Abortions for All! On Bodily Autonomy and Individual Choice

Bodily autonomy is easy because it means we get to make our own choices. Bodily autonomy is difficult because it means everyone else gets to do the same.
Publish date:
October 18, 2011
feminism, abortion, body politics, McDonald's, Dr Tiller, Trust Women, M

I do lots of stuff with my body that folks don’t approve of. For one, I let my body be fat. I’ve let it be fat for years and years. I’ve been very vocal about letting my body be fat, and as a result, I’ve heard from many people that my doing so is irresponsible and dangerous -- that asserting my right to be fat means I am advocating in favor of all manner of health issues (if not the destruction of civilization, given some of the heavy-handed language used in describing the alleged “obesity epidemic”).

I also eat McDonald’s sometimes. I KNOW. Unforgivable, right? While I do always wear my seatbelt, I don’t always wear sunscreen and I frequently forget to take off my makeup before going to bed. I am an erratic flosser, but I get dental checkups every six months like clockwork. I have had condom-free sex maybe two or three times in my whole life. I think tampons are gross and refuse to use them. I use salt. I drink caffiene. I sometimes walk alone, at night, in a city, in a dress.

For me, the greatest accomplishment that feminism has wrought is the idea of bodily autonomy. Bodily autonomy, in a nutshell, is the radical notion that humans are entitled to do what they like with their own bodies. This idea enables ladies to get abortions, transfolk to get top surgeries, and little boys not to be circumcised, unless they want to be. It means you get to cover yourself in tattoos, and I get to wear leggings, and someone else gets to have Botox injections. It means that I can be fat, and other folks can keep their bodies however they wish, so long as we all respect one another’s individual autonomy.

Sure, we get to have opinions. Who doesn’t? But bodily autonomy argues for a minimum of respect for the independent decisions made by consenting adults, even if we think those decisions are bad ones.

In 2009, Dr. George Tiller was murdered by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder. Dr. Tiller was attending Sunday church when Roeder shot and killed him. This man was no ordinary abortion provider: At the time, he ran one of only three clinics in the whole of the United States that performed late term abortions, that is, abortions taking place after the 20th week of gestation.

Late term abortion is a hot subject even among many folks who would otherwise consider themselves pro-choice. The issue is one of viability; for some, the morality of abortion becomes murky when the fetus has a chance of surviving outside the womb.

Many of Dr. Tiller’s patients were women who had very specific reasons for needing a late term abortion: Women who discovered they were carrying fetuses so badly developed that they likely would not survive ; women with recently diagnosed cancer whose pregnancies might kill them; children, even -- victims of rape too young to carry a fetus of their own to term.

He was murdered for doing this. Why am I bringing it up? Mostly because George Tiller was known to wear a button that read, simply: “Trust Women.”

Abortion rights have been eroded significantly over the past several years, with anti-abortion activists setting aside attempts to overturn Roe vs. Wade completely in favor of throwing up new barriers to legal abortion. This effort has focused on passing laws cutting or eliminating abortion funding, enforcing “waiting periods” before an abortion can be performed, and requiring consent and notification prior to access to an abortion being legally granted. Many of these measures have profound effects on the women with the fewest resources: the poor, and those under 18.

One recent example is the ironically named "Protect Life Act" passed just last week by the House of Representatives. This legislation would make it illegal for health plans that cover abortion services to receive federal funding. It would also allow federally-funded hospitals to deny a woman an abortion, even if the procedure is necessary to save her life. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi caused a stir on Thursday when she predicted the bill would lead to circumstances in which women "die on the floor, and health care practitioners do not have to intervene."

As so many of the recent attacks on reproductive rights have done, this proposed legislation would have a disproportionate effect on women who cannot afford private health insurance; in other words, it will mostly punish the poor.

Abortion opponents no longer have to overturn Roe vs. Wade to make abortion virtually inaccessible; they can do it one bit of legislation at a time. Those of us living in major cities in liberal states with privately funded health insurance and/or reliable fiscal resources may be able to rest easy that an abortion will be available when we need it, but there are vast stretches of the US in which there is no such reassurance; in many instances, only one or two abortion providers serve a whole state, and a few states have no abortion providers at all.

Late term abortions, such as those performed by Dr. Tiller, are even more difficult to come by. This procedure is currently banned in 36 states, and is available in others only under guidelines requiring that the pregnancy must pose a threat to the health of the mother. Prior to the proliferation of this ban, according to a 1987 Guttmacher Institute survey on late term abortions, the most common reason women gave (71%) for not getting an abortion sooner was that the woman either did not realize she was pregnant, or she misjudged the length of gestation. Other reasons included difficulty accessing abortion any earlier, or fear of telling parents or partner about the pregnancy.

It would be very easy to cast judgment and blame on these women. How do you not realize you’re six months pregnant? Why didn’t you research your options sooner? Did you think that by keeping it from your parents it would just go away? It’s an academic issue now, as the majority of these women have no legal abortion options anymore, or at least not ones they can access without getting on a plane, and being able to prove a health risk associated with their pregnancy.

Bodily autonomy is about choice. An individual can be personally opposed to abortion, and choose never to have one. But that choice to abort must be preserved for everyone else to negotiate individually. Abortion is one of those things that many people never really think about until they need one, and then suddenly it assumes a dramatic importance.

It should not matter why a woman wants an abortion -- she should have the option to do so, no matter where she lives, no matter how much money she has in the bank, no matter what her parents or husband think, no matter whether her pregnancy was the result of extenuating circumstances, whether she is at risk of death as a result of it, or whether she just plain forgot to use birth control.

I don't believe it’s our place to judge women’s reasons or circumstances. Our responsibility is to trust women. Bodily autonomy means supporting ALL women’s rights to make choices about their bodies, even if they are not the ones we would make, even if we think those choices are destructive ones. It is not an easy idea. It’s certainly not as easy as making sweeping generalizations as to what good women (or good feminists) should or should not do. But we are adults, and as such we deserve to be trusted with our own bodies, and our own decisions, whatever they are.