Our Bodies: Whose Property?, by Anne Phillips

Maureen McNeil praises a short overview of the challenges of recent body politics

September 19, 2013

Towards the end of Our Bodies: Whose Property? Anne Phillips proffers two general assessments that suggest why this book is important: “the relationship between markets, bodies and properties is complex, and sometimes almost perverse” and “the number and difficulty of these issues is going to continue to multiply”. These appraisals may come as no surprise to some readers. However, both those who are aware of what is happening around these issues and those who have not reflected on recent developments around markets, bodies and properties would do well to read Phillips’ timely, intelligent overview of the challenges of early 21st-century global body politics.

The book demonstrates that Phillips is acutely aware of these challenges, but also that she is undaunted by them. She steadfastly grapples with three of the most difficult focuses of recent body politics: rape, surrogacy and the sale of body parts. She doesn’t flinch as she forges her way through a maze of controversies and debates on these difficult topics. What emerges is a set of strong arguments and what she sometimes calls “principles”, which she recommends as orientating guidelines for the contemporary era.

Phillips grapples with three of the most difficult focuses of recent body politics: rape, surrogacy and the sale of body parts

Her recommendations are bound to be controversial. Phillips acknowledges that her views have been shaped by feminist theory and she consistently argues against dominant individualistic norms and trends favouring unbridled marketisation. But even those who take issue with her arguments will find food for thought and much to consider.

So what’s on her menu? As she teases out the patterns and consequences of emerging practices and innovations around bodies, Phillips returns again and again to the importance of addressing and alleviating inequality, particularly as both a cause and a consequence of marketisation. Moreover, she regards the body as a continuous reminder of the vulnerability that we share and, hence, of the importance of acknowledging and strengthening social bonds. She also resolutely encourages readers to consider the “larger picture” – social patterns and social costs – as she refuses to take comfort in the growing valorisation of “individual choice”.

Phillips is clearly troubled by the increasingly dominant conceptualisations of bodies as property. Investing in notions of ownership of our bodies, she observes, is a strategy that cuts across political lines: feminist and anti-feminist, conservative and radical. Yet one of her main messages is that this is a highly problematic, individualistic framing that jeopardises human equality. By considering body markets in relation to labour markets, she teases out some disturbing features of the former. Phillips is also resistant to arguments about the “specialness” of the body as she insists on registering the full consequences of embodiment, including the impossibility of neatly demarcating the corporeal from the non-corporeal.

In style this is a fairly traditional book of political philosophy, but it is original and compelling. It offers a set of well-articulated reflections and arguments that are rigorously developed, without jargon or pretension. Although the argumentation is impressive, it is delivered modestly. Hence, Phillips does not hesitate to indicate that she has come to change positions: on payment for surrogacy, for example.

In an age in which so many academics are eager to claim or are required to claim impact, Phillips resists the temptation to pronounce on policy. Indeed, she offers a nuanced appraisal of the difficulties of moving from the realm of principles to policy with the thoughtful comment: “Principled distinctions only go so far. Practical implementation necessarily involves judgement.”

Our Bodies: Whose Property? constitutes a short overview of recent body politics, so there isn’t much space for detail, and UK legislation is the recurring reference point. Moreover, this is an unreflectively humanist analysis, without a nod to posthumanist and transhumanist perspectives on other non-human bodies. But it is churlish to concentrate on what is not offered, when we have been served such a rich feast of considered reflections on some of the most pressing issues of our times.

Our Bodies: Whose Property?

By Anne Phillips
Princeton University Press, 216pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691150864
Published 17 June 2013

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