Why Body Autonomy is the Future of Feminism
Imagine that a loved one needed a kidney transplant, and so far, you are the only match the doctors have found. While you can live without one kidney, no one can force you to donate this organ. Even though this donation would save their life, it is illegal for someone to force you into this decision. This example relates to the concept of body autonomy, the idea that everyone has final say or jurisdiction over their bodies. This concept explains why someone cannot touch you, have sex with you, or use your body or body parts in any way without your consent (Raines 2015). Understanding this concept is critical to advocating the pro-choice movement, eliminating female genital mutilation, and sex trafficking. Understanding the concept of body autonomy and its importance in fighting these issues is the future of feminism.
Feminists of the radical-libertarian camp, such as Shulamith Firestone, would assert that women must seize control over their reproductive rights in order to eliminate gender discrimination and achieve equality (Tong 75). The concept of body autonomy is an argument often used by members of the pro-choice movement. As its definition suggests, body autonomy, everyone’s right to self-govern their own body, is considered an innate human right. Supporters of the pro-choice movement defend abortion by using this theory of body autonomy. After all, abortion directly involves women and their body, right? Well, members of the pro-life movement believe that since a baby is the product of both the man and woman, that the man should have an equal say in whether or not the child is aborted. In the context of Michel Foucault’s repressive hypothesis, sex became an act solely for reproduction after the rise of the bourgeoisie (Foucault 37). At this time, the population became a political and economical issue. Restricting sex to areas of procreation was a way for the government to control population (Foucault 25). This rationale can be related to the topic of abortion. Under the repressive hypothesis, ending a pregnancy can be considered an “act contrary to nature”. Women who become pregnant and then choose to terminate their pregnancy violate their purpose as women to contribute to the population. This idea of the repressive hypothesis extends into society today.
In more conservative areas of our country, many people believe that every woman’s job is to become a mother and raise a family. Women who fail to conform to this expectation are considered to be less of a woman. More specifically, women who receive abortions are perceived as defying their role as a woman. In more conservative regions, such as the South, many believe that the purpose of abortion clinics such as, Planned Parenthood, is to abort babies of irresponsible, careless, and promiscuous women. In mid-April 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law which banned abortion procedures and allowed politicians to restrict women from making their own personal health-care decisions (Planned Parenthood 2017). The only female justice involved, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was appalled that this law was approved. She explained that this decision “cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away a right declared again and again by this court, and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women’s lives” (Mears 2007). In studying feminist theory, it has become glaringly obvious that patriarchy in society has caused males to develop a disproportionate amount of power and control. As a result, women lack the ability to employ laws that protect the rights of their body autonomy.
Members of the pro-life movement often get lost in the logic of body autonomy and how it is a valid argument for abortion. During a pregnancy, women’s body parts are being used against her will. Lets use an example of a parasite and a host. The mother is the host and the baby is the parasite, gaining nutrition and resources from the mother in order to survive. During pregnancy, the woman is a glorified incubator. Her uterus serves as a house to the fetus, providing shelter, while the placenta derives blood, vitamins, food from the mother to provide nutrition to the fetus. The mother’s immune system is compromised to “allow” the fetus to grow. As the fetus grows, it can potentially crush or damage the mother’s organs. Pregnant women’s compromised immune system becomes less efficient, which makes them more susceptible in contracting disease or illness. A woman’s risk of dying from having an abortion is 0.6 in 100,000. The risk of dying from giving birth is around 14 times higher, 8.8 in 100,000 (Gordon 2012).
The reasons for women to get an abortion are endless; rape, incest, health issues, etc. But at the end of the day, her reason does not matter. Body autonomy is a human right and no matter the reason, women should have the power to make decisions about their own bodies. Therefore, women have the ability to withdraw their consent and body at any time from a pregnancy. To tell women that they are obliged to surrender their bodily autonomy for 9 months against their will can be considered unethical and inhumane. The dead are even protected against the infringement of body autonomy. Unless someone has registered themselves to be an organ donor before their death, laws prevent doctors from removing life-saving organs or tissues from corpses. Pro-lifers are asking women who can become pregnant to accept less body autonomy than we give to the dead.
Applying the concept of body autonomy is not only important for the pro-choice movement, but for ending human rights violations such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is any procedure that includes injury or removal of the external female genitalia. This practice occurs mostly in Africa and the Middle East to young girls and women. There are various types of FGM that occur in these countries. Clitoridectomy, or otherwise known as female circumcision, is the partial or full removal of the clitoris. Excision is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and with or without the removal of the labia. Infibulation is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. This seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia. This seal is opened later to allow for sex and childbirth. It can be stitched again several times during a woman’s lifetime; before and after sex and childbirth. Other procedures can include pricking, piercing, cutting, scraping and burning female genitalia (WHO 2017). Complications from these procedures include pain, shock, severe bleeding, urinary difficulties, cysts, infections, infertility, problems during childbirth, and an increased risk of newborn deaths (WHO 2017). Along with these physical problems, survivors of FGM can endure psychological and mental health problems as well. The distress of FGM can lead women to develop depression, anxiety, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (womenshealth.gov). In one study, psychiatric diagnoses found that 80% of the women who had undergone FGM met criteria for anxiety disorders, while 30.4% met the criteria of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this study, over 90% of the subjects explained feelings of “intense fear, helplessness, horror, and severe pain” in regards to their experience. Over 80% of the subjects reported to be “still suffering from intrusive re-experiences of their circumcision” (WHO 2017).
It is estimated that over 200 million women alive today have experienced FGM (WHO 2017). Although FGM seems barbaric to many, it is practiced today in these areas among many other places across the world. Reasons behind FGM are a combination of cultural, religious, and social norms among communities. In many communities, FGM is considered a necessity or “prerequisite” for marriage. In many villages, the girls who do not receive FGM do not marry. Without the security of marriage, many women in these communities become poor and socially isolated. Therefore, FGM is considered an essential part of raising a girl. In many places, people defend FGM by linking these procedures to a female’s virginity, sexuality, and fidelity. It is believed that FGM decreases a woman’s libido. By reducing a woman’s libido, she is less likely to commit sexual acts such as premarital sex or adultery (WHO 2015) These practices occur to uphold the cultural ideals of femininity and purity. This is a prime example of what radical-libertarian feminists are fighting against.
Not only is the practice of FGM dangerous, but it perpetuates sexual inequality. In these cultures, young girls and women are forced into these procedures to protect their “purity” by having parts of their genitalia that are considered, “unclean” and “impure”, removed. In Malian folk culture, the clitoris represents the male element in a young girl while the foreskin represents the female element in a young boy. Many Malians believe that without female circumcisions, a man could be killed by the “secretion of poison” from the clitoris (UNHCR 2009). This example can be related to Foucault’s idea of pathologization of sexuality. In this case, the clitoris is analogous to a “diseased organ” to be disposed of. Female sexuality in these cultures is perceived as a pathology to be diagnosed. This begs the question: Are women in these cultures even considered human? Removing parts of a woman’s genitalia against her will is comparable to neutering or spaying an animal. People sterilize their animals against their will to reduce unwanted reproduction. While women in these cultures aren’t getting sterilized, they are still undergoing a medical procedure to reduce premarital sex, adultery, and to preserve their purity. The idea of body autonomy is nonexistent in these cultures; leading to serious civil and human right violations among the women who undergo FGM.
The most extreme violation of body autonomy is human-trafficking, also referred to as sex-trafficking. Homeland Security defines this as a type of “sexual slavery”, by involving the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act; common examples include forced prostitution and involvement in pornography (dhs.gov). It is estimated that there are currently 20–30 million slaves that are victims of human-trafficking today. Not to anyone’s surprise, over 80% of these people are females (dosomething.org). Once abducted, victims of sex-trafficking are exposed to physical and psychological abuse. It is not uncommon for victims to become malnourished and sleep-deprived from being held captive in inhumane living conditions. These women are physically unable to escape, by being bound or chained, and are often drugged by traffickers to reduce “flight risk”. Not only do traffickers threaten their victims with physical violence but psychologically torture them as well. Traffickers will use the threat of harm or murder of the victim’s family to prevent their victims from escaping. Despite the state of the victim’s mental and physical health, they are forced to service 15–30 men a daily; increasing their risk of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV infection and unwanted pregnancies (soroptimist.org)
By its definition alone, people who are sex-trafficked lack complete and total control over their body autonomy. Clearly, there is no consent involved in the process of sex-trafficking and those involved have no final say or jurisdiction over their bodies. Looking at this issue through the feminist perspective, sex-trafficking is most likely the product of sexual objectification; the idea that women are commodities used for the sole purpose of providing sexual pleasure for men (Tong 66). The sex-trafficking industry makes over $30 billion every year because women all over the world are viewed as objects (dosomething.org).
Feminism is a multi-faceted belief-system. However, no matter which type of feminist you identify as, breaching body autonomy through the practices of denying abortion, FGM, and sex-trafficking is hindering progress towards gender equality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are two international documents intended to protect body autonomy rights. Although the government has implemented these laws to prevent basic human rights violations, the issues of abortion, FGM, and sex-trafficking are still prevalent across the world. While the argument of body autonomy in abortion is more abstract, the relationship between the absence of body autonomy in FGM and sex-trafficking is crystal clear. In order to achieve gender equality, we need to eliminate practices that deny women the rights over their bodies. Once every woman has gained full control over her body autonomy will we have achieved gender equality.
Raines, K. (2015, December 28). A Response To Your Body Autonomy Argument., from https://www.theodysseyonline.com/response-body-autonomy-argument
Tong, R. (2009). Feminist thought: a more comprehensive introduction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press
Foucault, M. (1976). The History of Sexuality.
Gordon, S. (2012, January 23). Abortion Safer for Women Than Childbirth, Study Claims., from https://consumer.healthday.com/women-s-health-information-34/abortion-news-2/abortion-safer-for-women-than-childbirth-study-claims-661006.html
Facts on Human Trafficking and Sex Slavery | Soroptimist. (n.d.)., from http://www.soroptimist.org/trafficking/faq.html
Bodily integrity. (2017, April 15). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodily_integrity#Government_and_law
Mears, B. (2007, April 18)., from http://www.cnn.com/2007/LAW/04/18/scotus.abortion/
Federal and State Bans and Restrictions on Abortion. (2017), from http://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/issues/abortion-access/federal-and-state-bans-and-restrictions-on-abortion/
Facts About Human Trafficking. (n.d.). PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e559882006–001
Female Genital Mutilation. (n.d.)., from