Word to the Wise: Bodily Autonomy.

June 8, 2021

“My body is my own” is a claim we have been making in our movement for decades. So why is it, then, that girls and women, both cisgender and transgender, cannot make their own decisions about their bodily autonomy?  And why does it matter?

First, what is it? “Bodily autonomy is a human right,” stated Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

As defined by a 2021 report of the United Nations, bodily autonomy is “the power and agency to make choices about your body, without fear of violence or having someone else decide for you.” It is a fundamental human right. Yet, nearly half of people identified as women worldwide cannot make their own decisions in developed and developing countries. They cannot freely decide whether or not to have sex, use contraception, have an abortion, or even seek health care.

The denial of bodily autonomy reinforces the inequalities between women and men. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said during her confirmation hearing, “It is essential to woman’s equality with man that she be the decision-maker, that her choice be controlling. If you impose restraints that impede her choice, you are disadvantaging her because of her sex.” Unfortunately, however, trans people are often invisible. And, for those of us who have privilege, we can use our voices to affirm and empower bodies at greater risk of experiencing violence when advocating for their own bodies.

The restraints may vary from one culture to another. They go much deeper than access to abortions. Access to comprehensive information about sexuality, contraception, treatment of sexually transmitted infections, and care during and after pregnancy are other sexual and reproductive health care aspects. Exercising the legal right to control their bodies translates to other parts of people’s lives. It affects their capacity to make political, economic, educational, and social choices.

Legislative decisions and governmental policies determine healthcare funding. Lack of funding limits the options for low-income people and minorities. Black and brown people, indigenous people, non-gender conforming people, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations, often face heightened barriers to realize their bodily autonomy. Stereotypes, assumptions, and misconceptions about women, nonbinary and trans people are other persistent roadblocks.

Bodily autonomy is about a person’s whole self, dreams, and potential in life. It includes people of all races, genders, faiths, nationalities, and disability statuses. It is central to our fight for reproductive justice.

Let us join together to remove the barriers that interfere with access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, all-inclusive sexuality education, and justice. Together we can work to assure that all people have bodily autonomy.

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