Research: Liberal Bodies

Liberal Bodies: Bodily Invasion and Political Theory

Book manuscript

What are, and what should be, the limits to legitimate state power over citizens? Under what circumstances can the state legitimately encroach upon the boundaries of its citizens' persons? The attempt to answer these questions -in both theoretical and practical terms- lies at the heart of the liberal project. Liberal political theory is the product of political theorists seeking to provide a principle according to which external authority can be checked. The state's uninvited and unwelcome presence inside the body jeopardizes both the concepts of limited state power over individuals and individual autonomy. It is for these reasons that I examine cases of bodily invasion that necessarily raise these questions of individuals, state power, and the line between them.

I define bodily invasion as those instances where the state, without meaningful consent, executes biological or physical interventions that alter, rather than sustain, a person and that produce substantial biological effects for the purpose of realizing a public benefit. These practices include compulsory vaccination, involuntary sterilization, court-ordered Cesarean sections, forced medical treatment and some kinds of searches and seizures. In order to discern an underlying principle according to which bodily invasion cases are decided, I explore cases where the courts have both authorized state invasion and protected citizens' bodies. Courts have authorized bodily invasions in cases of obstetric intervention, some searches, and involuntary sterilization, but have protected citizens from such invasions in cases of organ donation and other searches. I examine both of these types of cases to ascertain what principle -if any- the courts have used to distinguish among them.

I argue that liberal political theory fails to protect citizens from those practices of bodily invasion that liberalism itself defines as problematic or objectionable. The failure of liberal political theory to protect precisely what it posits as central -the individual- is a significant failing. I argue that even if we choose to embrace autonomy as a primary value, liberal political theory is insufficient to protect it. Lastly, I consider several approaches that may offer protection against state bodily invasions.