CHHS + CHLS Research Seminar: Dr Richard Lyus

The Centre for Health, Humanities and Science and the Centre for Health, Law and Society jointly hosted Dr Richard Lyus on 02.10.19. Lyus is a specialty doctor in Sexual & Reproductive Health at Homerton University Hospital in London, and a doctoral student in the School of Humanities at the University Brighton. He presented on ‘The Fetus That Therefore I Am: A Doctor Reads Derrida in the Abortion Clinic’.

Lyus argued that the gestated human is, from almost its very beginning, a gesturing one. These gestures evoke varying responses in those who bear witness to them, especially in the case of fetal gestures made in response to harm, which may be evident in abortion. Medical discourse and much bioethics has responded to this particular type of fetal gesture by debating whether or not it indicates a correlated pain experience in a putative fetal consciousness. In 1997, Parliament asked the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to respond to these fetal gestures, and the report produced by the RCOG is a good example of how this consciousness-based response requires recourse to neuroanatomical determinations concerning the spatial and chronological boundaries of the human subject. These determinations are in fact problematised by pregnancy itself, and they depend on an an implicit distinction between two types of gesture, or two types of sign: those which are meaningful because associated with a consciousness, and those which are meaningless because not associated with a consciousness. Lyus used Derrida’s reading of a parallel distinction in Husserl (expression vs. indication) and Descartes (response vs. reaction) to argue that commitment to such a scheme is metaphysically dualist, and that more importantly this dualism is anthropocentric and vivisectory in its Cartesian provenance. Such a Cartesian sensibility is unsuited to discussions of fetal life, the animals to which the RCOG report compares the fetus, and procedures in which those fetuses and animals are harmed. Lyus concluded that the political and scientific inevitability of this Cartesian response in the RCOG report renders it precisely the kind of gesture which the Cartesian response itself divests of meaning. Those who support access to abortion should distance themselves from such politically expedient but flawed accounts, and develop new accounts of fetal life which do not recapitulate the gestures of a philosophical tradition that is characterised partly by an inability to respond meaningfully to pregnancy, birth, and abortion.