Does the State Now
Own Your Body?

By Andrew Bernstein, Ph.D.

"Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best stage,
is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one."

Thomas Paine Common Sense 1776

As government drives to control the tobacco industry and to reduce the consumption of cigarettes, there is a question one ought to ask about the broader significance of this campaign: What is the link between the anti-tobacco effort and the following: the crusade against the activities of Dr. Kevorkian, the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory practices, and the Supreme Court's famous decision upholding Georgia's anti-sodomy statute.

If we look carefully, we can discover an ominously unifying thread.

Those who want restrictions on the sale of tobacco maintain that they want to safeguard the health of Americans. Their assumption is that government has the right to prevent the individual citizen from placing himself at risk.

Dr. Kevorkian assists terminally ill patients who wish to die with a minimum of suffering. These people choose to end their lives — but his opponents do not want medically assisted suicide to be permitted. They do not want the individual to make that choice for himself. Recently, Dr. Kevorkian reported that he had kidneys available for transplant from one of his dead patients. “They're calling this unethical, just like they call everything [I do] unethical,” he said. “The odds of this being used are nil.” His prediction proved correct.

The Food and Drug Administration exists fundamentally to prohibit American citizens from using food and medicines that, in their own judgment, are beneficial to them (including even ones that are legally available, and saving lives, in other countries).

And when the Supreme Court ruled that laws against sodomy are constitutional, it declared that decisions regarding voluntary sexual activities, even in the privacy of one's own home, are to be made not by the individual, but by the state.

The fundamental question in all these issues pertains to the rights of the individual. In a free country, who should have the moral, and legal, right to decide what an individual does with his own body — the state or the individual? Whose body, and whose life, is it anyway? Increasingly, the government answers: not your own.

But if I don't have the legal right to control my own body, what rights can I have? Am I any different from a slave? If restaurateurs are forbidden from allowing smoking in their own establishments, what becomes of the right to private property? If — as has happened — a married couple is prosecuted for engaging in oral sex in their own bedroom, what becomes of the right to liberty?

What meaning is there to the very right to life, if assisted suicide is prohibited? Can your life really be yours when the law prevents you from choosing to end it? If, as Dr. Kevorkian reports, more than 200 potential recipients contacted his lawyer but no transplant team could legally accept the kidneys, what about those people's right to live? And what about the rights of all those who are forcibly prevented, by the FDA, from obtaining medicines they, or their doctors, judge to be beneficial? This last question takes on agonizing significance when one considers that, according to the Tufts University Center for the Study of Drug Development, the FDA's delay in approving beta blockers alone cost the lives of 119,000 Americans.

Look at how vicious the results are: those who desire to live are forced to suffer and die; those who desire to end their suffering and die are forced to go on living in agony.

Liberals generally support controls on tobacco and pharmaceuticals; conservatives generally support restrictions on suicide and on sex. Neither camp accepts the principle of individual rights. Both camps accept the notion that an individual's body belongs not to him, but to his government.

But this is the premise of a dictatorship, not of a free country. To what does the logic of this premise eventually lead? To the government's decreeing to patients and physicians what medicines they may and may not use — to the banning of cigarettes and the return of the horrors of Prohibition — to the use of “sex police” to make certain that we all make love in an approved manner — to the outlawing of all assisted suicides or, just as likely, to state-mandated euthanasia.

The idea that the state has ownership rights over your body can have only one ultimate consequence: the end of freedom in America. Unless government power is reined in, this is the road down which we are headed.

Dr. Bernstein, a professor of philosophy at Pace University, is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Marina del Rey, Calif.

The above editorial has been produced by the Ayn Rand Institute's MediaLink department. Visit MediaLink at A plain-text version of this article is available at


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