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a philosopher on the true meaning of ‘my body, my choice’

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The destruction of Roe v Wade harms all women and anyone who can conceive around the world by making their bodily property purely conditional. This undermines their equality with others.

Many people are reeling from the US Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v Wade so that states can now make obtaining or performing an abortion illegal. For many of us, even if we don’t live in the US, this feels like a personal blow. I use my work in moral philosophy to explain this feeling. If we feel personally addressed, it is because we are personally touched by it. The ruling reduces the self-ownership of all women (even if they cannot conceive) and all those who can become pregnant, wherever they live.

The decision is likely to leave 33 million people in the US without access to abortion. These are the people most directly affected by the statement. There is some evidence that refusing an abortion harms one’s health, finances and family life. Those in the US who are forced to continue with the pregnancy may lose their dreams, or even their lives.

But the effects of the US ruling are global. Anyone who can conceive now knows that they cannot travel or relocate to the US and be recognized as equals with equal rights. The same does not apply to our male compatriots.

Of course, the US is not the only place restricting access to abortion, so development in the US amounts to an additional blow to equality, rather than a loss of what was once perfect equality. But the size and influence of the US make this additional blow very significant.

What is body property and why is it important?

You own your body when you have the power to make decisions about what is done with it and how it is used based on your own interests and desires.

Body property is a fundamental part of moral status for people. Through my body I act to the world: when I bake a cake, write a book or build a house, I use my body. It is through my body that the world acts on me. When I’m struck by the beauty of a sunrise, enjoying a cool breeze, convinced by an argument, these effects on me must pass through my body. How my body is is a big part of how I am: if my body is injured, I am injured. Body ownership is necessary to respect the unique relationship between me and my body.

Body ownership is necessary for a valuable type of agency that I call a full-fledged agency—the freedom to choose your own goals and set a course consistent with those goals. Maybe I think it’s important to help the sick and I want to be a doctor. This requires me to commit to studying for years. I can only do this if I have at least some authority to decide what happens to my body.

All this does not mean that you are never obliged to use your body for others: it is quite undisputed that I should call an ambulance if the person next to me has a heart attack and this does not affect self-ownership. But to really own my body, there must be limits to these requirements. I need to have a say in how my body is used for the good of others.

A protester holds up a sign that reads 'her body, her rights, her choice'
Protesters in the US have called for their choice to be reinstated.
EPA/Etienne Laurent

Lack of access to abortion can undermine your body property, even if you never actually need an abortion. If you can get pregnant but access to abortion is limited, you can only decide what happens to your body while you are not pregnant. You are not entirely free to decide what actions are necessary to achieve your goals.

Indeed, I believe that legal restrictions on abortion undermine any woman’s bodily ownership, even if she cannot conceive and even if she never intends to travel to the US. Her control over her body still depends on her ability or inability to conceive and where she is in the world. A woman’s right to control her body should not rest on such accidents.

Philosopher TM Scanlon discusses a “friend” who would steal a kidney for you if you needed one. Scanlon states that this person is not a real friend to you, because of what his view must be of your right to your own body parts: “He wouldn’t steal them [from you]but that’s only because he likes you.”

We need our friends to recognize that we have rights to our body parts because we are humans, not just because they like us. As a woman, I need recognition that my body is mine because I’m a person, not just because I don’t happen to be able to get pregnant or have to go to the US.

So all women and all those who could become pregnant are personally affected by the destruction of Roe v Wade – and all threats to abortion access. Recognizing why this is can help us understand otherwise puzzling feelings, both in ourselves and in others. It can also help us work together to defend reproductive rights.

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