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Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2007

Our Human Body
Am I morally free to "redesign" my body?

by Mary Ellen Bork

At a recent dinner party the conversation turned to the increase of ads for re-designing our bodies through various techniques, including surgery. A highly intelligent law professor said he had no criticism of people changing their bodies as long as it did not impinge on him. He thought the practice displayed a very American attitude -- if something is not right, fix it. Another male guest said that he could understand a woman wanting a nip and tuck to improve her looks but he was repulsed by the thought of a man surgically adjusting his looks.

I asked if anyone thought there is a difference between a cosmetic correction like having teeth straightened and giving yourself “the body you have always wanted”, as some ads promise. The first guest was not bothered by any degree of fixing up the body. The second guest thought cosmetic dentistry was fine but was distinctly uncomfortable with the thought of a body makeover for a man and was not too happy with the thought of a woman completely changing her looks but could not articulate any reasons beyond his feeling of revulsion.

I came away pondering how much we have accepted the cultural trend that our bodies are objects to be reconfigured and have lost the sense that the body expresses a person who is not self-created. A sense of repugnance without an articulated position is not going to last long. We act as if we have limitless freedom to redesign our bodies in hope, probably vain, that we will be happy. For many it is an unquestioned assumption that as new techniques of body manipulation become available we should take advantage of them. But should we question that assumption? Is this approach leading to a more human treatment of the body, my body, or are we treating our bodies in a dehumanizing way, as an object, a thing that is totally under my control? Am I morally free to do whatever I like with my body? Are there truths that should guide these decisions and where can I find them?

One could say that the question of redesigning our bodies is mostly a practice of a small minority, the affluent and the trendy, and is not a concern of most people. That reassuring thought turns out not to be true. In 2006 aesthetic medicine was a multi-million dollar business. With each new treatment to enhance their looks people are lining up to try it no matter what the cost.

While the very poor cannot afford these treatments, technology and science are opening doors to all kinds of new treatments that may soon be available to everyone. People at all income levels are part of a culture that values youth and the appearance of youth. Many boomers admit that they just do not want to look old. They face the possibility of living longer and do not want to look their age. Is this a new expression of self-indulgence and individualism? In a liberated age is this the ultimate liberation? Is it morally neutral like wearing nail polish?

Leon Kass, the former president of the President’s Council on Bioethics, asks that we consider whether this attitude toward the body makes us more human or less human. He speaks of “the principle of the integrity of the body”, contending that the body and the person are a unity and what we do to one affects the other. This principle should give us pause when considering the wholesale re-modeling of our bodies. What does it say about how we think of ourselves as persons and our relationship with our bodies to choose available techniques of aesthetic medicine? How far can one go down this road before we have become alienated from our own bodies and totally disoriented from that which should express the deeper spiritual qualities of being human?

On one level this desire for eternal youth is one glaring aspect of the therapeutic society. In the place of any religious evaluation of my body, the therapeutic response is to use a procedure because it will make me look and feel better. Just as with sex today, there are no moral questions to be raised for many people. Sexuality has been put in a box and labeled “recreation” and the consequences of denying the link between sex and fertility have lead to profound unhappiness. What is less obvious at first, is the gradual de-humanization of personal relations when we deny the true language of the body, that our bodies are created to speak a language of communion. We distort this language if we think of our bodies as objects for pleasure and adornment. We are in danger of seeing the body as an idol.

An idol is anything we put in the place of God, something of lesser value that we worship in the place of the transcendent. It can be our ego, our jobs, our bodies, anything that becomes an unworthy object of devotion. When the body is an idol we see young people decorate and pierce their bodies, put silver studs on their tongues and noses, and older people re-design themselves.

These rituals seem to be a new phenomenon but are we not seeing signs of primitive times when people painted their bodies to ward off evil spirits or to scare the enemy? Or is the modern use of such mutilating decorations merely a sign of boredom and spiritual emptiness, the “swamp of self”, as Midge Decter says?

We are at the point in history when we can develop techniques for almost any of our desires du jour. This new form of primitivism shows itself in people with highly decorated bodies who have no idea who they are, who see this as a way of joining a group of people doing something new. There is no thought of whether this action will make me more or less human or if there should be some limits on changing my body. That would be to introduce a view of the person as a total union of body and soul, body and person, a vision that is lost for modern elite culture.

It may well be that our therapeutic attitude toward our body was accelerated by the acceptance of contraception over the last several decades — and the separation of sexuality and fertility. The body was seen as an object to be gratified with no thought beyond pleasure. Moral questions about sexuality were dismissed as unimportant or repressive. The “new” morality of contraception took hold. Dismissing moral issues leads to dehumanizing the person who is fundamentally a moral being. The integrity of the body and the integrity of the person were violated with contraception and pronounced acceptable and desirable by the culture.

One of the unforeseen consequences of this desire to have complete control of the body seen as an object is depersonalization. To depersonalize means to create an atmosphere in which the person as a spiritual entity is not recognized and cannot flourish. The person is an object whose spirit is not affirmed, a function, a consumer, a number. A person is not a thing to be controlled but a being to be reverenced and a gift to be given.

A de-personalized culture is self-referential in the extreme and acts in ignorance of any transcendent meaning of the body seeking the next thrill and the next pleasure. Our culture is in a self-referential box and does not know how to get out. The Christian view of the dignity of the person and the human body will be a sure guide out of this dead end. As with so many moral questions, the culture is telling us to go for it because it will make you happy and conforms to a certain materialistic standard of human flourishing. But the human spirit cannot be satisfied with such slim pickins.

The Christian vision of the body captures its sublime dignity because it is created by God. The body and the person are an unbreakable unity created out of love and called to communion with God and with others in this world and in the next. The Gospel urges us to be guided by a dynamic of charity, or communion with our neighbor and with God. Pursuing this task gets us out of the “swamp of self”.

To achieve some level of communion we have to die to ourselves, to our egos, and not fall into the trap of idolatry of any object that will divert us from becoming fully human. There is, then, a certain “givenness” about things, God has given us ourselves and our bodies for the higher purpose of serving Him and the rest of creation. If we see ourselves as gifts created by God we will make our choices in the light not just of therapeutic considerations but of reverencing God’s creation and our own transcendent value and the transcendent dimension of our body. We will be able to jump out of our self-referential box and find our meaning in self-giving instead of self-preoccupation.

If we acknowledge God’s design for human life we discover that God is very interested in changing us, body and soul. That is his promise according to Saint Paul’s I Corinthians 15: 51-54: “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory”.

This religious vision of our bodies has been lost by a therapeutic culture, misguided by idols of change, beauty, and youth. My dinner partners would probably be surprised by Saint Paul’s view of how our bodies will be changed. My guess is that it has been a long time since they have heard this message.


Mary Ellen Bork is married to Judge Robert Bork and lives in McLean, Virginia. She is a member of the Voices editorial board and is a board member of the John Carroll Society and Women Affirming Life.


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