The Moral Limitations of Bodies & the ‘War on Women’
Tauriq Moosa is a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. He has published essays and articles on practical ethics, focusing on subjects like free expression, killing, sex, and religion in public life. He debated religion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the BBC documentary, the Tutu Talks, and has been featured on local radio shows. He is also an avid comic book writer and reader.
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As we’ve noted, there are very few and very restricted reasons to prevent a rational person from harming herself. After all, we’ve come to accept adults drinking, smoking, and mountain-climbing and do nothing politically to prevent such actions completely (each, though individually allowed, come with its own restrictions). Looking at the madness that has been flaming this week – the American “war on women”, South Korean “ground up baby” pills and bizarre homophobic laws, all over the world, still denying gay people marriage equality – I will consider in two parts what we can and cannot do with our and other humans’ bodies (including babies).
Drawing Battlelines on the Uterus
From mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds, forced screenings and denying women emergency abortions (because of bizarre ‘personhood’ laws), women’s nether regions have become the focus of creepy mandates, bills and proposals in America. One is reminded of a quotation from The West Wing, when a liberal Democrat says to a Republican proposing homophobic bills: “I like you guys who wanna reduce the size of government – make it just small enough so it can fit in our bedrooms.”
Here it seems crazed conservatives want government small enough to fit into a women’s vagina. Defending the rights of unborn people by removing the rights of adult women is nothing if not insulting to those who fought for those rights and all women.
To what extent then is it right for a woman to have control of her body? The same for everyone: To whatever extent she deems right, permitting very limited restrictions. Those limited restrictions are, for example, her body can’t be one half of an armed bomb in a crowded area. Whatever her reason for an abortion, then, I see no reason to oppose a rational, adult woman from having an abortion. From the extreme horrible case of rape to disliking blonde children, I see no reason to deny women the right to access abortion facilities for her convenience. The reason is not because we, as a society, approve of aborting blondes or potential rape children – that’s irrelevant, just as we don’t prosecute smokers in their homes even though we might not like smoking. Rather, we rate forcing a woman to carry to term a child she does not want to be worse than killing a foetus (whose mother doesn’t want it anyway). By denying her the ability to abort we are forcing her to keep it: of course, people do find a way to abort, regardless of legality, but that is not the issue here.
The reason we must accept this is our commitment to bodily freedom. Our bodies, second only to our minds, are the last true domains over which we are sovereign. The landscape of our skin and rolling hills of muscle are ours to rule and do with as we please. We allow others to enter, to engage, only to the extent that we wish it. There’s a reason we talk about “invasion” and “space” when others infringe on us. So, to the extent that we accept this, we must accept these freedoms for others. A woman’s body is hers.
That we need to keep repeating that previous sentence is testament that some of us haven’t fully accepted it: that 2011 set a record in the US “for the most anti-reproductive rights provisions enacted in a single year”, say Michael de Dora, is indicative of this. The 1,100 provisions are, unlike the arguments justifying them, quite impressive in terms of number.
We need to accept that whatever a woman’s reason, it is her body. Like someone committing suicide, we can – within reason – argue, debate and try making a case to change her mind – and this also depends on who we are to her – but it seems to me, that we cannot prevent her from getting an abortion if she so wishes, regardless of her reason.
Whatever her reasoning, it should not be what decides whether she gets an abortion. On the contrary, her reasoning should, at most, be a test of her reasoning abilities; that she is aware of what she is doing, since it is traumatic for most, and being knowledgeable can help her during and after. So whatever her reasoning – from being a rape victim to disliking redheads – it is irrelevant to the extent that the subject matter counts but relevant to the extent it shows us how aware she is of the oncoming and often terrifying procedure. This is all primarily to benefit and help her, as a patient and person.
Thus: if a woman is rational, not coerced, and aware of her actions, a woman should be able to get an abortion regardless of her reasons. Her reasoning isn’t for anyone other than herself. Her ability to reason and indicate she is aware of what is occurring matters to the rest of us (particularly the medical fraternity).
The major problem, though, is if abortion is used as a regular kind of contraceptive. Of course, this doesn’t actually fail the previous test of premises since one can assume that a woman who uses abortion facilities, like a post-coital contraceptive clinic, is not rational or aware of her actions. But this ties in to a larger reason to be concerned: if (regular) abortions are unnecessarily draining resources from other important areas from the public. Yet, I am still unconvinced that even this is sufficient reason to obstruct a woman from getting an abortion if she is rational, aware of her actions, and not being coerced. (Also the key word is “unnecessarily” draining, since if there are other options she could take, we ought to do what we can to try convince her of these, if they are cheaper for all. Furthermore, this assumes she is within a public and not private facility, though there is good reason to not be too caught up in that distinction.)
Thus, our main focus ought to be trying to protect women as much as possible. This is not because women are helpless or fragile creatures, but because many societies treat them as such. Finally, this forms part of the ongoing defence of the moral sovereignty of our bodies.
Next: Organ Donation and Cannibalism…
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