, ,

Today is the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision and NARAL Pro-Choice America has asked all of us in the blogosphere to write posts about why it’s important to vote pro-choice. Welcome to Blog for Choice Day 2008. Here are my thoughts.

“Childbirth is, by definition, a loss of control over the body . . . but in the hospital, the surrender is usually of the body to the provider. Women often lose control over what’s done to the body, rather than over what the body does.”

–Jennifer Block, Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care (165) [1].

Today, I am terrified of being pregnant or giving birth in the United States. I am not frightened of the physical experience of being pregnant. Nor am I intimidated by the difficult moral decisions I may face if that pregnancy is unplanned or if something goes tragically wrong. I am not afraid, as Jennifer Block so eloquently puts it, to “lose control over [what my] body does” when pregnant. No.

What wakes me from nightmares, sweating, in the early hours of the morning is the knowledge that, as a pregnant woman, I will lose my right to determine what is done to my body. What knots my stomach is the knowledge that, under current legal precedent, when I become pregnant I could be stripped of my rights to bodily integrity—including the ability to consent to or refuse medical procedures. What terrifies me is the knowledge that as a pregnant woman I could, at the discretion of a doctor or a judge, be treated as an individual whose medical decisions and right to self-determination have no merit, whose personhood is less worthy of consideration than the personhood of the developing child I carry within my body.

I didn’t always feel this way. When I hit puberty and began to menstruate I was awed (as I still am) by my body’s new capacity to sustain pregnancy and give birth to a child. The women whom I knew and read (thanks Mom!) described women’s reproductive lives in feminist terms: they placed women, their laboring bodies, and their self-determination at the center of pregnancy and birth narratives.

Over the last twelve years, however, I have been forced to recognize how fragile my right to bodily integrity and self-determination is. I have gotten the message loud and clear from politicians, judges and activists: My personhood is conditional. My body is not my own. I am one broken condom, one impulsive sexual encounter, one sexual assault, one anti-abortion, conscience-ridden pharmacist away from becoming less than a person in the eyes of the law.

The modern political and legal struggle over abortion rights, and reproductive rights more broadly, has developed a hyper-focus on the question of fetal rights [2] and the definition of when life begins [3]. We have forgotten to consider an equally important question: regardless of how we determine when human life and constitutional rights begin, when do women’s basic human rights end? I ask this question of anyone who supports anti-abortion, fetal rights policies: do I somehow become less of a person in the eyes of the law the moment I become pregnant?

The right to bodily integrity is fundamental to our social contract here in the United States. The belief that we are all separate beings, existing within our own skin, and that no one has the right to violate our separateness without our consent, has been built into our legal framework. This respect for the human right to bodily integrity is so profoundly important to our legal and social framework that it actually supersedes our right to live. No one can be compelled against their full and free consent to give of their body for another human being–even if that other human being will die as a result of consent being withheld.

As Jennifer Block writes, “there is never a situation where the court can compel an adult to undergo a medical procedure for the perceived benefit of another human being” (255). We may make the case that it is the ethical thing to do, to donate blood or to put our own lives at risk to rescue someone from drowning. But despite making a moral argument that it is the right thing to do, we don’t compel individuals to perform these tasks: they must make the final decision themselves. At no point does their body cease to be their own.

Yet pregnant–and even potentially pregnant–women find that this basic right to bodily integrity is routine breached by medical professionals, politicians, and judges who determine what they may or may not do—or choose not to do–with their bodies. Marsden Wagner, former Director of Women’s and Children’s Health of the World Health Organization, documents in Born in the USA [4] the way in which pregnant women’s decisions regarding their own medical care are routinely ignored. Women who have expressly stated their desire for non-interventionist births are subjected to drugs without their knowledge, mutilated by unnecessarily episiotomies, or denied the right to attempt vaginal births after cesarean section. These practices are contrary to basic legal rights nationally and many human rights standards worldwide.

As Melody Rose details, in her book Safe, Legal, Unavailable? [5], in the thirty-five years Roe v. Wade has technically protected women’s right to terminate a pregnancy, opponents of abortion and women’s rights have chipped away at women’s legal standing by creating a systematic network of regulatory policies and legal restrictions [6]. While the developing child–and even the potentially fertilized egg [7]–slowly gains legal rights to constitutional protection, women are jailed to protect a fetus, punished for what they put into, or do with, their bodies [8], forced to continue pregnancies against their express wishes or made to seek the permission to end those pregnancies from lovers [9], estranged parents, or hostile judges [10]. They are denied birth control [11] and punished for its failure. They are denied the right to choose where, with whom, and how they give birth or denied the right to birth at all [12].

An entire class of people are being stripped of their right to bodily integrity simply because of the bodies with which they were born. Increasingly, women are told not only that their rights are less important than the rights of the fetus they carry, but that they are too ignorant or vulnerable to make their own medical decisions. Last year’s Supreme Court ruling, Gonzales v. Carhart [13], is only the latest example of the misogynistic paternalism [14] that has come to characterize the legal and political landscape of reproductive justice. As Sarah Blustain wrote last year in The American Prospect:

The finding of activist conservative judges or radically anti-abortion legislatures, no matter how local, help accrue new definitions of the unborn that make it incrementally easier to successfully ban abortions. Perhaps even more troubling is the idea that these cases could slowly build a new judicial and legislative definition of women, as a childish and barely competent moral decision-maker for whom legal abortion becomes a menacing option from which she needs protection [15].

Access to safe and legal abortion may only be one small part of the landscape of reproductive justice [16], but it is a crucially important one. As Linda Paltrow has pointed out, anti-abortion activists have succeeded–through their focus on fetal rights and paternalistic protectionism–in establishing a precedent of abusive intervention into the lives of women and their families:

At least one federal court has said that sending police to a woman’s home, taking her into custody while in active labor and near delivery, strapping her legs and her body down, to transport her against her will to a hospital, and then forcing her without access to counsel or court review to undergo major surgery [cesarean section] constituted no violation of her civil rights at all. The rationale? If the state can limit women’s access to abortions after viability, it can subject her to the lesser intrusion of insisting on one method of delivery over another [17]

This is why I lie awake at night wondering if I’m brave enough to become a mother. I know that to become pregnant in the current legal climate will mean that I wake up every morning with the knowledge that my right to bodily integrity may be violated by doctors and politicians who disagree with my medical decisions, and that many judges will uphold those violations in a court of law.

I vote pro-choice because I believe that to legislate away women’s meaningful access to a full range of reproductive options–from birth control to abortion to the right to give birth where, with whom, and however she chooses–is to effectively curtail our ability to participate in the political and social life of the nation [18].

I vote pro-choice because I believe that the freedom of consenting adults to form sexually intimate relationships, whether or not they can–or desire–to have children, is a basic human right, not a privilege.

I vote pro-choice because I believe pregnancy, childbirth, and the decision to start a family should be a responsibility fully and freely chosen, not a punishment for sexual expression.

I vote pro-choice because I believe in women’s ability, as women and as human beings, to make practical and moral decisions regarding our health care and family lives.

I vote pro-choice because I believe pregnant women have the same rights to bodily integrity and full and free consent as any other human being.

I vote pro-choice because I don’t want to be forced to choose between motherhood and my own human rights.

Most of all, I vote pro-choice because of my belief in the radical notion that women are people.