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Crossing a line: Roe v. Wade and bodily autonomy

On June 24th, 2022, a line was crossed; a lot of things changed, and it led to a much needed contemporary discussion about bodily autonomy.

The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and revoke the constitutional rights of women and all people who can get pregnant to a safe abortion led to an overhaul on how to think about bodily autonomy and what it means to lose it. This discussion is not new–it has been ongoing in certain communities, but what led to an explosive mainstream discourse is a legitimate government turning back years of progression with an explicit intent of disregarding a human right to its citizens.

Now, it falls to individuals, communities, organizations and institutions to really look into the implications of this event and how it’s not just about a medical procedure, rather it’s about personal agency in every sense.

What does bodily autonomy entail? Is it just a women’s issue?

Bodily autonomy is the inherent right of every person to govern and have authority to make decisions regarding their own body. One of the misconceptions around this discussion is that bodily autonomy is a right only relevant for women, people of color or LGBTQI+ people, and one of the reasons it is so is that unfortunately, those are the communities that have their rights argued over the most.

But it is not just a “women’s issue”. It is the right to exist in the world however we wish to, in the circumstances that we decide to and reject any interferences to our freedom. Professor of Philosophy, Fiona Woolhard says it beautifully;

“It is through my body that I act on the world. (…) It is through my body that the world acts on me. (…) How my body is, makes up a major part of how I am: if my body is hurt, I am hurt. Body ownership is needed to respect the unique relationship between me and my body.”

Bodily autonomy affects every aspect of our lives: from the food we eat to places we go, activities we do, ways we spend our time, work we do, basically how we determine ourselves to be. When this right is breached, however it may be, the effect is not only about why it was breached but the fact that it was. Because once a right so fundamental is breached, it means many others can too. Once we lose our ownership of our bodies, we lose the right to choose how we live our lives.

What does overturning Roe v. Wade say about the right to bodily autonomy?

We have to remember: this decision was a legal one, made by government officials. It is not the first time, but a memorable instance where a government outright took back a constitutional right and doing so, made many people recontextualize what it means for a government to bend legality in order to make access to healthcare hard, unsafe and exclusive.

A statement from Legal Defense Fund sheds light on the legal implications of this decision:

“In an outright abandonment of that guiding principle of the rule of law, today’s decision confirms that the Court has now adopted an alarming pattern and practice of ignoring stare decisis [the legal principle of determining points in litigation according to precedent] when it comes to fundamental rights. This is no longer the exception for this Court, but rather the transgressive rule.”

In a country where access to national, affordable healthcare is currently up for debate, this decision carries immense significance regarding safe medical procedures. A ban on abortion does not, and will not stop abortions; as it is a personal decision and a completely valid one at that. It only puts lives in danger by leaving no choice but to resort to life-threatening procedures. It also must be noted that this affects minority groups in the US the most; Black women, indigenous women and low income families which historically needed, and still need access to affordable, safe abortion the most.

Therefore, it is only reasonable to deduce that overturning Roe v. Wade has a dangerous implication of what is at stake. The answer is one that encompasses all our choices that we make about how we exist in the world.

What happens when governments don’t protect the right to bodily autonomy

While the right to bodily autonomy does not only mean the right to have an abortion, the US Supreme Court’s decision is an example of how disregarding bodily autonomy can affect a person’s entire life.

UNFPA’s report titled My Body is My Own examines the results we see in a society when we lose the right to bodily autonomy, and finds that it leads to forced marriages, child marriages, marital violence, marry-your-rapist laws and even female genital mutilation. All in all, harrowing violence.

Limiting or completely revoking the right to abortions impacts not only the outcome of the pregnancy, but that person’s overall health, education, economic and social circumstances. In the event of an unwanted pregnancy resulting in the mother giving birth, the circumstances the child will grow up in also changes. This relates to maternity leave policies and how people continue their lives after having a child.

The US currently provides unpaid maternity leave only up to 12 weeks, which only covers 60% of all women workers. Economic research has found that after women have children, they are faced with a concept named “motherhood wage penalty”; which means that women who have children receive lower wages than those who do not. This reflects the fact that without the foundation of proper after-birth accommodations, banning abortions will not result in fulfilled lives for either parents or their children.

IPAS also states that in countries where abortion is completely illegal, like Nicaragua, it’s not only the people who get abortions that are penalized, but the doctors as well. The pandemic also showed how deeply the absence of bodily autonomy in women affected their future; girls in South Africa who fell pregnant during the pandemic did not, or rather could not return to work after the restrictions were relieved, which changed the path their lives would take forever.

Unsurprisingly, this situation affects mental health as well. Another study found that women who had been denied an abortion had “higher levels of anxiety, and lower self-esteem”. Which can in turn decide how a person acts, make choices, have relations and how they contribute to society.

How can we protect our rights, and help others in need?

After the ruling on Roe v. Wade, dissenting judges released their minority opinion, stating that this act “diminishes women’s opportunities to participate fully and equally in the nation’s political, social and economic life”. This is what we must realize; it is not about a medical procedure, it’s about the development of a nation as a whole. And this is why we should keep learning, educating, protesting and exercising our every option to make sure every single person in the society can enjoy their inherent rights. We should not let existing as a complete human being with complete rights be conditional.

When it comes to issues regarding women, the LGBTQI+ community and minorities, which almost always include a discussion on bodily autonomy, the norm has been to give all the burden of the discourse to those personally affected. The solution is always presented to be how those groups should act; they should be confident, brave, willing to educate and be patient. And the only thing others needed to do was “listen” and “learn”; in other words, stay passive. The misconception that this is just a personal issue led to this understanding.

The reality is that the decision to disregard the right to bodily autonomy comes from the injustices buried in the institutions that make the decisions, they have much deeper roots and have unmistakable political implications.

It’s time for all, whether they are a woman, non-binary, transgender or man to stand up and take initiative to help. Joining the conversation is not enough, we need to be able to contribute to, or even start conversations whenever necessary. It’s time to work, in order to help correct this wrong with any means we have.

In a surprising turn of events, many companies in the US have either released a statement condemning the decision or offering to compensate the costs that might arise if a worker decides to get an abortion. On the other hand, the discussions surrounding unpaid or paid maternity leave are still ongoing.

If you wish to donate to organizations in the US working to help those in need of a safe abortion, you can check out organizations such as Planned Parenthood, National Abortion Rights Action League and Center for Reproductive Rights. You can also check out other national organizations, along with ones in the states where abortion was legally banned.

Autonomy–in every sense–is one of the main values we cherish at Ruul. We aim to provide talents and organizations venturing into remote work around the world all the necessary tools to shape their own careers and businesses. We believe that one of these tools, maybe the most important, is knowledge about all aspects of autonomy. That’s why we prepared this article, in order to contribute to the conversation, spread awareness and provide information for those who are new to the issue; and we aspire to continue our endeavors in the future.

If there are other topics you want to see explored in our blog, feel free to reach out to us at [email protected].

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Işınsu Unaran
Fascinated by new media and storytelling, wholeheartedly enjoys the dynamic landscape of content creation. Enthusiastic about workers' rights, women's rights, and mental health among many things.

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