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Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and the Abortion Debate or Why You Should Buy Matt’s Book

June 17th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Jake Meador

In Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish he argues that over the past 200 years the emphasis of western justice has shifted from punishing the body to punishing the soul. To support this he cites a number of shifts in the culture, though the most stark example is easily the changing attitude toward torture. He begins his book by citing an exceptionally gruesome execution from 1757 in France in which a man who attempted to murder the king was publicly carted to the execution site where he then had pieces of flesh torn away with red hot pincers. He then had a mixture of molten sulfur and other compounds poured onto the wounds before being drawn-and-quartered. (In this case, however, the horses used were not typically used for such purposes, so they failed to sever his limbs on the first try, so two horses had to be added, which also failed. They then had to cut through all of the skin around the bones so that only the ligaments were holding the victim in place. When that was done, the horses were finally able to pull him apart.)

Foucault uses such a graphic and, in modern eyes, horrifying example to make a point: In the pre-modern world a crime done against the body was punished on the body of the criminal. So a regicide who threatened the king’s body – and by extension, the body of the nation – was punished on his body in the most extreme ways possible. Contrast that, then, to today’s justice system in which direct corporal punishment has been minimized considerably and newer punishments which strike at a person’s “rights” are the norm.

In the new system, the intangible non-bodily rights of a person are targeted. Foucault argues that this is even the case in the vestiges of corporal punishment still in our system, most noticeable in nations that still practice capital punishment. In western countries capital punishment is done behind closed doors because the point is not to inflict bodily harm onto someone who inflicted bodily harm on an innocent, but to take away the right to life from someone that stole that right from an innocent. In short, then, we have the privileging of what Foucault alternatively calls the “soul” or the “abstract conscious” over the physical body.

As I read the chapter, my mind turned to the abortion debate and this question: Assuming Foucault’s characterization of the modern western mind is correct, doesn’t this inescapably influence the way we view the question of abortion? If we are trained in our current cultural understanding to elevate the abstract conscious over the much more physical body, doesn’t it logically follow that in the question of abortion we would favor the woman’s rights over the body of the unborn baby?

This begs a few follow-up questions, then: For everyone, how does this framing of the abortion issue fit into our overarching view of the body within mass culture? Particularly for secular feminists, how does the privileging of abstract conscious over body fit into the overarching picture of the human body and the female body in particular? For pro-lifers, meanwhile, it perhaps should give us another reason to push back against a gnostic or Platonic understanding of the physical body and more reason to read projects like the one Matt is currently working on.

Or, perhaps to connect this to one of Matt’s earlier questions, maybe evangelicalism is gnostic in the same ways and to the same extent that mainstream American culture is?

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).