The Struggle for Bodily Autonomy
by Bianca Gomez, Chai Moua and Mahnker Dahnweih
Most of the rights that we take for granted—such as the right of children to not work in coal mines, workers to a 40-hour work week, women to open a bank account without permission from a man, to sit where we want on the bus, to love who we want, and even of non-property owning white men to vote—were won through organizing, campaigns, and direct action.
This truth is exactly why Freedom, Inc. engages in cutting-edge and hard-driven campaigns that center direct action as a means of expanding rights for everyone, thereby making the world a better place. For example, we receive all sorts of negative attention for our campaigns and actions designed to bring about a world in which Black people are not murdered by the state and children are able to learn in a healthy environment without armed police. Much of that negative attention comes from right-wing media, including a prominent right-wing website’s recent attack on Freedom Inc. and other Madison organizations advocating for abortion rights.
We engage in these campaigns because we know the world will be better when we win and that this is the only way to win.
At this historic juncture, when so many of our rights are literally under attack, both the danger in and the necessity of direct action campaigns is increasingly evident. Direct action campaigns are needed to secure, defend, and even re-win our rights.
The recent United States Supreme Court decision nullifying the right to abortion and privacy will eventually be undone and the courts will be compelled to once again recognize our rights. However, we can only re-win and expand these rights through well-organized mass direct action campaigns that understand the underlying issues and social dynamics at play.
Because the Dobbs decision was an attack on privacy itself, the ruling has implications on a host of rights beyond abortion. The most important concept, however, that the ruling impacts is our right to bodily autonomy.
The core issue we must confront today is not abortion per se, but the underlying issue of bodily autonomy. Even though we can win the issue of abortion narrowly, we can still lose on the broader question of bodily autonomy. However, winning on the question of bodily autonomy assures that we win on the question of abortion and so many others—questions that are inseparable from Freedom Inc.’s core missions.
Throughout this piece, we are intentional in our use of gendered language to reflect historical and contemporary contexts. The term “women” is used in some instances because the winning of legal rights rarely translates to full access when applied to Black and POC women and girls, and is especially challenging for queer, trans, and intersex folx and other marginalized bodies capable of pregnancy. Terminology like “pregnant people” is not historically accurate, and does not reflect the experience of those holding multiple marginalized identities. In short, the way a cis-gender hetersexual married white woman experiences abortion access and care, is different from the experience a Black Trans man would have. We must fully name the Survivors, in order to fully name the violence itself and formulate strategic campaigns to end it.
The right to privacy is key to the Supreme Court Ruling
The Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade came only after decades of organizing, campaigns, and social tensions. The movement apexed with the mainstream women liberation and queer liberation movements, which ran concurrently, even if not in alignment, with the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Roe v. Wade was groundbreaking in at least two respects:
First, Roe firmly established the right of women to access abortion, under most circumstances. The second respect, however, is even more significant: it affirmed privacy as a fundamental legal right, building on the precedent of the Court’s 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut. Privacy is not mentioned in the US Constitution, and there is no reasonable reading of history which suggests that right was respected pre-Griswold.
But the right to abortion did not give rise to the right to privacy, in fact quite the opposite: the establishment of the right to privacy is what paved the way for the legal justification for the right to abortion. In other words, only with the right to privacy can people assert that the government has no right to know if they are pregnant or the final disposition of those pregnancies, as determined with their doctors. The right to privacy meant that for the first time in US history, women had some legal right to bodily autonomy. The logical building blocks of the right to privacy gave meaning to the slogan “my body, my choice.”
The established right to privacy was used to justify the right to birth control—first for married people in Griswold, and then for unmarried people in 1972’s Eisenstadt v. Baird ruling—and then the right for two consenting adults, including—gasp!—of the same gender, to do what they wanted to in their own bedroom, and then even to get married.
In the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, the Supreme Court effectively remanded the federal right to privacy established in Roe back to the states, allowing each state to decide on its own whether it recognized the right to privacy, and to what extent. Even as Justice Samuel Alito overtly claimed the decision applied only to the right to abortion and not to other rights, that claim was not only undermined by the very language of the majority ruling, it was directly challenged by Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion, in which he openly called for a re-examination of essentially any court decision which was made based on the bedrock concept of privacy.
The policing of queer bodies
Gender queer folx are harassed, abused, and even brutalized by the police and the public for failing to meet the expectations of gender performance or presentation. Those assigned male at birth are expected to “perform” as males throughout their lives, through behaviors such as wearing pants and ties and exhibiting a certain degree of masculinity. Similarly, people assigned female at birth are expected to wear pink, be dainty, and behave in socially subservient ways.
Feminine men and butch women and girls, queer, trans, and intersex folx are socially, and often physically, punished for their gender presentation. Those punished for counter-masculine or counter-feminine presentations have no effective right to privacy because their gender identity is, in a sense, considered part of the public domain, such that anyone can comment on it or challenge it as they wish. Consequently, gender queer folx lack bodily autonomy to do what they want with their bodies, including dressing outside of a pre-determined range of garment options (dresses for you, but no pants).
The failure to conform to gender expectations is not only used to dehumanize queer folx in general, but to justify acts of violence against counter-masculine or counter-feminine actors, including the government violence of electric shock, forced psychological counseling, and denial of health services. Healthcare systems and the state inflict these abuses even more severely on transgender and intersex people in the name of repairing their “broken” bodies or minds. Consent for the repairs is not required, because the gender expression of their bodies have no privacy settings.
All of the homophobic and trans-hostile rhetoric about how queer and trans folx do not have to worry about abortion rights aside, attacks on bodily autonomy are some of the most deeply anti-LGBTQI+ concepts at play and must be confronted at the source. Full discretion to express gender, explore partnership with various genders, and arrange families outside of the nuclear family threatens the foundations of Patriarchal White Supremacy and its project of colonialism.
Colonialism conquered our land and bodies
Stereotypes initially perpetrated by European colonizers and then spread by popular culture have lasting adverse impacts on the bodily autonomy of Southeast Asian women and girls. Tales of sexually pliant Asian women and girls quickly made the rounds to the registered colonizers and the freelance pirates of Europe. The stories created an expectation of hyper-feminine women and girls, queer, trans and intersex folx who not only accepted subservient social roles, but wanted and were even aroused by physically dominant men.
To this day, a thriving internet market allows American and European men to shop for Asian brides, often with the explicit expectation of social and sexual subservience associated with pure notions of femininity and traditional male-female relations. Even among those men stopping short of bride shopping, the bodies of Asian women and girls have become, in a sense, public domain, fetishized in pornography, modeling, and even massage parlors. When those women and girls fail to meet the unrealistic standards of hyper-feminine behavior, the results can be devastating.
In addition to a general rise in anti-Asian violence throughout the US as a result of an overtly hostile US government, attacks against Asian women and girls, queer, trans and intersex folx rose sharply. In the most notorious instance, in 2021, eight people were shot and killed in Atlanta-area massage parlors, six of them Asian women. The police investigating the murders downplayed the racial aspect, insisting that they were triggered by frustrations related to the murderer’s sex addiction. Even a rudimentary understanding of intersectionality demonstrates the relationship between the two aspects.
Even where Black and Latinx women are often portrayed as sexually aggressive, Asian women and girls are portrayed as subservient, as if their bodies belong to the men using them, lacking even the bodily autonomy to be independently sexual, outside of the gaze of men. When Asian women and girls internalize this perception, they are made to feel counter-feminine for merely rejecting a man.
Aside from the most extreme cases, the daily implications of hyper-feminization can force Asian women and girls, to navigate an unending series of sexual advances in public and the workplace, based on men’s perception of Asian bodies and how they function in the public sphere.
The loss of legal privacy will actively work against the efforts of Asian women and girls to assert their own social parity, independence, and bodily autonomy.
Bodily Autonomy and Police Brutality
In August 2014, Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson shot at 18-year-old Mike Brown 12 times, killing him in the middle of the street and sparking an urban rebellion. In justifying the murder, Wilson, who was 28 years old and stood 6 feet 4 inches tall, described Mike, who was just one inch taller, as a “demon” who was like “Hulk Hogan” and “Wolverine.” The murder of Mike Brown continued the historic pattern of ascribing hyper-masculine characteristics to Black men in order to dehumanize them and justify acts of violence against them.
Lions and bears do not have the right to roam camping grounds or residential neighborhoods because they are a threat to the public. In the same way, the bodies of hyper-masculine beasts have no privacy or bodily autonomy. Because hyper-masculine bodies represent a threat to the public, their bodies are, in a sense, public domain, to be tamed and controlled for the public good.
Acts of violence against Black bodies are often accepted by the public because the public perceives those bodies as an inherent threat that must be neutralized for the public good. The narrative of hyper-masculine performance sets the Black body to non-private mode, allowing for control by the police or randomly assembled mobs of white vigilantes. The loss of bodily autonomy is a direct threat to Black men everywhere.
It is obvious and clear that privacy and bodily autonomy are such critical issues because any violations of gender expression—on either side—can render one’s body public. Counter-masculinity (not masculine enough) and hyper-masculinity (scary brute) both render a body public, albeit for different specific reasons. Counter-femininity (too butch) and Hyper-femininity (socially and sexually subservient) also convert the body to the public domain.
What is not as obvious is that complete compliance in the normal, garden-variety, and fully expected fulfillment of the feminine gender role—in the form of pregnancy (and soon-to-be potential pregnancy as it relates to birth control)—also renders the body public.
Even among those who do not identify with any of the extremes in the spectrum of gender expression, it must be clear that if variation in the spectrum results in a loss of rights, then those rights do not really exist. That means you can, at any point, find yourself outside of the acceptable range.
Finding oneself outside of the gender expression norm does not require any change in individual behavior. In the 1960s, it was unheard of for men to board a plane without wearing a suit. If you returned to the idealized time when “men were men,” showing up at the airport with shorts and a baseball cap would be deemed counter-masculine. Your current status of compliance might be strictly accidental.
The more important underlying point is that there is no fundamental difference between losing bodily autonomy due to hyper-masculinity or pregnancy.
What are we prepared to do ito win bodily autonomy?
When considering issues around which to build campaigns, Freedom, Inc. often weighs the difference between a surface and a root issue. While a surface issue is a manifestation of an underlying problem, a root issue is the underlying problem itself.
For example, a cough is a surface issue, or a manifestation of something else. Of course, we respond to the cough in appropriate ways, such as covering up or wearing a mask. However, even as we take these drastic and obvious measures, our primary concern is not the surface issue or the cough. It is the root issue, such as the flu or Covid-19 virus, which is causing the cough in the first place.
Organizationally and through many of our individual staff, members, and supporters, Freedom, Inc. will continue to support and engage in abortion clinic defense. Clinic defense is brave and important work, serving as a first responder action in defense against attacks on our rights and protecting the ability of women and girls, queer, trans, and intersex folx to exercise control over their own bodies.
During these times, clinic defense is some of the most important work we can undertake and, as such, we encourage everyone so moved to support a local clinic defense effort with your money, time and body.
However, even as we underscore the importance of clinic defense for front-line and first responder social movement actors, we understand that attacks on clinics is a surface response or a manifestation of a deeper issue: the broader attack on our right to bodily autonomy.
Throughout US history, Black people in general, and Black women and girls, queer, trans, and intersex folx in particular, lacked bodily autonomy. We were forced into pregnancy and we were forced into sterilization. We were forced onto the plantation and we are forced into the penitentiary. We were forced to work and we are forced out of work. In each instance, the issue was not what we did, but the fact that our lack of bodily autonomy forced us to do what someone else wanted us to do.
We assert that all of our communities have a deeply held and intersecting interest in defending the root issues of privacy and bodily autonomy, and we are prepared to fight for those rights.