On bodily autonomy

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There is a scene in Monty Python’s film Life of Brian in which, in the midst of a discussion amongst a group of revolutionaries enjoying the spectacles at the colosseum, a man from the Judean Liberation Front expresses a strong desire to have a baby. He is told gently that this is an unrealistic desire, but his failure to respond to reason on this issue finally exasperates those around him until one of them (played by John Cleese) shouts at him “But you can’t have a baby. Men can’t have babies!” The man from Judea shrieks back “Don’t you oppress me!” It is obvious that the Judean has misunderstood the meaning of oppression and this is what makes his accusation, and hence this scene in the movie, so funny. But his confusion would not be amusing in the same way if he were simply wrong about oppression. It is only amusing because he has partially grasped the meaning of the concept. What then is the nature of his confusion? The Judean is correct in realizing that, at least in part, oppression involves a denial of a person’s autonomy. He is affronted because he feels that his autonomy with respect to his body, or what I am referring to as bodily autonomy, has somehow been infringed or denied. He is also affronted because he understands that oppression is a function of social relationships of power — hence the accusation. However, what the Judean has failed to grasp is that in the exercise of autonomy there must be some correlation or match between our goals and desires, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, our natural or acquired skills, talents and capacities. Although it may be a source of frustration to me that I am not a virtuoso musician, if I lack the necessary talents my inability to satisfy this desire clearly involves no infringement of my autonomy. My autonomy can be infringed only if I have been prevented in some way from realizing my desire to exercise or develop my musical talents, for example because of lack of opportunity due to parental disapproval, or poverty or discrimination. The Judean’s thinking scrambles the relationships between desires, capacities, autonomy and oppression, leading him to conclude that if he desires to bear children but lacks the capacity, then his autonomy has somehow been infringed and this must be the result of someone else’s attitude or actions.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of phenomenology and medicine
EditorsS. Kay Toombs
Place of PublicationDordrecht, The Netherlands
PublisherKluwer Academic Publishers
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9789401005364
ISBN (Print)9781402002007
Publication statusPublished - 2001

Publication series

NamePhilosophy and Medicine
PublisherSpringer Netherlands
ISSN (Electronic)0376-7418


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