Monday, June 27, 2022

Great Article on Dobbs Decision. Bodily Autonomy is the heart of the matter.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/26/opinion/dobbs-roe-autonomy.html

Dobbs, Roe and the Myth of ‘Bodily Autonomy’

June 26, 2022, 11:15 a.m. ET

 Tish Harrison Warren    Opinion Writer

“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” the Supreme Court declared on Friday in its majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. It boggles the mind, really. The fight over abortion that has raged as long as I can remember has taken a decisive turn. The broad spectrum of emotions in reaction to this decision — from outrage to jubilation and everything in between — will be on full display for weeks and months to come. Our feelings about this decision matter. But it is also critical that we continue to examine and clarify the merits of the arguments about abortion.

“Bodily autonomy” has become a chief argument against abortion restrictions. Referring to abortion restrictions as “forced birth” is common among abortion rights advocates. Julie Rikelman, who argued in favor of abortion rights in the Dobbs oral arguments at the Supreme Court, stated that the right to an abortion is grounded in “liberty,” which includes the right “to physical autonomy, including the right to end a pre-viability pregnancy.” The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs rightly rejects the idea that rights to bodily autonomy are expansive and absolute, and therefore make abortion rights necessary.

Of course, injustice is often writ large on bodies. And injustice against women in particular is often manifest as a lack of power over our own bodies. We see this in myriad ways. A 2021 United Nations report found that nearly half of all women in 57 developing countries are denied bodily autonomy, with violations including rape, forced sterilization, virginity testing and female genital mutilation. In American culture, women’s bodies are often viewed as primarily valuable only for their sex appeal and beauty. Violence is a constant threat to women’s bodies, with one in five women experiencing completed or attempted rape during their lifetime and nearly one in four women experiencing domestic violence. To have a just society, we must have protection of and safety for female bodies, and women — like men — need to be able to make decisions about their own bodies.

Yet the way we understand and define bodily autonomy has profound implications in our debates about abortion and in how we understand what justice for women looks like. The Dobbs Supreme Court decision recognized that there is no inherent right to abortion that flows from a commitment to liberty or autonomy, in part because “abortion is fundamentally different, as both Roe and Casey acknowledged, because it destroys what those decisions called ‘fetal life’ and what the law now before us describes as an ‘unborn human being.’”

Here are three ways that I find abortion rights arguments that appeal to bodily autonomy unpersuasive and ultimately harmful to our understanding of freedom and what it means to be human:

1. Bodily autonomy is limited by our obligation to not harm others. We already recognize in law that there are limits to physical autonomy. One can’t walk down the street naked, even if one really wants to, or go 75 miles an hour in a school zone, even if slowing down poses a burden on the driver.

These limits came up in the Dobbs oral arguments. Twice, Justice Clarence Thomas brought up a case where a woman was convicted of child neglect for ingesting harmful illegal drugs while pregnant. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Dobbs addresses this as well, saying that an appeal to autonomy, “at a high level of generality, could license fundamental rights to illicit drug use, prostitution, and the like.” Our desires to do as we wish with our bodies must be respected but they also must be limited by the needs and rights of others, including those who live inside our own bodies.

2. The term “autonomy” denies the deep interdependence and limitations of every human body. One definition of autonomy is “independence.” But no human has complete bodily autonomy from birth to death. The natural state of human beings is to be deeply and irrevocably interdependent on one another. The only reason any of us is alive today is that someone cared for us as children in the womb and then as infants and toddlers. Almost all of us, through age or disability or both, will eventually depend on other human beings — other human bodies — to bathe, dress, feed and otherwise care for us.

A child in the womb is dependent on a mother for life in a way that does place a unique burden on a mother. But this burden does not end at birth. Parenthood — at any stage — is an arduous good. A 1-year-old baby is dependent on adults for nourishment, protection and care in ways that can be profoundly burdensome, yet we cannot claim “bodily autonomy” as a reason to neglect the needs of a 1-year-old. Abortion seems to punish a fetus for its lack of bodily autonomy and deny the profound reliance that all of us who have bodies hold.

With this deep interdependence that we all share come obligations to one another. We do not always choose the ways our bodies are dependent on others. And we often do not choose the obligations placed on our lives by others who are dependent on us. Covid threw in sharp relief ways that our bodies and our bodily health depend on the choices of other people. I’ve criticized those on the right for casting a choice about whether to get a Covid vaccine as entirely an individual decision. This kind of individualistic rhetoric is the very logic of autonomy — that people can do what they want with their own bodies without regarding their obligations to others. But human bodies, unlike machines, simply aren’t autonomous. Our choices about our own bodies impact the bodies around us.

3. The pressing issue when it comes to abortion is whether championing “bodily autonomy” requires us to override or undo biological realities. In the Dobbs oral arguments, Julie Rikelman described what women experience if they lack access to abortion: “Allowing a state to take control of a woman’s body and force her to undergo the physical demands, risks and life-altering consequences of pregnancy is a fundamental deprivation of her liberty.”

But is restricting abortion the same thing as forced gestation? Is it correct to compare abortion restrictions to a state “taking control” of a woman’s body and a deprivation of liberty?

Whatever one thinks sex is and what it is for — whether a sacred act or a mere recreational pleasure — all of us can agree that sex is the only human activity that has the power to create life and that every potentially procreative sexual act therefore carries some level of risk that pregnancy could occur. (Birth control significantly lessens this risk but does not entirely take it away since birth control methods can fail.) Yet, the state does not impose this risk of producing human life; biology does. Except in the horrible circumstances of rape or incest, which account for 1 percent of abortions, women and men both have bodily agency and choices about whether they will have sex and therefore if they are willing to accept the risk of new life inherent in it.

Our bodies undeniably place a disproportional burden on women in reproduction. There is an inescapable asymmetry in male and female bodies when it comes to making and carrying life. To address the particular difficulty that pregnancy places on women, we need to hold fathers more responsible through child support laws. And we need to create a culture that does not shame women for unintended pregnancies but supports them through pro-women policies like paid parental leave, access to affordable child care, free health care and other measures. Yet, the state, in the end, cannot and ought not entirely rescue us from the known realities of human biology.

A sperm and an egg unite to grow into a human inside the body of a woman. The state doesn’t force this to happen any more than it forces aging or forces weight loss from exercise or forces lungs to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

To use language of forced gestation or of a state “controlling” women’s bodies is to portray biology itself as oppressive and halting the natural course of the body as the liberative role of the state.

For both men and women, bodily autonomy can’t mean that we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, with our own bodies without natural consequences or obligations to others. If this is what we mean by “autonomy,” then no one can champion bodily autonomy without ultimately advocating harm.

I recently came across a blog post by the literature scholar Alan Jacobs, describing Simone Weil’s insistence that “if we need a collective declaration of human rights  we also, and perhaps more desperately, need a declaration of human obligations.”

I find this beautiful. Speaking as a woman, with a woman’s body, I want safety and freedom for all women. I want women to be full participants and empowered leaders in public life. I believe we, as human beings and image bearers of God, have a right to bodily integrity, protection and liberty.

But these rights also carry obligations to others, perhaps especially to those vulnerable bodies that depend on us. This is the heart of the question about abortion: What are our obligations to one another? We have an obligation to unborn children. We have an obligation to seek women’s safety and flourishing. For too long these obligations have been pitted against each other, but they need not be and, to move forward, we must create a world where they never are.

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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