Ethics, Embodiment Re/Production and the Lifecourse

Written following a symposium I was involved in organising, held on June 6th 2014 at the University of Edinburgh.

“[B]ioethics is out of touch. It is out of touch with bodies themselves” (Shildrick 2005; p. 2)

Feminist theorists such as Margrit Shildrick have been prominent in critiquing bioethical discussions which take for granted bodies and embodiment. In Ethics of the Body: Postconventional Challenges, an edited collection by Shildrick and Mykitiuk, this is explored via papers addressing a range of topics which both invoke bioethical engagement, but also unsettle and question notions of embodiment and what bodies are. For me, the book has been a useful and enduring resource, since different chapters within it address areas of empirical research or teaching I’ve been involved in: addictions (Helen Keane), mental health (Nancy Potter), disability (Jackie Leach Scully), and sex/gender (Katrina Roen).

On 5th June 2014, a symposium, Ethics, Embodiment, Re/Production and the Lifecourse, at the University of Edinburgh, interrogated questions about the relationship, and potential for mutual collaboration between, theories of embodiment and bioethics. The symposium was part of a Wellcome Trust strategic award, The Human Body, its Scope, Limits and Future, on which Sarah Cunningham-Burley, my co-organiser, is co-investigator.

What can theoretical work on embodiment contribute to discussions about the ethical implications of biomedical innovations? What can bioethics contribute to theoretical work on embodiment?

The focus of the symposium on re/production and the lifecourse reflected an attempt to look at embodiment and ethics in terms of reproduction, and especially the challenges raised by new reproductive technologies, but also to consider how biomedicine increasingly works across the lifecourse to produce different types of bodies. Such biomedical innovations and interventions raise significant ethical questions. They also raise important questions about the nature of bodies and embodiment.

My own interest in embodiment and bioethics, and what the two might contribute to one another, led from work I undertook during a postdoctoral fellowship at IASH (Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities). While there I was working broadly on ethics and self-harm, but I focused especially on exploring the ways that academic discourse about the ethics of treating self-harm addressed embodiment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of what I found, which was itself limited, tended not to engage much with self-harm as an embodied practice. Indeed, this is reflective of the vast majority of academic work on self-harm – it tends to gloss over the messy, lived, corporeal aspects of being or caring for someone who self-harms.

The relative lack of engagement in (some) bioethical work with embodiment, and especially fleshy, lived bodies, was raised by many of the speakers who contributed to the symposium. I’ll be writing a more detailed blog and report of the day; but here is a brief overview of the speakers and their talks:

Session 1: Reproduction, ethics and embodiment

  • Elizabeth Ettorre, opened the day sketching out the need for an embodied ethics, which is open to and engages with bodily, embodied diversity; is empathic; and attends to embodied emotions as a part of ethical reflection.
  • Danielle Griffiths followed, taking an embodied perspective to ethical debates about new reproductive technologies; particularly those that have been proposed but not yet realised: male pregnancy and ectogenesis.

Session 2: Ethics, medicine and disabled bodies

  • The second session addressed disability and medical treatments or ‘fixes’. Fadhila Mazanderani discussed the role of patient’s embodied experiences in guiding their decision making regarding controversial treatments for MS; contrasting this type of evidence with, for example, Randomised Control Trials that are often prized in clinical decision making.
  • Jackie Leach Scully raised a series of provocative arguments regarding the development, use and representation of prosthetics. She suggested that the use of prosthetics contributes to the normalisation of certain types of disabled body; and the marginalisation of others.

Session 3: Biomedical innovations and enhancements

  • Next, Gill Haddow addressed a different type of assistive device (ICDs), though this one designed to prolong/extend/save life; discussing the embodied and relational consequences of being a ‘cyborg’.
  • Finally, Sarah Chan addressed bioethical debates about enhancement, using this discussion to problematize dominant bioethical discourse about normality, especially as applied to gender and disability.

The third session was also to have included a paper from Anne Kerr, discussing body work and emotional labour in biomedical innovation. Anne couldn’t present on the day unfortunately, but her paper would have been a great addition.

There were a number of common themes and threads running throughout the day, which I need more time to think about in order to do them justice. What was very clear was that there is a great deal of scope for further work which engages with bioethics and embodiment, especially when this explicitly includes attention to emotions.


Shildrick, M. (2005), ‘Beyond the Body of Bioethics: Challenging the Conventions’, in Shildrick, M. and Mykitiuk, R. (eds.), Ethics of the Body: Postconventional Challenges, London, MIT Press.