Photo by Sage McAvoy for Refinery29.
In the past few weeks, a variety of states across the U.S. have unveiled new laws that restrict women’s access to abortions. Georgia governor Brian Kemp signed into law the state's so-called "heartbeat bill," an effective ban on abortions more than six weeks into a pregnancy, and Alabama governor Kay Ivey signed the state's controversial near-total abortion ban Wednesday evening. Draconian new anti-abortion measures have also won wide margins of approval in Ohio and Missouri.
The new law in Alabama is the most restrictive anti-abortion measure passed in the United States since Roe v. Wade in 1973, banning all abortions except when "abortion is necessary in order to prevent a serious health risk" to the woman. Cases of rape and incest are not exempt as they are in other states.
In Alabama specifically, after a march on the state capital in Montgomery, many women have begun fearing the worst for their reproductive rights, with even referencing The Handmaid’s Tale. The Alabama ban takes effect in six months, so abortion is still currently legal in the state at the three remaining abortion clinics, but it is unclear how much will change in the coming months. Supporters acknowledge that they expect the ban to be blocked by lower courts, but many others believe it will be decided in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
As the topic of abortion moves back into the political limelight, “bodily autonomy” is brought to the forefront of the conversation by pro-choice advocates. But what exactly does that mean, and how have women been denied this right throughout history? And perhaps most importantly, what will these new laws mean for women’s rights in the near future?
What is bodily autonomy?
In short, bodily autonomy refers to humans’ self-determination over their own bodies, and it follows that the infringement upon this right is intrusive and possibly criminal. If it is your body—be it your hair, blood, or bones—only you have the authority to make decisions that have direct ramifications on your life and well-being.
Bodily autonomy is perhaps best summarized by the 1978 Supreme Court case McFall v. Shimp. Robert McFall was suffering from a terminal bone marrow disease and would die if he did not receive a bone marrow transplant. The only potential donor for McFall was his cousin, Mr. Shrimp. Mr. Shrimp refused to donate his marrow to McFall, and so McFall took the case to court to mandate that Shrimp undergo the procedure. The judge, however, concluded that forcing a person to submit to an intrusion of his body in order to donate bone marrow "would defeat the sanctity of the individual and would impose a rule which would know no limits, and one could not imagine where the line would be drawn.”
To summarize, no one can force you to undergo any circumstance that would directly impact your well-being as another human being. You cannot be forced to donate blood or bone marrow, and by the same principle, you cannot be forced to have a child by the laws of the government.
Women’s bodily autonomy
Historically, women have been denied access to the right of bodily autonomy. These restrictions haven’t been consistent, however; they were generally nonexistent up until the rise of the rise of the Christian Church in the medieval period. It was during this time that religious leaders and writers like Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome outright attacked women and mandated scriptures and texts that infringed on women’s right to bodily autonomy, writing that women were “weak and hysterical and open to temptations.” It was these church fathers who blamed Eve for the downfall of humanity, and by extension all women, everywhere, and because of this, fighting back against these sentiments and regulations on women has been an uphill battle since the modern era began.
The laws and behaviors used to restrict women’s sexual behavior have ranged from female genital mutilation (which is still practiced in many countries to this day), to forced marriages, to the denial of access to abortions. These mandates all represent an assault on women’s right to choose. They serve as a deliberate ploy to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling upholding abortion access as a constitutional right in the United States.
What bodily autonomy means in a post-abortion ban Alabama
Limiting a women’s access to abortion will not stop women from having abortions. It will only limit women’s access to safe abortions. And further, the idea that these abortion bans are in the support of life or the unborn ignores all of the other facets that go into being truly “pro-life.” A true pro-life attitude would argue that the lives of women, the incarcerated, children in foster care, immigrants, and the poor matter as much as the unborn.
How can you help?
Donating to organizations like the Yellowhammer Fund. This fund provides financial assistance, transportation, and lodging to Alabama residents who need access to abortion services.
Volunteer at or donate to Planned Parenthood or ACLU. These organizations are taking the battle against abortion bans to the courts.
Take to social media. Spread the word and start a conversation with people who may not understand why this law is so dangerous to women everywhere.
Contact your representatives and VOTE. If you live in Alabama, vote for candidates that support reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. If you live elsewhere and see your state headed down a similar path, do the same. This is not only a fight for the women of Alabama, but for people all across the U.S. We’re not backing down. Will you?