Last year, an acquaintance of mine informed me that although he was pro-choice, he thought other pro-choicers (like me) often steamrolled over the very real tragedy of abortion (the baby-killing) in their eagerness to talk about “abstract right”
And then, dear Reader, I shot him.
… okay, I didn’t shoot him. But I entertained the notion. I also blew up at him, which is something I wasn’t doing that often back in 2011 (blogging has made me such a better, more publicly pissed-off human being).
What I said, as I recall, was “ABSTRACT RIGHTS FOR WHOM, YOU PRIVILEGED DIPSHIT? THE RIGHT TO CONTROL MY BODY IS NOT AN ABSTRACT RIGHT TO ME.”
And then I went on a long rant about how not-abstract the right to have an abortion was.
My acquaintance never responded, which I took as a victory.
I mention this incident not because it was unusual – I’ve gotten into lots of fights about abortion – but because of the argument led me to an epiphany. As I, filled with rage, typed up my response, I finally hit on why, exactly, abortion was such an important issue to me.
So why? Why do I care so much?
Because abortion isn’t just about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her pregnancy. It also symbolizes a woman’s right to control her own body FULL STOP. A woman has a right to abortion because her body is her own – not the government’s, not her partners, not her relatives, not the doctors.
There are very few things less “abstract’ than our ability to control our own bodies.
And, crucially, the right to bodily autonomy is not just about abortion. It’s not even just about contraception, or reproductive rights, or consent.
Not surprisingly, I have a story to explain my point.
So, random fact: I actually first started thinking about broader issues of bodily autonomy when I realized that November was pancreatic cancer month. Yes, I know, that seems random. But there is a reason to the random, I promise.
Pancreatic cancer is arguably the deadliest of all cancers in terms of survival rate. The one-year survival rate for all stages is 25%. The five-year survival is 5%. The median survival rate for metastasized or locally advanced cases (which account for 80% of all diagnoses) is 6 to 10 months. Pancreatic cancer kills almost as many people as breast and prostate cancer, yet receives less than 1% of the funds for cancer research – possibly because very few people survive the cancer long enough to become advocates.
A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is basically a death sentence.
When my maternal grandmother was in her early forties, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She turned out to be somewhat of a miracle case, surviving almost ten years before the disease metastasized to her liver and killed her.
Here’s where this story gets back to bodily autonomy. My grandmother never knew she was a miracle case because she never knew she had cancer at all.
Wait! You say. She was diagnosed! How could she not know? Did the doctor give her the wrong diagnosis by accident, or something?
Oh, ha-ha, I wish. In fact, my grandmother’s husband (my… step-grandfather?) and her (male) doctor thought that my grandmother would be devastated if she found out she had cancer.
So they decided not to tell her. At all.
She was horribly sick for ten years without ever knowing why. And she died without ever knowing why.
I realize there may be people reading this who will think my grandmother’s doctor and husband did her a favor by sparing her pain and grief. My father is one of those people – when we talked about my maternal grandmother recently, he said he “could not find fault” in her husband’s decision to lie.
My grandmother was so afraid of death, after all. It was better for her not to know.
Welcome to paternalism.
You know what? Maybe my grandmother was happier overall than she would have been knowing her real diagnosis. But that was not her husband OR her doctor’s choice to make. It was not their body. It was not their life. It was not their choice.
It was her body, her life, her right to know.
But these men thought they knew what my grandmother needed better than she did. They thought they had the right – nay, the obligation – to control her life.
Let’s think about the very real consequences of their decision, shall we?
My grandmother could not make choices about her own medical care, since she did not know what her actual medical conditions were. Certain procedures must have been unavailable to her, since they would have forced doctors to reveal the secret (there aren’t a lot of reasons to get chemotherapy except cancer).
My grandmother could not make informed choices about how to live her life, since she did not know crucial facts ABOUT her life. She did not know she was living with a deadly illness. She did not know that her prognosis was severe; that doctors thought she would survive a few months or a year, at most. Maybe my grandmother would have made different choices. Maybe there were things she would have wanted to do. But she did not have the information necessary to make those choices. Tragically, she could not even decide how to prepare (or not prepare) her youngest daughter, who was a very young child when my grandmother was diagnosed.
And, although she did not know it, the lie made my grandmother utterly dependent on her husband and her doctor. They were now in complete control of her medical future. They could have chosen not to treat her. They could have chosen to use highly experimental drugs. Her husband could have withheld medication. He could have used his knowledge to manipulate her into making big financial decisions that she would not have made knowing her prognosis.
As far as I know – and I do not know a lot – the doctors and her husband did not abuse their power. I mean, except for the part where they lied to my grandmother for TEN YEARS. Other than that.
But they could have. From the time her doctor and her husband decided to lie to her, to the time she died, my grandmother did not have bodily autonomy. She could not control her own life, or her own body. Other people had that control.
My grandmother died of pancreatic and liver cancer two days before I was born.
Paternalism did not kill my grandmother. Cancer did. But paternalism took away my grandmother’s ability to make informed choices about her body and her life.
And this isn’t just a random horror story. It’s the dominant narrative of our past. Women and other minorities have not traditionally been allowed to control their own bodies. Their male relatives did. Their doctors did. The government did. Their owners did, in many cases. The US government sterilized mentally ill women and native women. Hospitals forced – and continue to force – women to undergo dangerous medical procedures without informing them, or seeking their consent. Hell, for over 30o years, black peoples in the United States were considered property.
It’s not just a historical horror story either. In Kansas, a law passed this year that allows doctors to lie to women about their pregnancies if they believe that the information might lead the woman to choose abortion.
Doctors can lie to their patients to stop them from getting abortions.
Bodily autonomy is not just about abortion. But there’s a reason people get so mad when our right to choose is threatened. We know that abortion is just the tip of the iceberg. We know bodily autonomy is not some kind of contingent thing where you can say “you control your body up to the uterus, but after that, it’s in the government hands.” We know what happened to us when our bodies were not under our control. And we’re not interested in going back.
I’m not particularly angry at my step-grandfather, or my grandmother’s doctors. I think what they did was disgusting and unethical, yes. And I’m rather grateful that I don’t have to interact with my step-grandfather. But I’m not that angry at them. I’m angry at the system that made it okay and normal for them to lie to my grandmother. I’m angry at a system that told them it was okay for them to take control of this woman’s body and life. And I’m angry that that system still exists. That we’re still fighting for the basic right to bodily autonomy today. In 2012.
People are allowed to control their own bodies. Women very often are not.
Rebecca West once said: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. It’s a surprisingly radical notion.
Any comments that justify the decision to hide my grandmother’s illness from her will be mocked or banned. So will any that engage in victim-blaming by arguing that my grandmother “must” have figured it out. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. That’s not the point. Of any comments that talk about how difficult it must have been for her husband to hide the truth from her will? Yeah, it was probably hard. You know what would have made it easier? TELLING HER THE TRUTH.
Comment with care