The secular dead body: feeling awkward about organ donorship

The Netherlands National Donor Monument in Naarden. Source: Ziko van Dijk, Wikimedia Commons. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
The Netherlands National Donor Monument in Naarden. Source: Ziko van Dijk, Wikimedia Commons. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Organ donorship is a sensitive and at times controversial topic in numerous political contexts. In today’s post, Ton Groeneweg picks up recent failed efforts to introduce Active Donor Registration in The Netherlands to explore the relationship between these debates and evolving dynamics around religion and secularism.

Recently another attempt to introduce the legal principle of ‘Active Donor Registration’ (ADR) in the Netherlands failed.[i] A proposed bill to establish this principle, according to which all citizens would, after their timely or untimely death, become potential organ donors unless they express their explicit objection to it, did not win a majority in the parliament. The present system, where only those who deliberately sign a donor codicil are considered potential donors, does not match the need for donor organs in the Netherlands. This results in the death of an estimated 150 people annually, who could potentially be helped and could possibly survive, if enough donor organs would be available.

The main proponent of the law was the progressive liberal party D’66 (Democrats ’66), that had attempted to introduce the law already once before in 2012. Given this consistent advocacy, one could not help being reminded of similar passionate appeals by D’66, e.g. earlier this year in the case of the – likewise failed – attempt to have the clause “by the grace of God” removed from Dutch legal phrasings.[ii] The latter case suggests that behind this advocacy is an active secularist perspective, that might also inspire the advocacy for organ donorship. Part of D’66 politics is clearly driven by the urge to further secularize the Dutch public realm and its legal provisions, to bring them in line with the supposedly secular character of the Dutch state and the general ‘secular’ orientation of its citizenry.

My purpose here is not to argue in favour or against the law on organ donorship as such. What I will argue is that in pushing for the proposed law and the urge to turn a clear secularist position into the legal standard of public practice, the progressive liberal party too easily discards the reluctance that many people feel with regard to organ donorship. The failure to recruit a sufficient number of voluntary donors through the existing provisions and in spite of extensive public campaigns is a clear sign of this reluctance. Instead of dismissing this failure as the result of an apparent laziness or ignorance in the general public, whether or not based on superstitious religious beliefs or what is left of them, I would propose to take the hesitations that are genuinely felt seriously for a moment.[iii]

Of course the proponents of active donorship have all the arguments on their side: the availability of sufficient donor organs will save lives, often of young people with futures ahead of them. As is clear from the current practice in surrounding countries, the active donor registration system improves the situation and increases the number of available donor organs. And the law itself provides for very balanced and careful precautions: the means to express one’s objection to organ donorship are made facile and repeatedly available to everyone. So who could possibly object to such a combination of a utilitarian logic and a passionate appeal to solidarity with our fellow human beings, especially if the support for religiously inspired objections to these practices is dwindling in the strongly secularized Dutch public?[iv] There seems to be no valid rational or even emotional argument left to motivate even the reluctance to voluntary signing of a donor codicil.

So where does this leave those of us who continue to feel awkward about organ donorship? An awkwardness that is partly inspired by the unwillingness to take refuge in clearly religiously motivated objections, as if that would be the only alternative to the utilitarian logic of the secular progressive democrats. What is it with this feeling that something is not right in being pushed, forced into a position where logical, reasonable arguments fail – but a reluctance persists? Are we then still unwillingly led by lingering superstitious beliefs? Insufficiently ‘enlightened’ as the implicit reproach from our secular progressive compatriots suggests, resulting in a lack of compassion and solidarity with our fellow human beings in dire need of our organs? Perhaps. Yet I would try to suggest another line of argument here, in order to do justice to what is felt and expressed as ‘awkwardness’ here.

The body is central in these sensitive discussions, in particular the dead body. In an excellent article, Matthew Engelke has recently explored some of the intriguing adventures of the dead body in what could be called the ‘secular realm’, under the wittily phrased label of “the coffin question”.[v] In studying the funeral practices of humanist celebrants affiliated with the British Humanist Association, Engelke perceptively analyzes how these celebrants struggle during their carefully and conscientiously designed celebrations with the coffin – and of course with what it contains, the body of the deceased. Notwithstanding their deliberate attempt to keep the celebration within an ‘immanent frame’, without any reference to a beyond or a transcendent life, it is precisely the coffin and the dead body that seem to prevent this immanent frame from closing upon itself. It is the dead body as such that seems to invoke the kind of ‘enchantment’ that the humanist celebration is trying to keep out of its performance at all costs. The ultimate ideal in these celebrations, Engelke indicates, would be to do entirely away with the presence of the coffin (or the urn), and to direct all attention to the commemoration and celebration of the life of the person recently deceased. It is in this light that ‘organ donation’ also pops up at one point, as another example of the attempt to demystify the dead body – “yet another way of pushing this kind of enchantment out of the immanent frame” (o.c. 36).

Engelke’s article perfecty illustrates one of the strange contradictions in the secular relationship to the dead body, which is also noticeable in the appeal for organ donorship. In its attempt to expel enchantment and superstition from funeral celebrations and advocating for the acceptance of the “finality of death” (o.c. 36), the secular humanist practice tries to do away with what seems to represent or manifest this finality in its most pressing form – the secular dead body. In order to avoid the uncanny enchantment that the body threatens to transpire, it has to be avoided as such. It is as if in order to become fully secular, to fully embrace the idea that there is nothing beyond the secular, physical realm of our existence, one has to do away with physicality in its ultimate form – the stage when there is nothing left but mere physical presence. Strangely enough, the urge to become fully secular thus seems to come from the appeal to entirely spiritualize human existence: to put everything on the side of what makes a person into a unique human being by what literally ‘in-spires’ the body during life, but is no longer there after death. In order to do this, the physical material presence of our bodies – and most insistently our dead bodies – has to be reasoned away, ultimately sublimated into the ideational presence of the deceased in the memories of those who live on. That is, as also Engelke indicates, the ultimate purpose of the humanist celebrations.[vi]

In a more generalized sense, this underlines the peculiar status of the secular body as such, its evasive and enigmatic nature in comparison to e.g. the marked ‘religious body’. If the latter can be identified as the body on which all sorts of disciplinary practices can be performed in order to chastise it or make it adopt a more pious posture,[vii] a similar perception is less obvious with regard to the secular body. As Charles Hirschkind and others have indicated, it is an unsolved question whether we can speak about a secular body at all in this perspective. [viii] As the secular perception is trying to bring everything down to the physical, material existence of the body, it is paradoxically precisely the latter that seems to withdraw from the scene. In the attempt to lift the curtain of superstition and enchantment, the main character of the performance disappears in this gesture behind the very same curtain.[ix] It veils itself behind its own unveiling.[x]

These are also the kind of contradictions that hover beneath the debate on active organ donor registration and that, I would argue, partly explain the hesitance and reluctance felt by those who do not necessarily phrase their reservations in religious terms. The utilitarian and rational argumentation of secular progressivism, as represented by D’66 in this debate, follows the track of the logic that spiritualizes the essence of our human existence – paradoxically in the name of a mere immanent understanding of it. Thereby it reduces the body (at first glance the dead body, but I would argue also its living precursor) to what merely sustains, serves and at most incorporates the human person. It does not have an essential relationship to the essence of the person as such, even if everything bears down to its existence within the secular realm. So, once again, in its strange and unintended inverse logic, while trying to come to terms with the ‘finality of death’ and the fully disenchanted appropriation of our existence within the immanent frame, the secularist view alienates itself from our physical existence in the name of delivering itself to it. In order to be no longer enchanted, possessed by the otherworldly appeal of the dead body, the secular view can no longer possess even the living body as its own. And this particular dispossession of the body, of our own bodies, dead or alive, is possibly what raises the reluctance and resistance of so many of us with regard to such appeals.

It would be a mistake to take this resistance as being merely inspired by ‘superstition’, as the remnant of a bygone enchanted age. It is not even a resistance against organ donorship, as many of us do carry donor codicils. I would rather take it as the expression of a concern regarding the dispossession of our lives by a particularly insistent utilitarian secularist appeal, that continues to permeate our public debates.[xi] This concern, which is expressed necessarily modestly, necessarily hesitantly, tries to respond to the fact that this kind of secularist appeal actually sacrifices what it tries to salvage: the inherently groping and uncertain attempt to come to terms with a precarious life in a secular world that, therefore, will and should never be allowed to close upon itself. The worst thing we could possibly do with regard to organ donorship is not feel awkward about it anymore.

Ton Groeneweg works as Policy Officer Religion & Development at Mensen met een Missie, and is a fellow of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen. His personal blog can be found at https://disenchantedsecularist.wordpress.com/.

[i] See http://nos.nl/artikel/2109672-invoering-automatisch-donorsysteem-voorlopig-van-de-baan.html.

[ii] See e.g. http://nos.nl/artikel/2079284-d66-wil-bij-de-gratie-gods-uit-wet-halen.html.

[iii] As the proponent of the bill, Pia Dijkstra, apparently suggested in an interview, the main reasons for this reluctance should be identified as “laxity or the tendency to avoid thinking about it” (http://gezondheid.blog.nl/algemeen/2012/08/13/d66-elke-nederlander-automatisch-orgaandonor).

[iv] As expected, the main objections to the law came from the side of more orthodox Christian parties, and to a lesser extent from Muslim parliamentarians. Another contingent of dissenters came from the liberal parties (VVD and PVV), who considered the law an infringement on individual autonomy. The position of the Christian Democratic party (CDA) was interesting: it refrained from using any explicit religious arguments to withhold its support, but instead raised procedural and formal objections. See http://www.medischcontact.nl/archief-6/Tijdschriftartikel/154180/Opnieuw-nee-CDA-tegen-nieuw-donorregistratiesysteem.htm.

[v] Matthew Engelke: ‘The coffin question: death and materiality in humanist funerals’. In: Material Religion. The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief. Vol. 11: 1 (2015), pp. 26-48. I thank Jelle Wiering for drawing my attention to this article.

[vi] As he argues about the more principled humanist celebrants: “what they really wanted is a memorial service – focused on memories and words – more than a funeral” (o.c. 36).

[vii] See e.g. Saba Mahmood: Politics of Piety. The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton UP (2005).

[viii] See Charles Hirschkind: ‘Is there a secular body?’ and Talal Asad: ‘Thinking about the secular body, pain, and liberal politics.’ Both in: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 26: 4 (2011), pp. 633-647 and pp. 657-675 respectively. Engelke also mentions Hirschkind’s article in his bibliography, yet one of the impressive achievements of his essay is that he relates to the more complex theoretical questions involved in this issue without overtly engaging with them.

[ix] Matthew Engelke uses similar theatrical metaphors to describe the dynamics around the dead body during humanist celebrations. Intriguingly enough, there is a literal equivalent of the disappearance of the body behind the curtain during the ceremony, as the coffin is removed from sight before cremation. There is a delicate balance here: “One of the worst things that can happen is for the celebrant to finish what he or she has to say before the curtains are fully drawn, or too long after.” (o.c. 45)

[x] See Ton Groeneweg: ‘The insistence of the secular: Secular self-constitution in a time of ‘religious controversy’’. Public lecture at University of Groningen, 17 May 2016.

[xi] Of course there are also more nuanced and attentive secular positions with regard to death and dead bodies, which even allow space for a certain non-religious sense of ‘sacredness’. Examples vary from Alain de Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’ to Judith Butler’s ‘Precarious Life’.

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