Roe v Wade: a philosopher on the true meaning of ‘my body, my choice’

Roe v Wade: a philosopher on the true meaning of 'my body, my choice'

The overthrow of Roe v Wade harms all women and all who can get pregnant around the world by simply making their body ownership conditional. It undermines their equality with others.

Many people are appalled by the recent decision by the US Supreme Court to overthrow Roe v Wade so that states can now make it illegal to obtain or perform an abortion. For many of us, even if we do not live in the US, it feels like a personal blow. I use my work in moral philosophy to explain this feeling. If we feel personally affected, it is because we are affected personally. The ruling reduces the self-possession of all women (even if they cannot get pregnant) and everyone who can get pregnant, wherever they live.

The decision is likely to leave 33 million people in the US without access to abortion. These are the people who are directly affected by the verdict. Evidence shows that being denied an abortion harms a person’s health, finances and family life. Those in the U.S. who are forced to continue with pregnancy may lose their dreams, or even their lives.

But the consequences of the US ruling are worldwide. Anyone who can get pregnant now knows that they cannot travel or move to the US and is recognized as an equal with equal rights. The same is not true of our male compatriots.

Of course, the US is not the only place where access to abortion is restricted, so development in the US comes down to an additional blow to equality, rather than a loss of what was perfect equality. But the size and influence of the US makes this additional battle very significant.

What is body ownership and why does it matter?

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

Body ownership is a fundamental part of moral prestige for people. It is through my body that I act on 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 am struck by the beauty of a sunrise, enjoying a cool breeze, convincing myself of an argument, these effects on me must go through my body. How my body is is a big part of how I am: if my body hurt, I got hurt. Body ownership is necessary to respect the unique relationship between me and my body.

Body ownership is necessary for a valuable kind of agency that I call full-fledged agency – the freedom to choose your own goals and pursue a firm action in line with those goals. Maybe I appreciate helping the sick and I want to become a doctor. It requires me to commit to studying for many years. I can only do this if I have at least some authority to decide what happens to my body.

None of this means that you are never forced to use your body for others: it is quite undisputed that I am forced to call an ambulance if the person next to me has a heart attack and it does not undermine self-ownership. For me to truly own my body, however, there must be limits to these requirements. I need to have a say in how my body is used to the benefit of others.

A protester holds up a sign reading
Protesters in the US have demanded that their choice be reinstated.
EPA / Etienne Laurent

Lack of access to abortion can undermine your body possession even if you never really need an abortion. If you can get pregnant but access to abortion is limited, you can only decide what happens to your body as long as you are not pregnant. You are not completely free to decide on the actions needed to achieve your goals.

Indeed, I believe legal restrictions on abortion undermine body possession for any woman, even if she can not get pregnant and even if she never plans to travel to the US. Her control over her body still depends on the ability or inability to conceive and from where she is in the world. A woman’s right to control her body should not be based on such accidents.

PhilosopherTM Scanlon discusses a “friend” who will steal a kidney for you if you need one. Scanlon argues that this person is not a true friend to you, because of what his view should be of your right to your own body parts: “He would not steal them. [from you]but it’s just because he happens to like you. ”

We need our friends to acknowledge that we have rights to our body parts because we are human, not just because they happen to like us. As a woman, I need recognition that my body belongs to me because I am a person, not simply because I happen to not be able to get pregnant or happen to not have to go to the US.

So all women and everyone who can get pregnant are personally affected by the overthrow of Roe v Wade – and all threats to access abortion. Recognizing why this is so can help us understand otherwise confusing feelings, both within ourselves and others. It can also help us work together to defend reproductive rights.


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