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My Body, My Capital?

LONDON -- In the 1960’s, feminists coined the slogan, “Our bodies, our selves.” But that liberating sentiment has recently undergone an ironic twist. As an anonymous American woman, justifying her decision to undergo cosmetic surgery, put it, “All we have in life is ourselves, and what we can put out there every day for the world to see… Me is all I got.”

The French commentator Hervé Juvin extolled this new attitude towards the body in his 2005 surprise bestseller, L’avènement du corps (The Coming of the Body) . Plastic surgery, the implantation of biochips, piercings – all emblazon the belief that our bodies are our unique property. At the same time, Juvin asserts, because everyone has a body, property has suddenly become democratized.

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We appear to live in a time that has witnessed the absolute failure of the grand Enlightenment dreams of linear progress, universal peace, and equality between rich and poor. Together with widespread hostility to organized religion, manifested in such hugely popular books as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion , disappointment with social ideals means that we turn inward. In the absence of a belief in eternal life, everything becomes invested in this life, this body.

Long life is our desire, eternal youth our supposed right, and the myth of the body without origin or limits our new religion. That might be why governments are so widely seen to have a positive duty to promote stem cell research and other forms of medical progress. Biotechnology industries flourish, with state sanction and support, because they add extra value to the body, the object of supreme worth to us.

Indeed, the infinite renewal of the body isn’t confined to superficial repairs through cosmetic surgery. External substitutes for organic structures can be surgically implanted, breaking down the barrier between the body and the outside world. At the same time, tissue removed from the body enters into commerce and trade as a commodity like any other, in the form of stem cell lines, human eggs, and other “products.”

The American law professor James Boyle believes that we can grasp the way in which the body has become an object of trade by likening it to the historical process of enclosure. In eighteenth-century Britain, land, which was previously a public resource, was “enclosed” by private owners. Freed of feudal-style legal restrictions on transfer of ownership and of traditional rights held by commoners who used communal land to pasture their animals, landholdings could now be sold to raise capital, which helped to finance the industrial revolution.

In modern biotechnology, Boyle thinks, things previously outside the market-once thought to be impossible to commodify-are becoming routinely privatized. One in five human genes is now patented, even though the human genome might be thought to be our common heritage. And although Boyle doesn’t mention this latest development, umbilical cord blood, taken in the final stage of labor, is now banked by profit-making firms as a potential – though unlikely – source of stem cells for the baby.

In biomedicine, a series of legal cases have generated powerful momentum toward the transfer of rights over the body and its component parts from the individual “owner” to corporations and research institutions. So the body has entered the market, becoming capital, just as land did, though not everyone benefits, any more than the dispossessed commoners grew wealthy during the agricultural enclosures.

Most people are shocked when they learn that one-fifth of the human genome has been patented, mostly by private firms. But why be so surprised? After all, female bodies have been subject to various forms of property-holding over many centuries and in many societies.

Women’s bodies are used to sell everything from cars to pop music, of course. But female tissue has been objectified and commodified in much more profound ways, in legal systems from Athens onwards. While men were also made into objects of ownership and trade, as slaves, in general women were much more likely to be treated as commodities in non-slave-owning systems. Once a woman had given her initial consent to the marriage “contract,” she had no right to retract her consent to sexual relations – ever.

There are clear parallels between that situation and the way in which the common law has offered little redress to patients who have tried to claim property rights in tissue taken from them, or to activists seeking to limit the powers of Big Biotech over human genetic patents. All bodies are assumed to be “open access” now, just as women’s have always been.

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But the assault on freedom is perceived as such only when it begins to apply to men. It took a long time for people to notice that women’s eggs were required in large quantities for stem cell technologies: a phenomenon I call “the lady vanishes.” The stem cell debates often seem to be premised on the assumption that only the status of the embryo matters. Many people are still unaware that women’s eggs are a crucial part of “therapeutic cloning.” By contrast, genetic patenting, which affects both sexes, has (rightly) generated a huge scholarly literature and a very vigorous popular debate. Just a coincidence?

The new enclosures of the genetic commons or of body tissue threaten to extend the objectification and commodification of the body to both sexes. Everyone has a female body now, or, more properly, a feminized body. Rather than holding an investment in our bodies, we’re all at risk of becoming capital: my body, but somebody else’s capital.