The donor organ as an ‘object a’: a Lacanian perspective on organ donation and transplantation medicine

Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 17 (4):559-571 (2014)
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Bioethical discourse on organ donation covers a wide range of topics, from informed consent procedures and scarcity issues up to ‘transplant tourism’ and ‘organ trade’. This paper presents a ‘depth ethics’ approach, notably focussing on the tensions, conflicts and ambiguities concerning the status of the human body. These will be addressed from a psychoanalytical angle. First, I will outline Lacan’s view on embodiment as such. Subsequently, I will argue that, for organ recipients, the donor organ becomes what Lacan refers to as an object a, the ‘partial object’ of desire, the elusive thing we are deprived of, apparently beyond our grasp. Within the recipient’s body an empty space emerges, a kind of ‘vacuole’, once occupied by a faltering organ. This space can only be filled by a ‘gift’ from the other, by an object a. Once implanted, however, this implant becomes an ‘extimate’ object: something both ‘external’ and ‘intimate’, both ‘embedded’ and ‘foreign’, and which is bound to remain an object of concern for quite some time, if not for life. A Lacanian analysis allows us, first of all, to address the question what organ transplantation has in common with other bodily practices involving bodily parts procured from others, such as cannibalism. But it also reveals the basic difference between the two, as well as the distance between the ‘fragmented body’ of Frankenstein’s ‘monster’—as an aggregate of replaceable parts—and the multiple organ recipients of today.

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Hub Zwart
Erasmus University Rotterdam


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