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For many people, there’s a common-sense argument for the right to cosmetic surgery, euthanasia, or abortion: It’s my body. I own it. Political theorist Anne Phillips asks us to consider whether we mean this in a literal way. Is your body your property? And, if so, can you sell aspects of it? To examine these questions, she looks at a number of “products,” including gestational surrogacy, sex work, and paid “donations” of organs or eggs and sperm.

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To begin with, Phillips suggests that the idea of body-as-property isn’t necessary to assert the right to bodily integrity. And in fact, she argues, it introduces the potentially harmful distinction between the person and the body they own.

“We do not just ‘have’ our bodies,” she writes. “In an important sense, we ‘are’ them.”

She suggests that this may complicate certain transactions. For example, women who carry surrogate pregnancies sometimes report difficulty distancing themselves from the experience of pregnancy or their feelings toward the resulting baby.

Phillips also argues that transactions commonly described as selling or renting the body involve exceptional levels of vulnerability to others’ control. Sex work may require “temporarily at least, putting oneself in someone else’s power,” while surrogacy contracts often include invasive requirements like dietary rules and medical tests.

Still, she acknowledges that these things may be true to a greater or lesser extent in many jobs—and that all kinds of labor involve a person’s body.

“We cannot do any kind of work without dragging the body along, and a prohibition on the sale of services that involve the body would make no sense at all,” she writes. For example, few people object to paying dancers or professional athletes for jobs in which “the body is the point.”

In the end, Phillips locates her concerns about certain kinds of transactions involving the body in inequality. While all sorts of paid labor exist in the context of economic inequality, it’s at least possible to imagine that some people would choose almost any particular job based on their unique preferences and skills. But a body is something everyone has.

“In the decision to become a vendor rather than purchaser of organs, neither taste nor talent can conceivably be involved,” she writes. “Inequality is the only explanation.”

At the same time, some people may choose to donate an organ, or perform a bodily service such as surrogacy, as an act of generosity. Phillips argues that it would be unfair to say that such people should not be compensated in some way for the hardship and effort involved.

Ultimately, she suggests drawing a line between regulated compensation and sales on an open market—as many countries already do for both surrogacy and organ donations. More broadly, she suggests moving away from language portraying the body as property.

“The analogy with material resources encourages a dualism that treats body as separable from self,” she writes. “This obscures the power relations involved in any agreement that cedes authority over what is inevitably both.”

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Political Theory, Vol. 39, No. 6 (December 2011), pp. 724–748
Sage Publications, Inc.