Reading in the Abortion Clinic
: Meanings of the Body in Derrida and Coetzee

  • Richard John Lyus

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

Abstract

This interdisciplinary thesis brings together a Derridean reading of J.M. Coetzee's 1999 novel Disgrace and my own clinical experience of working as a doctor, to examine how the fetal body and its destruction are experienced and conceptualised in the practice and discussion of abortion. In Derrida, ethics is frequently reframed as responsibility. This reframing makes ethics a matter of our ability to respond and of the interpretation of our responses. The ambiguity of these terms is exploited by Derrida to open up the field of ethics to concern any kind of response, including those made automatically by living beings. Consequently, Derrida sketches an account of ethics in which responsibility operates at the level of anatomy and physiology. Fetal life and its destruction both illuminates, and is illuminated by, this account of responsibility. Coetzee’s novel further illuminates the networks of sexual response and responsibility in which abortion exists and is interpreted, and again bridges the domains of physiology and ethics.

Chapter One examines the 2010 report produced by The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which concludes that fetuses are not capable of awareness, and specifically are not capable of pain. This conclusion informs both medical practice and political debate. However, I argue that while the report claims to restrict its remit and methodology to scientific evidence, it in fact provides no scientific answer to the question of fetal awareness, and I demonstrate how the report depends in various places on a circular reasoning that the report both acknowledges and ignores. I suggest that the RCOG report is best understood as an argument for a certain philosophical attitude towards the question of what meaningful subjectivity is and is not. This question is framed in the report by a distinction between meaningful and meaningless gestures or signs. To examine this distinction, I use Derrida’s analysis of the Husserlian concept of the sign in Speech and Phenomena (1967), and Derrida’s critique of a comparable distinction in Descartes, which Derrida analyses in The Animal That Therefore I Am (2002). I argue that rendering certain gestures meaningless derives from a deeply unsympathetic and Cartesian disposition towards the body, and to animality in general, including the kind of animality to which the RCOG report itself explicitly compares the fetus.

Chapter Two is concerned with Coetzee's Disgrace, and in particular the decision of Lucy Lurie to continue a pregnancy forced upon her by rape. I examine readings that frame this decision as an act of self-sacrifice, and which thereby tacitly frame the abortion Lucy does not have as a form of fetal or child sacrifice. I develop Andy Lamey’s sacrificial reading of Lucy’s decision in the volume J.M Coetzee and Ethics (2010), in which Lamey draws on the work of René Girard, but I do so by using a more general account of abortion that is offered by the Girardian antiabortion activist Bernadette Waterman Ward. I explore the implications of framing abortion as sacrificial, suggesting not that the term is inappropriate, but that sacrifice and abortion should be used to cultivate responsibility, rather than to determine the conditions of responsibility as Ward—and perhaps Coetzee and his readers—try to do.

Chapter Three is concerned with the hand as a figure for thought, which plays an important role in the reading of Disgrace offered by Cary Wolfe in the collection Philosophy and Animal Life (2008). I explore the figurative hand-ofthought that is presented by Wolfe, which derives from his reading of Heidegger, Stanley Cavell, and Derrida. I argue that if the hand is a figure for various peculiarly human responses such as thought, this thought must concern our responsibilities. While Heidegger uses the figure of the hand to bring thought into the body, Derrida uses it to bring responsibility into the body, and I give an example of my own bodily experience of responsibility to suggest that our most responsible responses breach the dualist distinctions examined in Chapter One. I conclude that we can meaningfully develop our discourse about abortion, the body, and responsibility, if instead of aspiring to normative ends we follow Derrida’s example, and focus our attention on the space between the responses of the speaking ‘I’ and the responses of a body that exceeds what can be said.
Date of AwardOct 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorJohn Wrighton (Supervisor), Arianne Shahvisi (Supervisor) & Mark Devenney (Supervisor)

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