Who Has a Right to Your Body?
By David Henderson
On Facebook on March 14, the day of the student walkout over guns, I posted the following:
I think the student walkout is a GREAT idea. I would just like to see it extended. Walk out for the rest of the year.
I said it partly in jest and partly because I meant it. My friend economist Jack Tatom replied and there was a back and forth. I report the conversation below for two reasons:
1. It shows that you can have a civil discussion on Facebook.
2. I think Jack started out thinking my viewpoint about who has a right to your body too extreme but ended up agreeing with me.
Jack gave me permission to report this conversation.
Tatom: What a luxury. Students should protest on their own time.
DRH: I agree, Jack Tatom, but I think it’s ALL their own time. They have a right to their bodies.
Tatom: If they are obligated by a state or a contract with a private school, their bodies are their own, but their bodies’ presence in school during normal school hours is legally required unless deviations are allowed by the school. As a taxpayer, I object to paying taxes to support students who are irresponsible about attendance. That is why most if not all states and school districts have truancy laws. We may not be able to control their minds for full participation, but we can get a fair shot by requiring physical presence.
DRH: I don’t agree that the state can override their right to their own bodies.
Tatom: Where is this “right to their bodies” granted and/ or written in law? I am not aware that I have a right to my body. Can you tell me why you think I have one? In any event, it would not apply to minors. Maybe it is like Justice Douglas’s right to privacy.
DRH: I don’t think it is written into law. I don’t think rights are granted.
Tatom: They clearly are granted, as a matter of fact, even though I tend to agree that such state-granted rights are only enforceable at the point of a gun. I believe in natural law. I don’t believe there a right to your body, whatever that might defensibly mean, in Natural Law. Perhaps I’m wrong.
Ross (another friend): Rights are not granted by the state. They are acknowledged by the state or they are not. But even when they are not, they’re still your rights. Slaves had unacknowledged rights, not no rights.
James (a friend who’s a political science): Then, who, Jack, has a right to our bodies, and how have they gained that right?
Tatom: Absolutely no one. We tend to misuse the term “rights.” I am legitimately limited in uses of my body by the state, or even illegitimately. But to argue I have a right to my body raises precisely the two questions you have.
My children, as minors, face even more restrictions, including those imposed by me as a parent. As regards their body, I do not think they have a right, or a legal right, to use their body in any way with which I do not agree and approve. Neither I nor they have a right to their body. My body is mine and theirs is theirs, of course, but that does not convey a right to use their body in any way, place or at any time they wish.
James: Even if you harm no one else?
Who has a Iegitimate claim to control your non-harmful-to-others use of your body and how do they acquire that claim?
Tatom: I answered that–absolutely no one. My body is mine. So I own my body, but I do not have the right to do whatever I want with it. Similarly my children own their bodies, but as minors they have additional moral responsibilities to honor the reasonable contracts I made on their behalf. They do not have a right to skip school or join a demonstration on school time without my permission and that of the school to which I committed my child’s attendance.
DRH: So if they don’t have the right to join a demonstration on school time without your permission, do they have the right to take math or civics without your permission?
Tatom (replying to James): James, Sorry, I thought you asked me again. But the answer is the same: no one has the legitimate claim to coerce the use of my body except those to whom I might have granted that claim.
Tatom: David, actually I think the answer is no, but in practice I think I have given them that decision making judgement subject to not screwing it up. If that works as planned, I never have to give permission because I have given it conditional on reasonable decision making. I am not a believer in calling these decisions “rights.”
DRH: So you can decide against, even if the school disagrees and wants to force your kid to take those courses, right?
James Hanley: “no one has the legitimate claim to coerce the use of my body except those to whom I might have granted them that claim.”
And that doesn’t equal you having a right over your own body?
Tatom: David, my agreement with a school implies mutual consent. And my child presumably has a say, as well. Ultimately it is my say, but I presume the school I pick has an advantage in selecting courses for my children. But my responsibility extends beyond their’s.
Tatom: James, no, it does not. My “rights” are limited by regard for other’s rights and by the extent to which I have transferred rights to others, which are subject to limitations. Perhaps the notion of ownership vs. use rights would help clarify this. I own myself and that is in some sense an absolute right, but I can contract away use rights, which are inherently limited. When you say “a” right, I suppose I have to agree, but what or which right that is, is undefined. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say others do not have a right to the use of my body unless I transfer it, subject to reasonable limitations, to them. Accordingly, it is not correct to say I have the right to the use of my body to the exclusion of all other’s rights.