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Home / Articles / Editorial / Readers Forum /  Who owns the bodies and lives of women in America?
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Wednesday, March 7,2012

Who owns the bodies and lives of women in America?

By Lyrr Descy

As the Talibangelists in the Ohio General Assembly rush to restrict the right of women to determine their own reproductive destiny, I've spent fascinating hours reading testimony for and against HB 125, the "Heartbeat Bill." Its purpose is to criminalize abortion after a heartbeat is detected, even in embryos barely larger than a pencil eraser, when women may not yet know they are pregnant.

Since a heartbeat in this nub cannot be detected through the abdomen, women must submit to a transvaginal ultrasound. (Virginia ditched the mandatory transvaginal ultrasound provision from a similar bill following accusations of instituting state rape with an ultrasound probe.)

The talking points in the testimony ranged from constitutional issues to the health of women, freedom of and freedom from religion, the economics of population growth and decline, the social and fiscal costs of unwanted pregnancy, ultrasound technology, the correlation between heartbeat and live birth, informed consent, and personal views about when life begins.

Nowhere did I see the simple question asked: Who owns the bodies and lives of women? Or the issues which this overarching question gives rise to:

• When a woman who may be pregnant visits the doctor, who is the patient?

• Are women to become wards of the state during pregnancy?

• The courts have held that people cannot be compelled to use their bodies as instruments to preserve others. If a parent isn't compelled to donate bone marrow to an ailing toddler, why are women compelled to host and deliver an unwanted fetus, with all the risks this entails?

• Servitude is a condition in which one lacks liberty to determine one's course of action or way of life. Service to the fetus and birthing are not called labor for nothing.  Should it be forced labor? Involuntary servitude reserved for pregnant women?

The assumption is that because women are biologically capable of bearing children, they have a special responsibility to sacrifice their own very real lives, health and wellbeing for the sake of what can only be a potential life. As a premise for regulating women's bodies, this assumption is oppressive. Biology is not destiny.

Everybody's first duty is surely to live a meaningful life. And for women this may or may not include motherhood and the sacrifices they make voluntarily. These very same sacrifices might include an abortion to protect the survival and interests of their existing children — for example when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Motherhood is much more a state of mind and an expression of socially recognized relationships than a mere biological function. An infertile woman who adopts a child is a mother. A surrogate who bears a child on behalf of another is not its mother. A fertile woman is a mother only when she wants the fetus she is carrying.

Because a fetus is not an autonomous person with intrinsic and constitutional rights that can supersede those of the woman, the value placed on it ultimately depends on one's perspective. Thrilled to be pregnant, a woman and her partner will bond very quickly with her pea-sized embryo and think of it as their "child." This is a subjective perception, and the fetus is accorded a high value. But this is not everyone's experience. Mere pregnancy does not make a woman a mother if it is unwanted, whether because she doesn't like children, thinks she'll be an inadequate parent, can't afford children, is homeless, or faces a serious health condition. If we truly value the potential life of the fetus, motherhood should not be an accident of biology.

The rash of informed consent legislation we're seeing aims to add layers of guilt to the abortion option, though — unlike post-partum depression — guilt is cultural, not a biological inevitability. But the radical right has made it its business to pile on the guilt by floating such memes as "preborn children," and now the heartbeat with all its mystical and affective associations (why not a functioning liver?) while it neglects born children and people of all ages whose own hearts may need emotional care and medical care.

The purported interest of states in ensuring informed consent by women seeking abortions assumes they are unable to make thoughtful decisions through their own moral agency. Time and again the testimony I read referenced the need for women to be able to make "mature" decisions. This infantilizes women, and is intolerable. And what's the point of informed consent if, as in Ohio, the door will be barred to you anyway?

It's sheer hypocrisy, of course. Shouldn't women rather consent to pregnancy and parenthood? Many more women die in childbirth than from abortions. Many more suffer pregnancy complications or post-partum depression than experience post-abortion sequelae. And parenthood is not for everyone.

Ohio's proposed abortion ban runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution as interpreted in Roe v Wade and re-affirmed in Planned Parenthood v Casey. Given that gestation exists on a continuum, the Supreme Court, implicitly recognizing that the United States is not a theocracy and women must finally be liberated from the stranglehold of religious dogma, outlined a careful scheme that drew the line at viability: the developmental stage when a fetus can survive outside the womb. As viability is variable, only birth can be the true bright line, but at least the Roe decision, as a compromise in a nation so sharply divided, is reasonable.  Ohio's Heartbeat Bill by contrast is completely unreasonable, an affront to women. Where do they get off, writing our life script!

I urge anyone who believes in the rights and dignity of women to shout their disapproval of the Heartbeat Bill before it is enacted at the end of March.

Editor's note: Lyrr Descy lives on Angel Ridge Road outside of Athens.

 

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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT

Congratulations, that was the most callous, selfish argument for abortion rights I've ever read. 

 

Uh ... not even a passing grade for you. You get an F for failing to answer the questions.

1. Who owns the bodies and lives of women?
2. When a woman who may be pregnant visits the doctor, who is the patient?
3. Are pregnant women to become wards of the state?
4. Are only pregnant women compelled to use their bodies as instruments to preserve others?
5. Are only pregnant women liable to involuntary servitude otherwise outlawed by the 13th Amendment?

When you have an answer to these five questions, come back to me and maybe we can have a debate between two thinking people.

 

It all comes down to one question - are you able to call the "pea-sized embryo" a child if the woman wants it and something to be discarded if she does not? If so, then abortion, and all of your questions, make perfect sense. If you are not able to do that bit of mental gymnastics, it is logically the killing of a child. We will never agree on abortion because both sides are completely convinced their view of the "pea-sized embryo" is the correct one. On one thing we can agree, we are all glad that when our mother had a choice about us, she considered her "pea-sized embryo" a child.

BTW, one of your questions is silly either way. "2. When a woman who may be pregnant visits the doctor, who is the patient?" The answer is both the woman and the child, unless you're visiting an abortion doctor.

 

I'll dispose of one issue first.


I'm not in the least concerned that my mother did or didn't abort me — if that had even been possible in those days. Non-existence is no big deal. Inhabitants of the Earth are who they are, and there's no use speculating about the absence of others. The fact that I DO exist enables me to use my mind and my experiences to have a sense of the world, and to have relationships and make a contribution. In other words to live a meaningful life, as I suggested in my article. Fine. But otherwise, what difference would it have made?


So, to get back to my five questions, four of which are subsets of the first: WHO OWNS THE BODIES AND LIVES OF WOMEN? Which you didn't answer. Yet it's a simple enough question that doesn't require mental gymnastics.


A woman visits the doctor because she's not feeling well, or something seems a bit unusual. She enters a free agent, a fully autonomous person able to make decisions and write her own life script. In the ordinary way, she would listen to her doctor’s recommendations, but ultimately make her own decisions about her health and health care. Today, patients are never forced to follow doctors’ orders anymore. Doctors are not authority figures. Patients decide for themselves whether to go on a diet, take a particular medication, or have surgery. They may decide to seek a second opinion or find an alternative form of treatment. The patient is in charge.


So — her doctor runs some tests, and OOPS ... discovers she's pregnant. So, does she leave the doctor's office held hostage to a zygote, or at best a pea-sized embryo? Does she become a ward of the state because of laws restricting her options. Does she lose all her rights of independence, all her rights to make decisions about her own body and her life because of this accident of biology? Believe me, this is NOT a silly question.


ALL my questions were pertinent. A dividing cell, a zygote that might fit on the head of a pin, and even a pea-sized embryo a couple of weeks later, could very well have passed through her body spontaneously, unsuspected — which is what happens every day to billions of women. We don't mourn this horrendous loss of life. We don't hold vigils for the unborn every time a woman goes to the toilet. Billions and billions of fertilized eggs discard themselves all the time.


However, if the woman was seeking to become pregnant, or is otherwise pleasantly surprised, she will do everything in her power to have a safe pregnancy and give birth to another fully autonomous person who can draw his own oxygen from the air, and survive without being biologically dependent on her anymore. This is the bright line of birth.


She may die as a result of her pregnancy or childbirth; she may suffer life-long disabilities; she may develop post-partum depression and drown all her children in the bathtub. But at least the decision to continue her pregnancy will have been hers.


So I'm very willing to draw a distinction between an autonomous born person (the woman) and everything else. And it does not require mental gymnastics. Her rights to self-determination are paramount. And there may be all kinds of reasons for her to opt for an abortion. Unless and until we can stand in her shoes, and inhabit her skin, and know what her life is like — or will be like — it is not for us to tell her that she should be forced to go through a pregnancy and birth.


You're quite right in pointing out that we'll never agree on abortion as long as we have different ideas of what a fetus is and what it is not. But the bottom line is a REAL LIFE versus a POTENTIAL LIFE. To me that is a no-brainer. And the Federal Appeals Court for the District of Columbia has already ruled that the rights of a fetus cannot SUPERSEDE those of a woman.


It's not irrelevant that airlines require us to don our own oxygen masks and life vests before we help others. A woman may have to preserve her own life (in both its literal and figurative senses) before she can take care of others. If that means she's not ready to go through a pregnancy, surely this can only be her decision.


She owns her body, and she owns her life. It's that simple. Just as every man owns his body and owns his life, and is not required to sacrifice his life, or his body for anybody else, let alone an embryo or fetus. Equal protection under the law.

 

As I said, your arguments make perfect sense if you believe the "pea-sized embryo" is only human life if the mother wants it to be. As you said, the courts agree with you. In their wisdom, and a bit of judicial license when interpreting the Constitution, they have decided when life begins (sorta, kinda). It is the law of the land and will be as far as the eye can see. Your arguments win. Enough said.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT

This is a really well written article. I still have no idea why, in the abortion debate, both sides must be focused on the "what about the fetus?" question rather than "what about the woman?".


" Shouldn't women rather consent to pregnancy and parenthood?"


The most important quote in the article, in my opinion.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT


I'LL REPOST MY REPLY HERE -- FORMATTING IS BIZARRE.


______________


I'll dispose of one issue first.


 I'm not in the least concerned that my mother did or didn't abort me — if that had even been possible in those days.  Non-existence is no big deal.  Inhabitants of the Earth are who they are, and there's no use speculating about the absence of others.  The fact that I DO exist enables me to use my mind and my experiences to have a sense of the world, and to have relationships and make a contribution.  In other words to live a meaningful life, as I suggested in my article.  Fine.  But otherwise, what difference would it have made?


 So, to get back to my five questions, four of which are subsets of the first:  WHO OWNS THE BODIES AND LIVES OF WOMEN?  Which you didn't answer.  Yet it's a simple enough question that doesn't require mental gymnastics. 


 A woman visits the doctor because she's not feeling well, or something seems a bit unusual. She enters a free agent, a fully autonomous person able to make decisions and write her own life script.  In the ordinary way, she would listen to her doctor’s recommendations, but ultimately make her own decisions about her health and health care.  Today, patients are never forced to follow doctors’ orders anymore.  Doctors are not authority figures.  Patients decide for themselves whether to go on a diet, take a particular medication, or have surgery.  They may decide to seek a second opinion or find an alternative form of treatment.  The patient is in charge.


 So — her doctor runs some tests, and OOPS ... discovers she's pregnant.  So, does she leave the doctor's office held hostage to a zygote, or at best a pea-sized embryo?  Does she become a ward of the state because of laws restricting her options.  Does she lose all her rights of independence, all her rights to make decisions about her own body and her life because of this accident of biology?  Believe me, this is NOT a silly question.


 ALL my questions were pertinent.  A dividing cell, a zygote that might fit on the head of a pin, and even a pea-sized embryo a couple of weeks later, could very well have passed through her body spontaneously, unsuspected — which is what happens every day to billions of women.  We don't mourn this horrendous loss of life.  We don't hold vigils for the unborn every time a woman goes to the toilet.  Billions and billions of fertilized eggs discard themselves all the time.


 However, if the woman was seeking to become pregnant, or is otherwise pleasantly surprised, she will do everything in her power to have a safe pregnancy and give birth to another fully autonomous person who can draw his own oxygen from the air, and survive without being biologically dependent on her anymore.  This is the bright line of birth.


 She may die as a result of her pregnancy or childbirth;  she may suffer life-long disabilities;  she may develop post-partum depression and drown all her children in the bathtub.  But at least the decision to continue her pregnancy will have been hers.


So I'm very willing to draw a distinction between an autonomous born person (the woman) and everything else.  And it does not require mental gymnastics.   Her rights to self-determination are paramount.  And there may be all kinds of reasons for her to opt for an abortion.  Unless and until we can stand in her shoes, and inhabit her skin, and know what her life is like — or will be like — it is not for us to tell her that she should be forced to go through a pregnancy and birth.


 You're quite right in pointing out that we'll never agree on abortion as long as we have different ideas of what a fetus is and what it is not.  But the bottom line is a REAL LIFE versus a POTENTIAL LIFE.  To me that is a no-brainer.  And the Federal Appeals Court for the District of Columbia has already ruled that the rights of a fetus cannot SUPERSEDE those of a woman.


It's not irrelevant that airlines require us to don our own oxygen masks and life vests before we help others.  A woman may have to preserve her own life (in both its literal and figurative senses) before she can take care of others.  If that means she's not ready to go through a pregnancy, surely this can only be her decision.


 She owns her body, and she owns her life.  It's that simple.  Just as every man owns his body and owns his life, and is not required to sacrifice his life, or his body for anybody else, let alone an embryo or fetus.  Equal protection under the law.

 

 

 
 
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