I present the following deliberate overstatement to provoke discussion:
If a man does not believe that his body belongs to God, he ends by believing that his body belongs to the state.
Now, since I said that this is a deliberate overstatement, why would I say it? I don't actually think that everyone who starts out by denying that his body belongs to God ends by believing that his body belongs to the state. I'm not even sure that it could be shown statistically that the majority of individuals who start out by denying that their bodies belong to God end up believing that their bodies belong to the state.
The thought was sparked by this post and thread on Secondhand Smoke, though at the time I didn't have time to blog it. There WJS documents the recent suggestion of "organ conscription"--if we can't get "enough" organs from voluntary organ donation, the state should have the power to take them, either without permission or even against the wishes of unwilling donors.
This is yet another example of the phenomenon I refer to as "choice devours itself." The pattern goes like this: Secular liberals begin with the assumption that it is tremendously important that some area of life be under the exclusive control of the individual. The watchwords, at first, are "freedom" and "choice." They make sure that it is legal for individuals to be able to "control their own bodies" in this particular area. Then it begins to emerge that people are not actually choosing to do the thing freely. Stories emerge of private coercion, conflict of interest in those who counsel, exploitation of minors or those who are desperately poor, and even (in the case of forced abortion in China) of direct coercion from the government. Conservatives wait for the chorus of condemnation from the Left. After all, this was all about owning your body, about your right to choose, about freedom. Right? And all we hear is crickets chirping. Sometimes, we hear worse--leftist defense of the policies in question.
Now, I'm not going to claim that organ donation is something that conservatives are opposed to qua conservatives. But I think it's fairly clear that abuses in organ donation situations are things conservatives are somewhat more likely to talk about than are liberals. And now this: The same type of people, even almost certainly some of the very same individuals, who tell us all about the "right to control your body" when it comes to, say, suicide, are now telling us that the state should have a prima facie right to take parts of your body when you die. Or even something more than a prima facie right: A right to override your "harmful" and "selfish" wishes against donation and take the organs willy nilly.
Here the Christian conservative faces an interesting situation. I do not believe that it is correct to say that my body is my property, if one means that strictly and literally rather than as a weak metaphor or a mere manner of speaking. I believe that my body is God's property. An atheist's body is God's property, too. An enormous amount of harm has been done by the notion that one's body is really, literally one's own property.
But one would think that if someone did believe that a person's body is his property, he would be consistent. And it would follow from that notion that a person's body cannot be used, yes, even after his death, against his wishes. That's what wills are for, right? To tell people how you want your property used. Even if a person dies intestate, the state doesn't get his property unless there are no kin to inherit and dispose of it. Nobody "presumes consent" to have your SUV donated to a cause determined by the government solely on the grounds that you died without a will!
(All of this, of course, is setting aside the rather urgent worry that the dead donor rule is being, shall we say, bent or flouted in a number of cases and that some people may either have their organs taken when they are not dead or may be neglected or actively killed in the urgent drive to obtain their organs.)
But one does wonder, where did the idea that one's body is one's property go? For the advocates of organ conscription, or even, for that matter, of "presumed consent," it has disappeared into thin air.
So I feel rather like someone who says, "Marriage is not merely a contract, but in law it should not be treated more shoddily than a contract is treated." Similarly, a man's body is not his own property, at least not in any absolute sense, but in law it should not be treated as something less than his property--as a piece of unclaimed meat to be taken and used at will by the guys in power.
I suggest that people who really believe literally that one's body is one's own property are at some level treating the human body and the human person reductively--i.e., as a piece of meat. They may start, therefore, by making the individual's will (as what Zippy calls one of the free and equal Supermen) and his control over that piece of meat the highest goods. But because they have a fundamentally reductive view of his personhood, that commitment even to his freedom of choice is brittle. Under pressure from other utilitarian considerations that seem to them of more importance, it snaps. In fact, this set of facts--about reductive ideas and brittleness--may have a lot to do with the "choice devours itself" phenomenon in all of its manifestations.