Bodily Autonomy

I talked in another post about social contracts, but I feel like it’s necessary to circle back to them. A social contract is the agreement individuals make by choosing to be a part of a society, and this necessarily includes being governed. It gets more complicated with corrupt, dictatorial governments, but generally speaking, an America, we all agree to a set of norms, laws, and systems that have been put in place.

The premise of the social contract starts with individuals. It starts with each of us as single animals striving for survival on a rock spinning through space around a star. It starts with each of us being responsible for our own survival, and the survival of our children, from procuring food and shelter to protecting ourselves from others who would harm us or steal from us.

From there, things expand logically. I have a right to protect myself from other people and from animals. I have a right to grow or hunt for my food (and the animals I hunt have the right to protect themselves from me). I have a right to protect my crops from people and animals who would harm them, because they are essential to my survival. I have a right to protect my children from harm, which becomes protecting my partner, my parents, my siblings, my friends.

At this very basic level of understanding, bodily autonomy is everything. My body is mine, and it is my most important thing. Everything I do centers on protecting it. I am the only one who gets a say in what happens to it, and if someone tries to impugn on my bodily autonomy, I have the right to protect myself.

Rules we have created as a society, up to and including our systems of government, if they are just, are built around people, as a group, agreeing that we will not personally enforce these rights we have by virtue of our status as a living, intelligent creatures in exchange for the powers that be agreeing to enforce them for us. You kill my mother, I don’t get to hunt you down and kill you, because I’ve agreed to allow the police to find you and give you a trial.

It means that I can be more productive in life because I’m not constantly consumed with protecting what’s mine. It’s how societies like ours are built–we specialize. We can all build the things we build and contribute in the way we contribute because some of us are responsible for the protection of all of us. Not to mention that the police, as third parties, can be objective. They are less likely to arrest the wrong person, the courts are more likely to judge a person fairly, and to determine a fair punishment, than I am. We all do better when we work together like this.

But central to this agreement are my rights. I’m not chasing you because I’ve agreed to let the police do that, but I have a right not to be stolen from, not to be physically harmed, not for my loved ones to be harmed, to have control over my body and my possessions. If someone challenges this right, infringes this right, my society has agreed that this is wrong, and that they will be punished.

This is true even after I have died.

Laws concerning the treatment of enemy bodies in war date back centuries. We respond to reports of mass graves with shock and horror, not only at the scale of the massacres, but at the disrespect suffered by those bodies. Surviving family members can sue someone who has abused the corpse of a loved one for emotional damages. Abuse or mutilation of corpses are specifically criminalized in some states, as is necrophilia. Grave robbing has been prohibited for hundreds of years.

More importantly, these rights, which persist in death, are honored even if disregarding them would allow someone else to live. If I do not agree to be an organ donor, and my medical proxy upholds those wishes, it is illegal to take organs from my body. Even if they would save a life. Even if they would save ten lives. For no other reason than because it’s my body and I didn’t want it to be used that way.

Our  society is built from this basic premise, these basic rights, and they are inalienable. John Locke, who wrote extensively on social contracts, coined the phrase “Life, liberty, and property” which later became “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

(As a side note, this is why I believe police officers, judges, military personnel, etc. all must be held to an extremely high standard. We have sacrificed our right to protect ourselves and what is “ours” based on the promise that it will be taken care of in a way that is just. Anything less than that is breaking the social contract.)


This week, Oklahoma State Representative Justin Humphrey defended legislation that would require women to get permission for their abortion from the other DNA contributor. Because his statements are so many levels of reprehensible, I’m going to quote his full commentary from the Intercept article in question:

At first, Humphrey said that the original intention of the bill was to ensure that fathers are involved in supporting a child from conception. “I was wanting fathers to have to pay child support at the beginning,” he said, but that specific language was excised from the bill.

Ultimately, he said, his intent was to let men have a say. “I believe one of the breakdowns in our society is that we have excluded the man out of all of these types of decisions,” he said. “I understand that they feel like that is their body,” he said of women. “I feel like it is a separate–what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant,” he explained. “So that’s where I’m at. I’m like, hey, your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.” 

What I think Humphrey is trying to articulate, rather poorly, is this question of bodily autonomy. For him, the moment that a woman becomes pregnant, she cedes her rights to the cluster of cells in her uterus, and its rights are the ones he is concerned with protecting. The cells’ rights to survival.

In some ways, though his delivery leaves much to be desired, I appreciate Humphrey’s candor. Most pro-life people talk about murder and never acknowledge this underlining tension, which is, Whose rights do we honor? Those of the woman, or those of the fetus.

I think when people get mired in questions of when-does-life-begin, searching scripture and mining their own emotional experiences with pregnancy and parenthood, things get a little blurry. We can’t possibly know when life begins, even if we could agree that religious texts should be our sources for these answers (we can’t), even if we could agree on just one religion’s texts (we can’t). Our emotions aren’t a good measure of this either. Ask any woman who has been late on her period, terrified of the possibility of being pregnant (even if she hasn’t had sex!), and then felt disappointed when she gets her period because it means she isn’t pregnant. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s a common experience for women, and to some extent it’s entirely outside of our control. It’s our biology telling us to reproduce, even if it’s not what we actually want, and the emotional responses are as real as they are nonsensical.

Of course people get emotional thinking about teeny tiny fetuses and all of their potential and the beautiful babies they could become and how deeply emotion pregnancy can be for parents and the sheer, overwhelming, completely-unprepared-for outpouring of love that comes with parenthood. That doesn’t make it a good measure of when life begins, the morality of abortion, or whose rights should be prioritized. It’s a really good measure of how effective evolution has been as creating the kind of bio-chemical brain responses to infants necessary to keep them alive long enough to procreate themselves. None of which negates the love that parents genuinely feel, but it does mean that our emotional responses are not a good basis for judging morality in this case.

But the real question is, do women surrender their right to bodily autonomy when they become pregnant? That is the basis for judging morality in this circumstance. Do women cease to be people and instead become hosts?

This language is curious. If women are hosts, the clear implication is that the cluster of cells that become a baby is a parasite. (There is no other way in which one living thing “hosts” another.) In some ways, this is true. They cannot support their own life without using their host to support them, to provide blood and food and protection. Removing a parasite from using your body against your wishes will kill it. Sure, some parasites can make you deathly ill which constitutes harm, but many parasites can live inside you for decades without even drawing your attention, much less harming you. Lots of people die with parasites rather than from them.

My intention here isn’t to equate a parasite with a human embryo. Rather, if we accept the implications of Humphrey’s language, where he–possibly unintentionally–equates a woman who is pregnant with a person with a parasite (one he just happens to want to live), we must also accept the line of reasoning that follows. We have not given parasites permission to use our bodies and we can expel them if we choose to without moral quandary.

But I think we all know it’s more complicated than that. Because although early on it may just be a cluster of cells, we can’t deny that if allowed to grow and develop, it will become a human child. Embryos aren’t parasites and women aren’t hosts, but the question of bodily autonomy remains.

Most pro-life people accept the premise that abortions, while always “murder,” can be allowed in cases of rape and incest or when it puts the mother’s life at risk. The reason for this is because women who are raped or victims of incest often suffer severe psychological trauma. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), 94% of women who have been raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms the two weeks following the rape; 30% report PTSD symptoms 9 months following the rape. 33% contemplate suicide; 13% attempt suicide. People who have been raped are 6x more likely to use cocaine, 10x more likely to use other major drugs. They overwhelmingly experience increased problems at school and work and in professional and personal relationships. (Although a bit off topic here, it is worth mentioning that Indigenous Americans are twice as likely as any other races to be raped or sexually assaulted.)

The likelihood of a pregnancy resulting from rape is estimated, roughly, by RAINN. I decided to put up a screenshot of the full explanation. You can find their sources here.


So, although this is clearly a very general estimation, it gives us a number to work with. In both of these exceptions, the pregnancy clearly has considerable potential to cause the mother harm. So this makes sense, as far as exceptions go. It means that people who are pro-life* also believe in the foundational premise of our social contract and of bodily autonomy. We have a right to protect ourselves.

*I want to be clear that many pro-life people do not agree to these exceptions, but these exceptions are by far the more mainstream opinion.

Information on why women have abortions is difficult to come by, and the best I could do was a report from the Guttmacher Institute from 1998 which found that 2.8% of U.S. abortions in 1987-88 were in order to preserve the health of the mother. In 1987, there were 1,353,671 abortions reported to the CDC; in 2013, there were 664,435. (Bear in mind that in 1998, the CDC reduced the areas from which they collected data, so these numbers are not comparable in terms of measuring actual decreases in the rate of abortion.) But, 2.8% of 1,353,671 abortions in 1987 is 37,902.788, so roughly 37,903 abortions to save the life of the mother.

Now, I’m certainly not qualified to even guess whether that percentage has increased or decreased. If we were talking real numbers, it would be logical to assume that with medical advancements, the number has gone down. But since it’s a percentage, and actual abortions have significantly decreased as well (generally attributed to increased availability and effectiveness of birth control and better reproductive health education), there’s not really any way to know. But since we’re already working with the rough figures on the amount of pregnancies as a result of rape, let’s run with it. (This is not science.) 2.8% of the 2013 rate (which is the most recent data that is available) of 664,435 is 18,604.18, so roughly 18,604 abortions necessary to save the life of the mother.

But what this means is that the majority of pro-life people would accept somewhere between 26,354 (18,604+7750) and 31,104 (18,604+12,500) abortions a year based on the premise that the mother’s right to life supersedes that of the fetus’ right to life, even if they do so reluctantly. This is no small exception they’re making, which is testament to the power of this essential value we share about a person’s right to life and bodily autonomy. If women were actually just “hosts,” with the rights of future life superseding existing life, this wouldn’t be the case.

(More conservative pro-life people don’t allow these exceptions, but they also don’t openly negate the rights of the mother. In cases where a woman’s life is at risk, they want the doctor to fight for both lives equally. It’s unrealistic–when push comes to shove, a choice has to be made–but they don’t openly advocate for the death of the mother to save the child. I don’t think this is because they support the mothers so much as because the situation doesn’t present itself. Either the fetus is viable outside of the womb, in which case there is no abortion to consider, or it isn’t, and it needs the mother to stay alive in order for it to live. There’s no room to advocate for the fetus over the mother in this circumstance.)

So, generally speaking, in cases of harm, we accept that the rights of the person who is already alive takes precedence over the rights of the cells who are not yet alive, and which cannot sustain life on their own. But pregnancy and birth and parenthood, while a joy, are also hard. Beyond morning sickness and hormonal fluctuations and the pain that comes with pregnancy, pregnant women are also liable to develop several pregnancy-related illnesses that could have repercussions long after. Birth can literally kill you, but it can also disrupt the way your body functions long after in countless different ways, up to an including causing permanent disability. And after, a woman’s body breaks down more quickly than if she’d never given birth at all.

Most unintended pregnancies occur among very young mothers and older mothers. Young, unprepared mothers are less likely to finish high school or college (or even go to college) and are far more likely to live in poverty. They are more likely to experience complications in labor, more likely to die in labor, and their children are more likely to die in birth. They are more likely to suffer from obesity and hypertension, and their children are more likely to die of SIDS. For older women, and their children, the physical risks go up significantly.

Even without issues associated with age, women who become unintentionally pregnant take longer to access prenatal care which can impact their health in a number of ways. They are more likely to smoke and drink during their pregnancy, more likely to experience post-partum depression, and even years later are more likely to suffer from depression. They are also more likely to struggle economically and, if they got married following conception, are more likely to get divorced. As a result, their children are more likely to suffer from genetic conditions, fetal alcohol syndrome, and neonatal abstinence syndrome, and are more likely to grow up in poverty, with all of its attendant downsides. Having a child who is disabled or unhealthy is often more stressful and more expensive, which adds additional difficulty to parenthood.

All of which is to say that it would be impossible to claim that there is no “harm” in requiring women who have not been raped or who do not face life-threatening complications in pregnancy to carry their fetus to term. There is the potential for significant, life-altering harm. If we have the right to protect ourselves from harm, we have the right to choose not to carry out a pregnancy.

The argument could be made, of course, that we did this to ourselves. There is a slut-shaming undercurrent to pro-life politics that says that choosing to have sex at any point in your life means you have accepted this potentially life-threatening condition of a pregnancy that you must take to term as a potential consequence. But abortion is a medical procedure; in some cases, it is a life-saving one. How many people eat poorly and don’t exercise and give themselves heart attacks? Are they not permitted life-saving interventions even if they did it to themselves? A not-inconsiderable number of ailments are self-induced, and treating them is not controversial.

I’ll end on this note. Even if we disregard all of the potential harm even a consensually-conceived, non-life-threatening pregnancy can cause a woman, physically or psychologically, we come back to bodily autonomy. If a hospital ran out of a specific blood type and I was literally the only person who could save someone, if I didn’t want to donate blood, they wouldn’t be able to make me. It causes me no harm, but it’s mine. I get to choose. When I die, if I don’t decide to donate my organs and my medical proxy respects my wishes, I will be buried with them, even if they could have saved a dozen people. I am dead, but because it is my body, no one can force me to give it to someone else to use. Just because I say so. My rights to my body supersede the needs of someone who is dying, because it is mine.

Forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term is giving her less bodily autonomy than we give to corpses, and it’s giving a cluster of cells more rights than we give living people in desperate need of a head/liver/kidney/lung. If we were “hosts,” and Humphrey so tactlessly put it, we would have every right to rescind our invitation.


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