unsurprising that The New York Times describes a “slow acceptance” of the idea of cloning in the scientific community that took but six months to go from shock and queasiness to acquiescence and widespread approval. The article concludes that, “some experts said the real question was not whether cloning is ethical but whether it is legal.” And one doctor is quoted in these words: “‘The fact is that, in America, cloning may be bad but telling people how they should reproduce is worse . . . In the end . . . America is not ruled by ethics. It is ruled by law.’”

The implication of this view is that no ethical norm, standard, commitment, or insight can or should be brought to bear whether to criticize, to caution against, or to checkmate statutory laws should they be unjust or unwise. The point is that with each new development that is presented to us in the name of a radical and benign extension of human freedom and powers, we pave additional miles on the fast track toward eradication of any real integrity to the category of “the human.” Debate and discourse about such matters in the public square has turned into a routine in which a few religious spokesmen or women are brought on board to fret a bit and everything marches on.[8]


[1] Stephen S. Hall, “The Recycled Generation,” The New York Times Magazine (January 30, 2000, pp. 30-35, 46, 74-79.)

[2] Ibid., p.32.

[3] But who defines excess? This is a squishy soft criterion that now comes into play at present for such 'abnormalities' as cleft palate.

[4] Quoted from the Journal of Engineering and Science in Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge, pp. l93-l94. The literature of reportage, enthusiasm, concern, et. al., is nearly out of control. A few magazine and newspaper pieces worth reading include: Jim Yardley, “Investigators Say Embryologist Knew He Erred in Egg Mix-Up,” The New York Times (Saturday, April l7, l999), p. Al3; Martin Lupton, “Test-tube questions,” The Tablet (20 February l999), pp. 259-260; David L. Marcus, “Mothers with another's eggs,” U .S. News and World Report (April l3, l999), pp. 42-44; Nicholas Wade, “Panel Told of Vast Benefits of Embryo Cells,” The New York Times (Thursday, December 3, l998, p. A24); Anne Taylor Fleming, “Why I Can’t Use Someone Else's Eggs,” Newsweek (April l2, l999), p. l2; Nicholas Wade, “Gene Study Bolsters Hope for Treating Diseases of Aging,” The New York Times (Friday, March 5, l999, p. Al2); Lisa Belkiun, “Splice Einstein and Sammy Glick. Add a Little Magellan,” The New York Times Magazine (August 23, l998, pp. 26-3l, 56-6l). A chilling piece that shows the many ways in which geno-enthusiasm and commodification fuse; Stephanie Armour, “Could your genes hold you back?” USA Today (Wednesday, May 5, l999, pp. Bl-2). An example of how the bizarre becomes commonplace is Gina Kolata, “Scientists Place Jellyfish Genes into Monkeys,” The New York Times (Thursday, December 23, l999, pp. l-20.) We have normalized the preposterous and do not even ask: why on earth would anyone do that—put jellyfish genes into monkeys?

[5] The article begins on p. l and continues on page Al7 of the Times for that day.

[6] This foreboding also comes through in Bryan Appleyard, Brave New Worlds. Staying Human in the Genetic Future (New York: Viking, l998.)

[7] I cannot here deal with the commercialization of genetics but the huge profits to be made drive much of the scientific and technological work, alas. See, for example, Lisa Belkin, “Splice Einstein and Sammy Glick. Add a Little Magellan,” New York Times Magazine (August 23, l998, pp. 26-3l.)

[8] Think, by the way, of what this would have done to Martin Luther King's protest: simply stopped it dead in the tracks. For the law of the Jim Crow South was the law of segregation. And no ethical argument can challenge the law. End of story. A comeback would be that you need to make a legal argument to change the law. But King's call for legal change was an ethical call. The reductive argument that law and ethics must never touch is a crude form of legal positivism, or command-obedience legal theory. What is right doesn’t enter into the picture at all.