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you may not have this body

First Principles

Today, even as I was thinking about an on-going conversation about reproductive rights, I was confronted by an idea I’d never really considered, as such: without habeas corpus, no other right matters. If I can’t challenge my own imprisonment, if I can’t challenge the fact that the state is depriving me of my liberty, then none of the other rights presumably guaranteed to me are enforceable at all.

I think it’s no great exaggeration to say that sovereignty over one’s own body is closely related to the claim above. For that reason, what Althea has intimated resonates for me: this is about how my government and my society view me. Am I an autonomous individual who has rights over her own body, or not?

The Mandatory Ultrasound Bill

Small-government-loving Texas Governor Rick Perry made this bill an emergency issue earlier this year, and it’s currently being challenged before the courts. It requires women to undergo an ultrasound, view the sonogram, and hear the heartbeat (if there is one) twenty-four hours before having an abortion. In recent years, and especially in the last two, a shocking number of states have passed laws requiring a 24-hour waiting period.

When I seek an abortion, there are undoubtedly interests involved besides mine. But no one’s interest rises to the level of a right… except mine and my doctor’s. In our discussion, Paul noted that the Mandatory Ultrasound Bill is a proxy for banning abortion. It also draws on a technique we’ve seen before… in the poll tax, for example. It is a way of depriving a group of rights you enjoy, without necessarily going to the trouble of demonstrating that the deprivation is warranted, let alone absolutely required. And that’s despicable.

To establish arbitrary logistical obstacles and financial disincentives to medical procedures for ideological reasons is despicable. To mandate traumatizing guilting-and-shaming protocols in order to dissuade me from making a perfectly legal decision about my body is despicable. To force a doctor to risk inducing psychological and emotional harm on a patient, absent medical justification, is despicable.

“Controlling Women”

I don’t believe that the motive-related caricatures pro-choice and pro-life campaigns use to attack each other are generally accurate, but there is little doubt in my mind that there are far more pro-lifers who don’t consider women to be autonomous agents than there are pro-choicers who want to kills babies. The charge of misogyny is far more likely to be accurate than the charge of bloodthirst. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Perhaps the goal of the vast majority of those who push for such legislation is not primarily to control women. They have proven, however, that they consider the usurpation of my rights acceptable. They may not seek to control me, but they are comfortable doing it. They consider it reasonable for my rights over my own person – which have been alluded to and expressly enshrined in ostensibly enforceable constitutional documents and in common law – to be trumped by the speculative rights of an unborn human being.

When a policy disproportionately affects one segment of society in a negative way, the claim that it is only “incidentally” targeting that group is unconvincing. In this case, it is also both suspect and laugh(tokeepfromcrying)able. One hundred percent of those who will be forced to hear the heartbeat of their unborn children will be women. One hundred percent of those whom this law deprives of sovereignty over their own bodies will be women. Those who seek to limit reproductive rights necessarily hold that women’s body rights may be routinely jettisoned. It is also arguable that the claim that this decimation of the rights of women is only *collateral damage* further inculpates, rather than exculpates, those accused of misogyny.

History Lessons

A big part of my education as a woman has involved coming to the painful and humbling and infuriating realization that I am very lucky to have been born when I was, and to live where I do. The history of the subjugation of women is long, but not ancient. And it is not a closed book. Not even in North America. I have walked out of class in tears after hearing stories of nuns who disfigured themselves to avoid being raped… and were often murdered by the repulsed would-be rapists whom they’d deprived of a satisfying fuck. Such women would consider that death preferable to rape, not for fear of the trauma of sexual violation, but because being martyred in the name of their sexual purity was preferable to losing it – even involuntarily. Think about that for a moment. “I would rather permanently disfigure myself – I would even rather die – than be sexually impure.”

Rape, incest, forced pregnancy, profoundly disturbing and asymmetrical teaching and punishment relating to sexual purity, Magdalene asylums, routine objectification, the slut/madonna dichotomy, deprivation of rights of citizenship, deprivation of property rights, endorsement – first explicit and later tacit – of domestic violence… all of these are the context in which discussions about abortion must be placed. These are all adjacent to and interwoven with the matter of reproductive rights. And, just like restrictions on reproductive rights (though to varying degrees), each of these violations happened to women qua women.


This is not to say that my position on abortion is founded on some bizarre demand for reparations: “You raped us and denied us suffrage for millenia, so now we get to kill your unborn children!” Rather, in our attempt to extricate ourselves from an embarrassing past and present, I believe that we ought to err on the side of a woman’s right to choose what happens with her body. Our natural tendency to rely on tradition and custom (much of which is tainted by patriarchal views) is a built-in check on that, so I’m not terribly worried that the pendelum will swing too far. Besides, and most importantly, we routinely err on the side of bodily autonomy on most every issue… so long as it’s not a “woman’s issue.”

Even before I could articulate it this way, my fundamental reason for being so adamantly pro-choice is that I don’t think that title is short-hand for “pro-choice on the issue of abortion.” I think it stands as is, as a blanket endorsement and celebration of my freedom to decide for myself. I believe that our right to govern what happens to our bodies is at the bottom of all that we value in a civilized society. Without sovereignty over my own body, I have no power, no liberty, no rights at all.

So, no. You may not have this body.


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