Bioethics Blogs

Naming something that is at the limits of naming

As part of my role as commissioned poet for  the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ naturalness project, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we use language and also how language resists these uses. Many of the questions and comments that came out of the recent roundtable hosted by the Council (at which they introduced a draft of their report on the way the terms ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are used) were to do with some of the reasons why we might use the words ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ in certain ways and it is this aspect of proceedings that I will focus on.

Kayo Chingonyi, helping the Council explore ideas about naturalness in bioethics debates

At the roundtable one of the invited guests responded to the draft report by saying that often the words ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ are stand-ins for a discomfort someone might feel but cannot name. It could be the case when someone objects to a medical procedure on the grounds that it is not ‘natural’ that they are actually expressing a fear or sadness or shame that procedure evokes. In such cases a term like ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ is a capacious umbrella under which that discomfort can shelter. Another guest reasoned that this is because such words mean so many different things to different people that, in effect, two people discussing ‘naturalness’ with each other might well be having two different conversations. As I was listening to the discussion unfold I jotted down some notes in the scrawled handwriting I use in lieu of shorthand.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.