Does every human have inherent inalienable rights? In other words, are there rights that every human has that cannot be taken away? If so, then what are they, and how far do they extend? These are fundamental questions that are often asked in political and philosophical discussions. The trouble is that some rights that sound perfectly intuitive and natural to some are very alien to others. Furthermore, using intuition is unreliable, as intuitive reasoning is extremely biased and can often lead to absurd outcomes. Legislation often reflects a discrepancy between intuitive reasoning and practical applications. Whereas laws sometimes create desirable results, they often seem philosophically inconsistent. Bodily autonomy is an area of philosophy that the law struggles to find consistency with in many nations.
Generally speaking, bodily autonomy is defined as the right to self governance over one’s own body without external influence or coercion. It is what many consider to be a fundamental right. However, governments around the world do not seem to have reached a consensus. There are many intuitive examples where bodily autonomy is protected by the law, like the need for informed consent in the case of medical procedures. However there are many examples where it could be argued that some governments ignore bodily autonomy like in the case of recreational drugs.
Generally speaking, informed consent is the concept of a person having a certain degree of understanding of a procedure, including knowledge of its potential risks and consequences, before it is performed. In many countries worldwide, some form of informed consent is required to perform any sort of medical procedure or study on a human subject. The Declaration of Helsinki sets forth guidelines for “valid consent” for medical research. Most developed nations have either modeled their medical legislation based on this declaration, or have something fairly close.1 Generally speaking, the declaration asserts that participants in studies should be aware of their role in a study, should have their personal information protected, and should be able to withdraw at will.
On the surface, receiving informed consent from a patient or subject seems to be a very reasonable, intuitive requirement for medical practitioners to follow. After all, most people would not want to undergo surgery without knowing its purpose and risks, or be administered drugs without permission. One could argue that a need for informed consent laws arises from a fundamental right to bodily autonomy.
However this argument is not indisputable. Although most western nations have informed consent laws, developing nations complicate this model of medical ethics. One of the hardest problems to tackle is the language barrier. For informed consent to truly be given, a description of procedures and treatments must be given, and a certain level of technical language must often be used. Often, such technical language either does not directly translate well, or is not accessible to less educated populations.2 In the west this tends to be less of an issue, and so it is easier to implement laws in favor of bodily autonomy. However there is certainly a case to be made that a person’s health might outweigh their right to bodily autonomy in cases where a language barrier is present.
A controlled substance usually refers to a chemical or drug whose manufacturing, possession, or distribution, is controlled to some extent by the government of a given country. Usually a controlled substance refers to illegal drugs, but also includes prescription drugs. Most countries worldwide have laws criminalizing or controlling the use of some drugs. Some examples of these controlled substances are heroin, ecstasy, and marijuana.3 These are also examples of drugs that are most often used recreationally.
The topic of recreational drugs tends to be controversial. While some claim their prohibition is necessary for overall societal well being, proponents of bodily autonomy claim that it is an adult’s right to use drugs recreationally even if it might ruin their life. In the Bioethics medical journal, ethics philosophers Julian Savulescu and Bennett Foddy claim that “Any argument against legalisation of drugs or supporting infringement of the liberty of those desiring to take drugs of addiction must be based on considerations of harm and paternalism, and not on false claims that addicts lack freedom of will.”4
Despite similar claims however, the criminalization of some drugs appears to be relatively permanent. In the case of these drugs, it appears that most western nations with a few exceptions value public health over individual bodily autonomy. While some would argue that this is paternalistic, others believe it is necessary to maintain the well-being of the population. However when approached objectively, it seems to contradict the reasoning behind informed consent laws. Whereas informed consent laws emphasize the importance of bodily autonomy, criminalizing drugs seems to ignore this precedent.
Abortion is potentially the most polarizing of the issues discussed in this article, and a fantastic example of the intersection between bodily autonomy and what some refer to as the “right to life.” Most importantly, it is the area in which bodily autonomy is most intricate. To see how abortion and bodily autonomy are so intimately related, it is helpful to look to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion.” In Thomson’s essay, she lays out a hypothetical situation involving a woman who awakens in a hospital with tubes connecting her veins and arteries to those of the patient in an adjacent bed. A doctor informs her that she was kidnapped by a group of radical music enthusiasts in order to save the life of a violinist who had fallen ill. The doctor tells her that her blood is currently sustaining the violinist, and that if she is disconnected before the violinist has recovered then the violinist will die. The doctor apologizes on behalf of the hospital even though they took no part in the kidnapping, but at this point in time disconnecting the tubes would mean certain death for the violinist. Keeping the violinist alive forces the woman in her hospital bed for the next nine months while the violinist recovers.
The question Thomson poses is simple: is the woman morally, ethically, or legally obligated to sacrifice the next nine months of her life on behalf of the violinist? After all, the violinist certainly has a right to life. However, Thomson argues that the woman’s right to bodily autonomy takes precedent, and that even though it would be a great kindness to save the violinist’s life, she is in no way obligated to do so.
Thomson goes on to draw parallels between this hypothetical situation and the scenario of a woman carrying an unwanted pregnancy. If the woman in the hospital bed is not obligated to save the violinist by sacrificing nine months of her life, why should we treat a pregnant woman any differently?
Although abortion is currently legal in the United States, certain groups of people are trying to change these laws, and have made progress in some regards. To varying degrees, many states have restrictions on abortion, including restrictions on who is certified to perform an abortion, restriction on abortions in cases other than rape and the endangerment of the mother, and specifications on how late an abortion can be performed.7 Furthermore, while abortion is legal in most of Europe and Asia, some countries have many of these same restrictions. Most South American, African, and Middle Eastern countries have either banned abortion or have heavy restrictions.
So do we really have bodily autonomy? In practice, the answer seems to depend on both context and culture. An important question to ask is why there seem to be so many inconsistencies with how we treat fundamental rights. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a particularly satisfying answer, except perhaps “that is not how the world works.”
1. "EEB 180: Genetic Engineering in Developing Countries." Informed Consent in Developing Countries. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.
2. Barry, Michele. "Ethical Considerations of Human Investigation in Developing Countries — NEJM." New England Journal of Medicine. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.
3. "World Drug Report 2014." (n.d.): n. pag. Unodc.org. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Web. 19 May 2016.
4. Foddy, Bennett. "Addiction and Autonomy: Can Addicted People Consent to the Prescription of Their Drug of Addiction." Wiley Online Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.
5. Domoslawski, Artur. "Drug Policy in Portugal." Transnational Institute. N.p., 31 Aug. 2011. Web. 19 May 2016.
6. Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "Judith Jarvis Thomson: A Defense of Abortion." Judith Jarvis Thomson: A Defense of Abortion. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.
7. "An Overview of Abortion Laws." Guttmacher Institute. N.p., 09 Mar. 2016. Web. 19 May 2016.
8. Levels, Mark. "A Review of Abortion Laws in Western-European Countries. A Cross-national Comparison of Legal Developments between 1960 and 2010." Science Direct. N.p., Oct. 2014. Web.