Biomedicine, tissue transfer and intercorporeality

Feminist Theory 3 (3):239-254 (2002)
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Abstract

More and more areas of medicine involve subjects donating tissues to another — blood, organs, bone marrow, sperm, ova and embryos can all be transferred from one person to another. Within the technical frameworks of biomedicine, such fragments are generally treated as detachable things, severed from social identity once they are removed from a particular body. However an abundant anthropological and sociological literature has found that, for donors and patients, human tissues are not impersonal. They retain some of the values of personhood and identity, and their incorporation often has complex effects on embodied identity. This article draws on feminist philosophy of the body to think through the implications of some of these practices. Specifically, it draws on the idea of intercorporeality, wherein the body image is always the effect of embodied social relations. While this approach is highly productive for considering the stakes involved in tissue transfer, it is argued that the concept of body image has been too preoccupied with the register of the visual at the expense of introceptive data and health/illness events. Empirical data around organ transplant and sperm donation are used to demonstrate that the transfer of biological fragments involves a profound kind of intercorporeality, producing identifications and disidentifications between donors and recipients that play out simultaneously at the immunological, psychic and social levels.

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