In the face of the constant terrors brought about by the misrule of President Donald Trump and his GOP enablers, how do we organize politically? Come up with a laundry list of laudable policies? Abandon identity politics (as if there are any politics that aren’t about some form of identity)? Micro-target the needs of specific communities? The diversity of the American left is where we find our strength, but it presents challenges to organizers and sloganeers alike.
As an advocate for disability rights, I’ve been seeking ways to link my core issues to those of other groups—people who prioritize reproductive justice, racial justice, decriminalization of narcotics, queer rights, anti-poverty measures, and so much more. Each of us exists at specific intersections of needs and concerns. To win, we must find ways to unite our struggles without erasing our differences. One place they connect: the need to defend bodily autonomy.
“Bodily autonomy,” as an abstract philosophical principle, dates back at least to the ancient Greek philosophers. Over the centuries, legal scholars and political philosophers have thought hard about the relationship between rights and laws, the individual and the group, and the sovereign state and the autonomous individual. In American activist circles, bodily autonomy is most often invoked around the fight for reproductive rights. But what I haven’t seen is an effort to harness this principle in a way that binds our seemingly separate movements together.
Let’s start with the disability piece. I’m the father of a boy with Down syndrome. My concerns for him and for the extended disabled community include opposition to institutionalization, forced sterilization and other eugenic practices, involuntary surgery, mandatory drug regimes, denial of rights for disabled parents, protection for disabled children from violent caregivers and teachers, and lack of accommodations for non-typical bodies. In each case, these issues require a government that refrains from coercing disabled bodies and protects disabled bodies from private coercion. Bodily autonomy extends over these seemingly quite disparate issues.
Reproductive rights has long been the most obvious place where we must empower each individual to exercise sovereignty over their bodies. Time and again, “pro-life” Democrats demand to be included within the party. Despite Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez’s flirtation with that faction, our response should be clear. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs and to develop practices based on those beliefs, but the government may not regulate anyone’s access to full reproductive choice. A woman exercises sovereignty over her body and that’s not subject to debate, whether we are talking about abortion, birth control, or stopping sexual violence.
Reproductive rights and disability rights are often seen as being in tension, but they don’t have to be. As recently argued by attorney and autistic activist Shain Neumeier, history shows us that allowing the government to exercise control over reproduction always goes badly for disabled people. This is most famous visible in the history of eugenic sterilization of disabled men and women in the United States, but continues in more subtle battles about whether disabled people should be allowed to have sex at all. Disability rights and reproductive rights find common ground over resisting governmental intrusion into individual reproductive decisions. The abstract principle of bodily autonomy unites rather than fragments.
Bodily autonomy can extend into other rights campaigns, protecting, for example, Americans who identify as LGBTQ. The principle supports the basic right of transgender people to access surgery, hormones, and other medical care without discrimination. Moreover, while we’ve largely decriminalized non-heterosexual sexual practice, far-right theocrats always loom, looking to find new ways to legally punish homosexuality. Vice President Mike Pence allegedly supported conversion therapy when was he running for Congress in 2000 (Pence has denied this). Bodily autonomy gives us yet another way to articulate our opposition to this barbaric practice.
In fact, the rights of children emerge as particularly important, beyond the troubling issue of conversion therapy. Female genital mutilation, for example, runs against the right to control one’s own body, as does pain-based corporal punishment in all contexts.
Concerned about mass incarceration and the war on drugs? The principle works here too. You have the right to put substances in your body so long as you do so in a way that does not endanger others. We’re also going to need to decriminalize sex work as part of our respect for bodily autonomy. To all the libertarians disappointed in Attorney General Jeff Sessions, welcome back to the Democratic Party.
Black lives do matter. The basic human rights and racial justice framing remains paramount. But if we organize around the principle that a body is sovereign to itself, we are required to push back at stop and frisk and to limit the use of lethal force by cops. Black bodies deserve equal autonomy to all others.
When we prioritize rights over one’s body, we have to defend universal access to healthy food, safe housing, and clean air and water. We fight against sexual assault, torture, and defend the rights of prisoners (including disabled prisoners, an issue of special concern to me).
There’s no use in pretending that coalition building is easy. No principle, including bodily autonomy, should be adhered to absolutely, as we’re going to need compassion and flexibility in order to coalesce. We live entangled lives filled with conflicting rights and choices. At the far limits where we argue extreme cases, basic principles often break down (think free speech or pacifism, for example). But a commitment to bodily autonomy could emerge as a core tenet of today’s left-wing movements.
In this difficult time, the forces afraid of change will try to divide us. If each activist group is fixated only on one slice of policy, then we can be pushed to compete over the scraps of reform. That’s not a recipe for electoral victory, let alone for justice.
Principles reveal the places where seemingly divergent campaigns overlap. We can join together around the fight for bodily autonomy and support specific policy initiatives that might otherwise seem outside our area of activism. It’s vital for a person chiefly focused on disability rights to labor for decriminalization of narcotics. Those who want to legalize marijuana should also join the struggle for reproductive freedom. These specific agendas are, and always have been, part of the same battle.