Silke Schicktanz: The Giving and Taking of Organs: Ethical and Cultural Dynamics Beyond Symbolic Actions

Organ donation is a wide-spread medical practice framed by cultural, religious, and legal-ethical constraints. For example, these parameters define the social distance of the relationship between donor and recipient (only family or even anonymous) as well as the moral status of the body (dead, in transition, or alive). Hence, we can observe a broad spectrum of so called morally accepted organ donation: Where postmortem donation is culturally inacceptable, living donation is favored – and vice versa. Moreover, gender disparities, particular in the ratio of living donors and recipients, are well described, but rarely critically questioned.
In my presentation, I will offer an analysis of underlying conceptions of the body in these different organ transplantation practices. A classical understanding assumes that the domination of a medical-mechanical-fractured body concept has historically leaded to the acceptance of ‘organ harvesting’. Hence, organ donation was publicly framed as a symbolic act of social altruism or even as social responsibility as the body itself has had no particular social meaning.
Instead, I will argue that there exists nowadays a plurality of different body conceptions based on different social power relations which interact, too, with the different practices of organ transplantation. Hence, organ donation is less a symbolic act. The diversity as well as existing resistance to the practice can rather be understood in the dynamics of a social practice shaped by competing body conceptions. They are related to materialistic, phenomenological, and genealogical meanings. Each meaning can theoretically be transferred into a ‘moral-epistemic hybrid’ expressing a coherent position to justify a particular practice. Critical reflection requires, hence, ethical as well as epistemological tools to disentangle these hybrids.