Your Body, Your Choice: Fight for Your Somatic Rights

By Kyle Munkittrick | June 20, 2011 12:18 pm

“My body, my choice.” We hear that slogan constantly, but what the hell do those four words mean?

Many of us have one or two political issues surrounding our bodies that get us fired up. Many of you reading this right now probably have some hot-button issue on your mind. Maybe it’s abortion, or recreational drug usage, or marriage rights, or surrogate pregnancy, or assisted suicide, or sex work, or voluntary amputation, or gender reassignment surgery.

For each of these issues, there are four words that define our belief about our rights, “My body, my choice.” How you react to those words determine which side of any of those debates you are on. That’s just the thing, though – there aren’t a bunch of little debates, there is just one big debate being argued on multiple fronts. All of these issues find their home in my field of philosophy: bioethics. And within the bioethics community, there is a small contingency that supports a person’s right to choose what to do with their body in every single one of those examples. Transhumanists make up part of that contingency.

If you are pro-choice on abortion or think that gender reassignment surgery is an option everyone should have, you agree with transhumanism on at least one issue. Many current political arguments are skirmishes and turf battles in what is a movement toward what one might call somatic rights. In some cases the law is clear, as it is with marriage rights or drug usage, and the arguments are over whether or not to remove, amend, or change the law. Other cases are so ambiguous that the law is struggling to define itself, as with surrogate pregnancy and voluntary amputation. And sooner or later (I’ve given up on guessing time-frames), instead of merely arguing over what we’re allowed to do with the body we’re born with, there will be debates about our rights to choose what kind of body we have. By looking at the futuristic ideas of genetic engineering and robotic prosthetic technology, we can understand how transhumanism maximizes the “my body, my choice” mantra.

We have a lot of laws about what you can’t do with your body. On the other hand, think about how many different things can be defended with “It’s my body, I’ll do what I want!” Why do we say that? The answer seems painfully obvious: because we’re the only ones who know what it’s like to have our body and it’s probably the only thing we really, truly own. No one can take your body without also taking your life – which as it turns out, is a great way to put your money where your mouth is when you’re a philosopher. Like any good philosopher, however, my job is to examine the painfully obvious. In part, because if it’s all so damn obvious, then why does every lawmaker, religious leader, and jerk with a megaphone think they have a right to tell you or me what to do with our bodies? Is it just jealousy?

Let’s say we live in the future and I have the option to get a robot body and genetically modify my brain to make myself smarter, kinder, and happier. My guess is many people would be very upset if I was traipsing around with a glorious, glistening body made of heretofore unheard of alloys with a genetically tricked-out brain. I would be a magnificent testament to science and engineering. I would be happier, healthier, and smarter. So what possible justification would the paternalists of the world have for telling me I can’t upgrade my physical body?

There are three responses:

  • Response One: “Your life is just too important for me to let you ruin it, let me set some ground rules to make sure you don’t make a decision you’ll regret later.” The paternalist rule-makers paint themselves as bearing the burden of responsibility for our lives. We don’t know what is good for us, but they do.
  • Response Two: “What about the children?” Somewhere, out there, is a person with a permanent scowl on his or her face, of whom children are frightened, who has already figured out how my robot body will hurt the children. I imagine it will involve something like “sets a bad impression.”
  • Response Three: “It breaks with tradition and is immoral.” Understand here that tradition and morality are not ethics. I differentiate morals and ethics in the following way. “Thou shall not kill” is a moral rule. “The biological mother should carry and raise the child, anything else is strange and wrong” is tradition. “Banning marriage between consenting adults of the same-sex is unethical because it infringes upon the life, liberty, and happiness of those individuals based on sexual preference” is ethics. See that “because?” Only in ethics do you have a logical reason following the normative claim. Morality and tradition rely upon the authority of some figure (imagined or not) or history (accurate or not).

In each case, the actual right to your body is deferred to some third party, either the paternalists, the hypothetical children, or unreasoned authority. Transhumanists and like-minded bioethicists recognize that somatic rights are individual rights. That means that, unless they harm someone else directly, you should be able to do as you please. I find it amazing that for all of our amendments protecting freedom of religion, and assembly, and the press, we lack an amendment protecting freedom of bodily self-determination.

A rough and ready version of what freedom of bodily self-determination might look like has three key principles:

  1. “My body, my choice” means that if what you do only affects your body, you should have the right to do it. Period, full stop.
    That includes allowing someone to do something to your body. So:
  2. If you want to have something done to your body (e.g. surgery to modify your body or to allow a person to pay you to do something with your body), then you should have the right to do that.
  3. If you don’t want something to happen to your body (e.g. for your body to become pregnant or for it to be kept working at all costs (both in terms of money and dignity)), then you should have that right as well.

Because you have the right to do something, you are also responsible for the results of that decision. For example, if you choose to do drugs, you are culpable for decisions you make while under the influence of those drugs. If you choose to modify your body and, later regret the decision, the fault is no one’s but your own. These simple concepts have a huge impact on not only current laws around issues like abortion, sex assignment surgery in infants, and assisted suicide, but possible future ones surrounding technologies like genetic enhancement, anti-aging medicine, cognitive enhancing drugs, designer babies, voluntary prosthetic augmentation, and cybernetics. As technology advances, we will have more and more ways to choose what to do with our bodies.

As the politics of the body continue to generate controversy, it is important those on the side of choice and freedom of bodily-determination recognize where their allies are. Transhumanists and liberal bioethicists, yes, but also feminists, marriage rights proponents, sex worker advocates, those who would end the drug war, libertarians, and the LGBT community. These groups are fast coming to the conclusion that it is important we cherish our basic biological freedoms and protect our somatic rights.

That means arguing for pro-choice body issues now, in the present. And for those out there who find themselves pro-choice on some issues (e.g. gay marriage and abortion) but anti-choice on others (assisted suicide and genetic engineering), you’d best reevaluate why you have conflicting stances. You shouldn’t. If you disagree with me, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog, Pop Bioethics, and on facebook and twitter.

Image by ginger gal via buzzfeed.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cyborgs, Politics, Robots, Transhumanism

Comments (46)

  1. Matt

    Great article overall, but IMO abortion doesn’t necessarily belong in this list. All of the others clearly only affect your own body, but there is definitely more gray area in abortion.

  2. I have a LOT of friends who are going to love this article. Beautiful, simple arguement. Thank you!

  3. Mark

    I think it’s possible to be pro-choice on the other issues if you truly believe that a fetus is a separate human deserving of rights.

    We all agree that it should be illegal for parents to deny medical care to children based on religious beliefs. We believe it’s right despite that it is a “pro-life” choice rather than “pro-choice” because it is best for a child.

  4. Etienne

    You have forgotten a fourth type of response, and in my mind a very important one. Let’s call it the “arms race” argument. It goes like this: if you acquire a robot body that is smart, faster, and more attractive, then you can out-compete me in many avenues of life (jobs, sports, mates, etc). That doesn’t seem fair too me. Not to be out-competed, I myself have to upgrade my body in ways I didn’t really want. And now you are no longer better than me in all these ways, and perhaps you will seek a further upgrade. Continue like this for a while, and like an arms race, we both end up with expensive, bloated robo-bodies and none of the extra respect and admiration we were actually seeking (since everyone else has robo-bodies as well).
    In economic terms, those effects on me are a negative externality (technophiles like you are out-competing me for jobs, etc), and so your “agreement with yourself” actually involves me as well. That’s why I get a say in what you do with your body.
    Now, I’m not saying this type of argument should always carry the day, but it is certainly a category of argument to be recognized.

  5. Armand

    I agree with Matt above. You totally ignore the issue of the unborn child’s rights in your discussion. That’s really what’s at the heart of the abortion debate; what rights, if any, does a fetus or embryo have? From an utterly pro-life prospective, abortion is wrong because it murders an innocent child. The somantic rights of the woman aren’t really what’s in dispute. If you don’t want to get pregnant but choose to engage in heterosexual intercourse, both the man and woman are obligated to responsibily use contraception, therfore rendering the entire dilemma of abortion moot. It is my hope that more effective and convienient contraception in the future will greatly reduce the number of abortions.

    I’m against sucide because a person’s death is an event which has a profound negative impact on those around them. It’s not just themselves who will be affected, and they have no right to put their loved ones through such an ordeal.

    As for GM, if it was germline then you could make the argument that it’s not just your own body that is affected. As I mentioned in my last comment, I expect Transhumans to oppress and terrorize baseline Humans, causing fear and loathing. Would it be irrational for ordinary Humans to want to limit somantic rights if Transhumans were a clear existential threat to them. I shouldn’t have the right to carry a fully loaded AK-47 with me everywhere because it makes me a threat to others. Why should intergrating an AK-47 into my body give me that right? If your body is a lethal weapon, it should be treated as such.

  6. vel

    This is why we need easy access to birth control. No fetus able to survive on its own, no problem. IF we dont’ have that, then the anti-choice people have no right to complain and it really *is* all about their desire to control and force their beliefs on everyone.

    and if it’s “my” body, does anyone have the right to kill me, even in capital punishment? Seems another problem for the usual “pro-life, pro-execution” crowd.

  7. The problem is, if you’re a person who thinks that a fetus is a seperate human being deserving of full rights under the law, your arguement is void. Fetuses can’t have full rights under the law because noone has the right to use or occupy my body against my will, including a fetus. Full stop.

  8. O. B. Server

    If you don’t own your own body then ‘ownership’ can have no meaning at all.

  9. Erl

    I’m concerned about this one, not because I differ from you regarding any of the actual proposals under consideration–I don’t–but because I think you’re disregarding the more extreme consequences of somatic rights as a general principle.

    For example, consider suicide. As far as I can see, your reading of somatic rights would not merely protect assisted suicide in the cases currently under consideration. It would permit suicide for any reason, under any circumstances. I’d be concerned about that. Evidence, as well personal experience, suggests that at a minimum, those who attempt suicide are often better off when it fails–indeed, there are many alive today who are fortunate that their suicide attempts did not succeed. Part of the reason that suicides are liable to fail is because the suicidal are 1) provided medical care to directly contravene a voluntary decision and 2) in more extreme cases, temporarily detained such that they cannot commit suicide. I support both 1 & 2; such policies have saved the lives of people I know.

    But my support for both such practices means that I can’t endorse the broad, simple reading of your fundamental principle of somatic rights. I need some more nuance regarding what desires and actions are considered permissible and which are not, in order to reconcile my approval of the theory and its current political applications and my rejection of the general permission for suicide it seems to entail.

    I also think you’re wrong to include gay marriage. Sodomy as a right is a physical act and falls within your umbrella; marriage is a social construct and no amount of somatic liberty creates or protects it. Now, the recognition of somatic liberty entails a certain humility in the face of human difference that, I think, is conducive to a pro-SSM position, but it’s not entailed in your principles.

    @Matt: I think etymology is actually a good starting point here. “Abortion” refers to the termination of a process, in this case, the process of pregnancy. Pregnancy is a process that occurs to the body of the person with the uterus; the embryo/zygote/fetus is clearly not pregnant. The right to an abortion is therefore simply the right to terminate a pregnancy. It does not comment on what happens to the fetus. One could imagine a regime where (if it were technically possible) abortion was an inviolable right, and no embryo, zygote, or fetus were ever terminated. It’s only the technical demands of the E/Z/F and our own technology’s insufficiency that mean that abortion has come to signify its death. Abortion, therefore, is fairly easy to justify on bodily autonomy grounds alone.

    That said, Kyle, I think that the use of the word “only” your core principle needs to be further explicated. If, for example, I have enough voluntary amputations, I could render myself unable to work, and a burden on the community. A voluntary amputation may only *directly* affect my body, but surely it indirectly affects everyone, eventually. Do you mean to employ the broad “only directly” construction for somatic rights, or is there some room in your principles for the recognition of indirect consequences?

  10. Mark

    Jen, does a child have a right to occupy a parent’s home? Can a parent deny care as long as the neglect occurs on the patent’s property?

  11. D

    The real question on the abortion issue is not whether or not you have a right to control your body, it is when does life begin. You are absolutely correct; we should be pro-choice on body issues. We do NOT, however, have the right to deny someone else the right to life.

    While options differ on when life begins, I hold to the belief it starts once there is brain activity, as we consider death the opposite. That is later then most on the pro-life side like, and earlier than most of the pro-choice people like.

  12. Mark: Your questions are irrelevant. Being pregnant is nothing like having a child in your home. If your home burns down you can always buy a new one. If parents die & leave their children behind, someone else can take care of those children. A fetus’ entire life is dependant on the life support system it has, which is the woman’s body. It’s not an autonomous being. If she doesn’t want to be pregnant she doesn’t have to stay pregnant. And as for the ‘well then she shouldn’t have had sex!’ angle, also irrelevant. Consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy. Abortion is an option because birth control fails, rape and incest happen, some people NEVER ever want to have kids and some women can’t carry a pregnancy to term even if they want too. Also, fetal defects and abnormalities guarantee that at least some fetuses will die in the womb and the miscarriage will be incomplete or not start on it’s own. It’s not about babies, it’s about women, full autonomous persons, being able to decide for themselves when/if/how many kids they have.

  13. Jumblepudding

    Where this becomes hazy in my simple mind is body alteration on not-yet-mature humans. At what point can a child make these decisions about their bodies? Should a parent be able to give consent on a child’s gender reassignment, let alone turn them into a cyborg before puberty? (this goes a bit beyond a parent having an infant’s ears pierced) My knee jerk is that children should at least be required go through puberty as “baseline humans” unless their life is in danger, or if it might compromise their ability to experience adulthood as the neurologically “correct” gender.

  14. Noone would be able to do anything to a child like body alteration without the child’s consent. Like we pass laws on when we can drive a car, we could easily legislate how young/old a child must be before they can do something like get cyborg eyes.

  15. Vlad

    Hi Kyle,

    this is a great essay! I agree with your points entirely, however, being a student of sociology, I wanted to comment on the social aspects of somatic rights.

    The changing acceptance of and legal status of somatic rights could have an immense impact on human society. Let’s say the technology for self-augmentation crossed a critical point so that it became affordable to millions of people to use Procedure X to expand their lifespan by ten years. But let’s say Procedure X can only be done at the prepubescent stage and decreases fertility by Y%.

    Individuals who exercise their somatic rights to have Procedure X performed on them are taking a risk. Their decision could have long-term life consequences. As a firm believer in individual rights, I affirm their freedom to choose in this hypothetical case. But as someone who studies humans as socially embedded creatures, I see the need for social safety nets that advise, counsel, and support people who want to undergo Procedure X. Too much emphasis on individual rights, too much self-determination without regard for the larger social context self is embedded in, is just as dangerous as the violation of individual rights in the name of third parties or social groups. Just because a person has the right to make that decision, it doesn’t mean they should make that decision uninformed, or lightly, and I think it is our responsibility to each other to make sure that doesn’t happen in the case of somatic rights.

    Just my two cents. Again, thank you for the thought provoking essay!


  16. Anyone who claims ‘my body, my choice’ is forgetting about the living human body inside them when pregnant. It’s not their body or kidney/organ removed&dismembered by abortion.

    I am not as much concerned about amputees,but sex operations are a bit unethical and go against biology. You may not ‘feel like a man or woman’ but your genitals &physical traits are distinct in telling the difference between male and female. Surrogacy or any other life saving or selfless use of your body to help another is something I have nothing against, such as organ donation, surrogacy and pregnancy.

    It’s when people use their choice to cause harm to themselves or others ie:suicide or abortion that we as a civil society should step in and enforce laws that protect life. While sex changes don’t necessarily harm anyone it could cause health risks, mental risks to individuals and other issues in society. We ban drug use because while it harms the user it also can harm others in society by increasing crime,driving hazards&lead people to make poor decisions that affects others.

    Therefore, rights to your body and choices end when those choices affect the life of another individual by causing death or harm. The governments job is to protect innocent life from harm,death,abuse, attack;just as a parents job is to protect their child from conception from harm,death, abuse, attack and abortion kills;therefore should be banned in order to protect innocent human beings.

  17. Archwright

    At Erl:

    There’s a big difference between the people who commit suicide in order to get attention or because they dispair, and those who have truly nothing but pain in in this life. Either way you slice it, I think a large amount of counseling is important.

    You do realize that a key aspect of marriage is authorizing someone other than yourself to control the disposition of your body should you become incapable of doing so. Should I suffer some grievous injury that puts me under for weeks or fall into a coma that lasts years or die, I would want to make damn sure that someone I trust has control over my while I’m out. The only person I trust aside from myself is my partner, and there are many hospitals which would deny him the power to choose for me (even though we are technically married).

  18. Brett

    How would the concept of somatic rights be applied to conjoined twins? If one twin wanted to remove an appendage that she felt was in the way, would her sister have a right to disagree? How should one balance competing claims to the body?

    I imagine that for those who are pro-life, they see the fetus/mother relationship in a similar fashion to conjoined twins, while those who are pro-choice would see the fetus as having less of a claim than a conjoined twin. But that seems like it could place the argument of abortion outside of the somatic rights concept.

  19. Archwright

    Our scientific knowledge does not back up your claim.

    The brain has a map of the body. It’s how we know where our arms are without looking. It’s what keeps us upright when we walk. It’s what prevents us (usually) from whacking our appendages into door frames. The two senses that govern this are Proprioception and Kinesthesia.

    Sometimes these senses don’t work as expected. When an amputee ‘feels’ his lost arm, it is because his proprioception tells him that his arm is still there, despite the quite obvious (to the rest of us) evidence to the contrary. This can happen with perfectly healthy-bodied people as well. Sometimes (due to any number of factors) the mind creates a map for one gender, and the body goes right on developing a different one.

    There are many ways to reconcile these body/mind dilemmas. For amputees, like my example above, cybernetics are in development which should, in time, let him be whole again. His body and mind will no longer be at odds. For the transgendered, things are more complicated. One solution is therapy alone. Occasionally, the body and mind can be reconciled though counseling alone. Occasionally, the patient can be made to overcome his/her dysphoria (this has led some people, yourself included no-doubt, to view gender identity disorder and body dysmorphic disorder as the same thing. They aren’t).

    For many, simply being accepted as a member of the target gender is enough. Change hair, change clothes, change a pronoun, minimize the appearance of certain assets, and the problem disappears. You would not believe how many transgendered people do this. It’s cheap (medical treatment is expensive). It’s reversible. And sometimes it’s all you can do, since many health issues make surgery and hormones impossible.

    One step further are those who go on hormones. Going this far legally, and ethically requires therapy. (The laws vary by state and country, I can only speak for Maryland) It also, generally, requires the patient to live for a year in the target gender to see if it works out. With a good medical doctor, these therapies aren’t any more dangerous than hormone replacement therapy for people who’s sex matches their gender (like men with low testosterone, or women who take birth control).

    Then there are those who get surgery. Every doctor will recommend that the patient have lived with their target hormones for years before any surgical procedure is even attempted. (Some laws limit this as well) There is sound medical reasoning for this. The number of possible surgeries are far too many for me to list here. They all entail some form of risk.

    Ask yourself, would anyone go though that much hassle if they had any other option?

    All of this does not even cover intersex conditions (of which there are many), or androgen insensitivity (sex chromosomes indicate male, but the body will not respond to testosterone).

    So, that was the sort version. Glad you’re still here. Look at wikipedia, bilerico, gender identity groups, etc for more information. You’ll find many, many dry academic articles and many more blogs on this topic. If you have an interest in this, for or against, you owe it to yourself and the other side to do the research.

  20. Thanks @Archright for the insight on gender identity issues. I understand there are many reasons for people who go this route&are willing to take the risks associated w/surgery, I just think it is unnecessary when they can dress like a woman or man already…however, I also find it something that should not be encouraged in society because recognizing there are two genders in society is what helps us from an early age know the differences between men and women, boys and girls. Parents who deny the truth to their children and allow them to ‘choose’ their gender are not being honest with their children and using them as social experiments.

    You didn’t address my thoughts on the abortion issue as far as ‘my body, my choice’ goes…does that mean you agree with me??

  21. Most Transhumanists would champion the germ-line genetic enhancement which is genetic engineering that would be passed on from generation to generation. That would absolutely be forcing your preferences on every generation there after. Germ-line genetic enhancement is the exact opposite of “my body, my choice.”

  22. Diggy

    You can be charged with a federal crime and fined $250,000 for killing sea turtle eggs. But, human eggs are fair game. Where has the human EGO taken us?

  23. dan

    Abortion effects no one, but the Mother…since she is the one who gives life to the embryo. I always wondered how it’s “murder” when someone wants an abortion because really…if the cord is cut, will the unborn child survive without the mother in Nature? No one’s opinion matters to anyone, but themselves.

  24. Susan

    If every man was an island, you would be so correct. However, since we live in a society where what we do affects others, it gets a little muddier. What happens when what you do with YOUR body impacts me? We live in a society, not in complete isolation. Your logic is certainly consistent but I’m not sure it works in the real world of relationships and responsibilities.

  25. Jumblepudding

    “Noone would be able to do anything to a child like body alteration without the child’s consent. Like we pass laws on when we can drive a car, we could easily legislate how young/old a child must be before they can do something like get cyborg eyes.”

    My question was not to whether it was possible to pass legislation.

  26. Joel

    True, but there are other implications for some of these things. Hard drug users (cocaine, crack, heroin, and meth addicts) are more likely to spend their money on drugs than on health insurance. But then when they are unable to pay for their inevitable health-care, they pass their health care costs onto those of us who can. Thus, a seemingly “victimless” crime, i.e. illegal drug abuse, actually does have more victims than just the user.

  27. Sammy

    Unless you can prove that life does not begin at conception, I maintain that abortion is that taking of a life. Burden of proof is yours. To go even further, what does a late-term abortion, with a viable foetus, have to do with a woman’s body?

  28. Rob

    This is a wonderful article, and I’m very happy that people are presenting mature and (for the most part) logical arguments. It’s a great read, both the main piece and the comments!


    Never thought of this. It is interesting to think about.

    @Erl, Joel

    I totally agree. While I agree with pro-choice for the most part, I think there are some boundaries and protocols that must be followed for just this reason. I can say “my head, my choice” when I hop on my motorcycle and choose not to wear a helmet, but really, if I drop the bike and police need to be dispatched, roads blocked off, etc, I’m not the only one who is impacted. I think a good starting point for things like suicides/euthanasia/etc would be to follow the lead of our (very much imperfect, but better than the historic alternative) justice system. We get a panel of experts and peers together to help decide whether or not a criminal is guilty and what the consequence is. For example, in terms of right to suicide, I don’t feel someone should be able to go ahead and try to kill themselves the second they feel really sad. If someone really didn’t want to live their life anymore, and could justify this to psychiatrists and a panel of their peers after having the chance to really reflect and seek help, I don’t see why they should be denied the right to choose the status of their life.

  29. laura

    “And for [THIS AUTHOR] who find [himself] pro-choice on [all] issues, you’d best reevaluate why you [don’t] have conflicting stances. You [should].”

    Well-argued for the right to self-determined freedom. BUT reproductive rights do not only involve the self. Just as you would not allow a four year old total freedom of choice over the body, abortion and other reproductive issues are more complex than this simplistic argument.

  30. Archwright

    @littlebytes Abortion was not the topic that I wanted to discuss. Please do not consider silence to be objection or agreement. I have no interest in debating abortion in this forum.

  31. Zephistopheles

    @littlebytes I think it a stretch to say that anyone encourages transsexuals to receive HRT or SRS. Psychiatric and medical professionals will certainly appraise transsexual patients of their options, surgical or otherwise, but they do not push surgery. Whether a transsexual gets surgery or not really does not affect other people (except for their intimate partners and their physicians). Whether you ‘believe’ someone can change his gender or not, you cannot logically oppose SRS without throwing all plastic surgery out with it.

    Regarding the ‘think of the children’ bit: most children will develop a male or female gender identity and learn the difference between the two whether or not they have someone chanting in their ears about it. Thus, I do not see a problem with allowing children to choose their gender presentation. Research shows that most cross-gender behavior in childhood has no bearing on adult gender identity. Tomboys and sissy boys alike grow up to lead productive lives and have no trouble distinguishing men from women (except maybe in East Village…).

    Though I find Anderson Cooper a bit…dramatic, I do recommend his report on the ‘sissy boy experiment’ ( for an example of how forcing children to conform to ‘appropriate’ gender behaviors does not do them, or anyone else, any favors. We have a pretty exhaustive body of evidence that you cannot beat, cajole, or otherwise operant-condition the gay or trans out of someone.

    If you mean children with intersex conditions, micropenis, or circumcision accidents who receive surgical ‘correction’ in infancy and get raised as the most ‘convenient’ gender, pretty much everyone considers that unethical now. In fact, most of these individuals struggle with persistent depression and eventually opt for SRS…much as transsexuals do.

    As for a transsexual child who believes firmly in her girlhood despite the fact that she has a little boy’s ‘parts’, no amount of gender policing will change that. At best it will silence her, for a time; at worse it will instill a lifelong sense of self-loathing like that which leads so many transsexuals to commit suicide.

    When I meet a woman (trans or otherwise!), I do not know whether she has natural breasts augmented by HRT, silicone implants, or a bra stuffed with socks. Nor do I need to know, unless I intend to sleep with her. If knowing affects how I behave toward her, then my parents probably should have worried more about something other than my choice of clothes or my favorite color.

  32. Kate


    Thank you so much for being calm and intelligent. So many people let their opinions get in the way of seeing things as they actually are. I am a family member of a person who is undergoing gender therapy to become a member of the opposite sex and as much as we could tell her that we love her and respect her just the way she is; this is what she wants and is a much happier person with each step she takes toward becoming male. Who am I to take that away from her? Where does it say in the Constitution that I can control what someone else does to their own body? I’m so glad to have read your short response because I can see now that there are people out there mature enough to educate themselves and let science speak.

  33. Talamaeus

    Hmm, all of these responses and the main essay were so well done I don’t have anything to say. Thank you all for actually shutting me up on a few topics. =D

  34. jebuhdiah

    So, does this mean I can run around naked? It’s my body right? It’s hot outside I don’t feel I should wear clothes. This also means that I can engage in public sexual acts right? So long as I’m by myself? You might say that your argument only pertains to doing things to yourself in private, not a public setting. So for the common grouping you could say this all boils down to privacy rights. I am inclined towards the view that absent of societal constraints people will most definitely do as they wish. And here, the argument is negated by the fact that, within your own little bubble, there simply are no rights. Rights only exist under a social contract or some other kind of rule of law. In a private setting, there is simply nothing stopping you from doing whatever you wish. But coming back into society, there are rules, I’m afraid. Right or wrong, the issue is not a Constitutional one but more of an overarching philosophical constraint. In regards to the abortion issue, merely mentioning it and not expecting a debate is a bit like opening the hatch of a submerged submarine and not expecting the ocean to come rushing in. I’ll leave it to you to examine the wisdom in this expectation.

  35. Wolf

    Some of the thoughts expressed in the duscussion above about gender and sex change have very little connection with reality.


    The idea that all people should be forced to go through puberty as dictated by their unmodified hormones borders on abuse in many cases. It dooms many Male to Female spectrum individuals to a degree of masculinization that may never be able to be undone regardless of the amount of funds invested and the amount of pain endured. This can prevent people from getting a decent job and being able to live everyday life in reasonable safety. Electrolysis alone can cost 15k-30k , is painful, sometimes leaves scars and can take years. Facial feminization surgery is expensive, painful, has health risks and varying success. I’m not saying that delaying and/or stopping puberty is correct in every case but that in some cases it may be appropriate and can allow the individual to have many more options later in life.


    Your short version covers a lot of ground but one important point slides by. For some individuals the body issues are as important or maybe even more important that the social/gender issues. A lot of research is being done on the brain’s map of the body and how conflicts between the two occur.

    I know of many folks who do not fit well into the mainstream binary gender roles but have a strong sense of how their body should be and consequently a strong need to change their body. Some do not have the financial resources to follow the existing standards of care which are only recommendations and or requirements for medical practitioners to belong to certain organizations. Most doctors follow these standards to protect themselves from possible malpractice claims not because of any legal requirements. Still, many patients receive hormones and also surgery with minimal red tape. Some travel around the world in order to do so when necessary.

    Do we really need to be protected from ourselves? Do we have to talk about all the restrictions placed on us in order to somehow impress people that our desires are legitimate. Truth is that we are frequently prisoners of convention and other people’s thoughts far above and beyond the current extent of the law.

  36. The idea of somatic rights is fascinating, and as a left-leaning bioethicist I am inclined to support the ends at which the idea is aimed, namely a level of freedom from external intrusion into one’s corporeal self management.

    I would agree, however, with one of the comemmentors above that gay marriage (which I totally support, despite the slightly depressing bourgeoise implications thereof) could not be argued for from somatic rights, as it is a legal contract with no particular implications for one’s right to engage in gay sex. I would suggest that the inclusion of gay marriage under the rubric of somatic rights may be to conflate the right to freedom from corporeal intrusion with the right to enter into contract. Both are important liberal goals, but need not be grounded in the same moral principle.

    Equally, though pro-choice, I think it is naive to suggest that somatic rights could not, by some arguments, be extended to foetuses or the unborn (it would then be a question of balancing two sets of somatic rights, a balance which in most cases would perhaps come out in favour of the mother).

    To these issues, I should like to raise two related problems which somatic rights, as stated, may need to address in order to thrive as a foundation for bioethical thinking.

    1) Ahistoricism. My background is in the history of medicine, primarily in the history of the body. As such, I tend to view references to ‘your body’ or ‘my body’ as somewhat ahistoric, or at least lacking in historical awareness. The idea of a human body belonging to the individual, a body which is closed off from the world at large, a physically discrete entity, is entirely the invention of eighteenth century Enlightenment thought (see: Barbara Duden, “The Woman Beneath the Skin”). Previous to the modernist mode of corporeal thought that emerged with the Enlightenment, the human body, at least in Europe, was seen as being in a constant state of flow and flux with the wider world. The idea that one could simply do something to one’s body which did not impact upon the rest of one’s world, would have been alien.

    The Enlightenment ‘closing off’ of the human body was, in part, a process by which the body was prepared for industrialisation. As a discrete physical entity, the body becomes ‘homo oeconomicus’, a productive individual unit whose labour could be measured and valued, and for which the individual was solely responsible. This is the body upon which the biopolitics of Enlightenment thought is founded. This is the historical foundation for the ‘your body’ upon which somatic right rest: a body which is entirely sealed off from the rest of the world.

    All of which historical peregrinations are to say that ‘somatic rights’ may need to posit an awareness of the historical processes by which our contemporary conceptions of ‘your body’ are based. Similarly, some note should be made of the potentially negative aspects of the discrete modernist body, namely the way in which, as a discourse, it locates responsibility for the body with the individual, rather than with socio-cultural factors. The modernist body is a vital plank of neoliberal economic thought.

    2) The key part of somatic rights as stated seems to be that you can do whatever you want to your body as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. This is an attractive idea, but to work it would require a rigorous examination of a) harm metrics and b) harm causation.

    Metrics – how much, and what kind of harms can be caused by someone’s somatic right to alter their body? How would we decide whether someone’s emotional distress (at, say, a tattoo of the word ‘fuck’ on their child’s elementary school teacher’s head) is weighted more or less heavily than said teacher’s somatic rights? Rare are the somatic choices which actually physically harm someone else, but plentiful are those which may result in emotional distress. The argument against considering emotional distress as a valid metric tends to be that such distress is grounded in socio-cultural prejudices (against, say, homosexuality, sex in general etc.), which is fair enough, but we need a very clear process for explaining why we discount some form of distress but not others (we’d probably count the distress at the ‘fuck’ tattoo as valid, no?)

    Causation – as I suggested, most of the ‘harm’ caused to others by somatic alterations are not physical, they are (often prejudiced) emotional reactions to difference. These, though, are questions of immediate harm which can be traced directly to one person’s encounter with another’s somatic choice. What though, of more distant harms, ones in whcih causation is less clear? Consider, for example, cosmetic surgery to enhance a woman’s breast size. There is no obvious physical harm to anyone else, and no immediate causation of harm. However, it could be argued that by undergoing breast enhancement surgery, that individual has reinforced certain unjust stereotypes about how women are supposed to appear. In exercising her somatic rights she may not have caused immediate harm to anyone, but she has arguably contributed to a discourse of unjust, sexist, patriarchal appearance standards which regularly harm millions of women every day. One might make the same argument about, say, the use of skin-lightening creams amongst people of African descent.

    The point I am trying to make here is that, as a couple of the other commentators have said, ‘somatic rights’ as a useful idea would have to consider the social embeddedness of the idividual who is exercising those rights. It is very difficult to consider any somatic act which is not somehow embedded in the social fabric and which does not confirm or challenge just and unjust discourses of appearance, economics, or power.

    I think I’ve gone on quite long enough; the length of my response is tribute to the fascinating nature of the original post, and to my general sympathy with its aims. What I’ve presented here are intended to be criticisms which may strengthen, rather than undermine, somatic rights.

  37. Terry Emberson

    Dan O:

    I’m interested in your claim that the pre-Elightenment view of the body was not one of discrete corporeality. Can you point me to some of your sourcing for that comment? I would argue that that may have some bearing on Islamic views of the body and even the views of the body in Confucian societies, both of which are not as highly individualistic as Western societies, though Asian nations are having to adopt individualist practices to gain the ‘Asian tiger’ economies that they have had the last 40 years. I’d like to read some more on that concept.

    On your second point, I would say that harm causation could only matter if the harm was direct and obvious. The only gray area should be when there is a social or contractual obligation that the somatic freedom contradicts, such as the parent to child obligation or the obligation in certain sporting events to not use performance enhancing drugs.

    This is, by the way, where I have to disagree with the author on his article. In my view, a woman’s right to her body does not give her right to terminate the life of another, even if that other is growing inside of her. She has a perfect right to avoid getting pregnant, but once pregnant, I feel that her right to take a life ends. This, once again, begs the question of when a fetus becomes a life, which is where the debate should stay.

    My (mostly former) faith says that it is at conception (though plenty of members of my faith have disagreed), but I won’t seek to impose my faith on anyone else. I don’t have an answer to this, so I’m staying out of it entirely and leaving it to wiser ethicists than I (who is not really an ethicist in any wider of a context than that we are all ethicists in our daily lives).

    Finally, I agree that the social context (as I mentioned above) is important, but not determinative. We are the society that we want to be, whether we like it or not. If we don’t choose to be the society we would LIKE to be, then we are stuck with what we collectively want. I would rather push for a society of greater freedoms and less requirements on the individual for “society’s good”. Frankly, I think that society should be for the good of everyone, which means that it should only very rarely have to squash or burden a minority for the sake of the majority.

  38. As a Newcomer, I’m regularly searching for resources that can help me . Thanks

  39. Carson

    Anti-choice peeps are annoying and boring. Get over abortion it is legal and that is the way it should be in an evolved advanced society. Just had to get that out of the way.

    Kyle was right on all points of his article. I would like to add its always ULTRA conservatives who are against ind. rights ironically. Life is short and there are billions of humans on the planet, get out of others business. We all know the truth. The people who oppose the initial topics brought forth in this article and who oppose transhumanism/extropianism are Super religious, uneducated or just not that intelligent. Im not saying all, its just highly probable they are one of the three. Some far right conservatives are so indoctrinated, their not dumb but believe so much bs. Im not being political here in no way. Just saying what i here and observe.

    Thanks Kyle

  40. Kyle:

    I compliment you on this one, it is really quite clever. It is also a kind of wedge issue, in which you force people who might otherwise recoil in horror at transhumanistic ambitions to join your side.

    But you set the facts up just a bit too neatly for my taste when you say “Transhumanists and like-minded bioethicists recognize that somatic rights are individual rights. That means that, unless they harm someone else directly, you should be able to do as you please.”

    The problem is that you restrict the harms that one might cause to others as those that arise directly. Why do your responsibilities to others end with direct harms? I suspect the answer is because your argument would be weakened (perhaps not fatally, but certainly substantially) if indirect harms to other are taken into account.

    Let’s take the example of healthcare resources. I don’t know if you have been to a hospital lately, but in my experience they are all running on empty, whether in the USA with its vaunted private healthcare system or here in Canada with its oft derided public system that provides quantitatively measurable excellent outcomes. Healthcare costs are among the most rapidly rising expenses that society faces. Diverting resources from those who are ill to those who are well has effects, albeit indirect, and some of those may be detrimental. Hence your hedge about ‘direct’ effects. As this is a comment stream, I will be brief here, but I will point out that this is but one example among many that merit the attention of the ethical branch of the transhumanist community.

    If the community were really serious about this issue, perhaps they could follow in the footsteps of the physicians and take a pledge: First, do no harm.

  41. If you dont mind me asking what theme is the blog? Thanks.

  42. pedantic

    I can’t actually take anyone seriously until they learn how to spell ‘foetus’ correctly.
    Otherwise, interesting article with a lot of thought provoking ideas.

  43. Jessica Metaneira

    On abortion….

    Since when does ANYONE, even a grown, adult human, have the right to use someone else’s body?

    Never. And since not even adults get this right, why should a fetus?

    Case closed.

  44. Jessica Metaneira

    @Etienne – what about people altering themselves in non cybernetic ways? For example strength training? Is that an infringement on you too??

  45. Matt B.

    I have point out a semantic oddity: How is a fetus a *separate* human being, as a couple commenters phrased it?

  46. Jason

    Which contributes more to higher healthcare costs: illegal drug use or overeating? Perhaps we should criminalize gluttony.


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