Bioethics and Nationality: A Romance

March 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

In a hilarious skit by British transvestite stand-up comedian/actor Eddie Izzard, Eddie Izzard mocks the difference between British movies and American movies. The British movie, generally entitled something like “Room with a View of a Staircase and a Pond,” is quite subdued–not much action, lots of unuttered affect. “Whenever the movie makes any little bit of business,” Izzard declares, Hollywood takes it and makes it into a major action film: “Room with a View of Hell! Staircase of Satan! Pond of Death!” Machine guns and yelling abound; the main character eventually rides off in a motorcycle a la Steve McQueen.

I am thinking of this skit not only because it’s just so funny and on my mind all the time, but because it seems to embody some of what Priscilla Wald discusses in “What’s in a Cell: John Moore’s Spleen and the Language of Bioslavery.” In both Moore’s court case and in Robin Cook’s medical thriller Chromosome 6, the conversation about bioethics and the definition of the human gets translated into a conversation about nationality. By analogizing the owning of body parts, or “bioslavery,” to American slavery and the civil war, the conversation gets localized and temporalized. The particular necessity to define the human becomes occluded through a recourse to “American values”: ethical research, responsible commercialization, and liberty–as pursued by the Puritans in their exodus from Britain.

What particularly appealed to me about Wald’s article is her historicization and localization of the triumphalist outcomes of Chromosome 6, as particularly American in its protagonists’ sympathy for the oppressed bonobo monkeys, their desire for the monkeys to pursue their own freedom and happiness. Her description of the bonobos–as particularly human, sentient beings, created for organ donation without the ability to decide the trajectories of their own bodies–puts into mind the clones in Never Let Me Go. The two novels, in their sympathies for the organ donors, in fact, should be put in dialogue. If the triumphant ending of Chromosome 6 is reflective of “American” values, then, I wonder whether we can use the same historicizing tactic to deal with that ever-unanswerable question: Why none of the clones ever run away from their situations. The British have no history of exodus; their island is so small that Never Let Me Go’s characters cannot even imagine its border counties; and the isles historically (recently, at least) have a rather isolationalist policy. Can this explain, at least to some extent, why there is no rescue, no running away, at the end of the novel? And more imperatively, for both Wald and our own thinking: What is at stake when, as Wald has so deftly demonstrated, a supposedly universal notion (the “human”) is revealed to be historically and regionally constructed, and when authors, lawyers, and ethicists want it to be so?

Dan Fang


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