Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ultrasounds and bodily autonomy

So Pro-lifers in Oklahoma have succeeded in passing a bill requiring women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound before that procedure, presumably because seeing the fetus beforehand would give some women doubts about aborting it. This is problematic on a number of levels, for obvious reasons- it smacks of paternalism to claim that we need an act of government to educate women on the true costs of abortion, and the gradual eroding of reproductive rights by restricting access to abortion and increasing the social stigma associated with that procedure continues apace. Yet the most troubling aspect of the discourse around this bill has been the disregard for the bodily autonomy of the women forced to undergo a non-consensual medical procedure in order to exercise their reproductive rights. I've heard the argument that, "well, an abortion is already an incredibly invasive procedure, so it doesn't seem like that much more invasive to get an ultrasound" with disturbing frequency.

I imagine that, were I in that situation (to the extent that a man can really put himself in the shoes of a pregnant woman), I probably wouldn't balk at an ultrasound when an abortion was around the corner. But it doesn't matter what I would or wouldn't balk at. Only one person gets to decide whether a medical procedure is too invasive or not- the person undergoing the procedure. There is not an objective sliding scale of more invasive and less invasive medical operations that we can base our laws on. We are certainly in no way justified in assuming consent to one procedure because of consent to a different one.

Starting to look familiar, yet? We're not justified in assuming consent to a "lesser" sexual act because of consent to a "more invasive" one, either. The argument of the pro-lifers looks uncomfortably similar slut shaming (big surprise, I know). Obviously consent to one sex act implies consent to all the other "lesser" ones; consent has already been given, regardless of the will of the person. The woman wearing revealing clothing, or who has had sex with multiple partners, dabbled in S&M, or practiced polyamory- she's public property, who willed away her ability to say "no," long ago.

The only world where such ideas can make sense is one where there is an objective sliding scale of lesser and more invasive acts. When collective wisdom and the testimony of experts can construct a guideline of reasonable and unreasonable things to consent to, authentic subjectivity can find no place. When we substitute our own scale of values for those of another, we've made it impossible for the testimony of our own desires to be taken seriously.

This isn't an arcane philosophical point, and its importance is felt by both men and women. The only way everyone can be safe in sexual relations- whatever our gender, orientation, and proclivities in the bedroom- is if our subjectivity is respected. A world in which my partner- or the social construction of my actions- can paper over my desires and construct consent where it is not willed is a world where I'm not safe sexually. No one is.

1 comment:

  1. Don't forget the other measure they passed in OK - doctors are now protected from lawsuits if they "withhold information" about birth defects. In other words, doctors are now allowed to lie to women about the health of their unborn children, in order to prevent abortions.

    Thanks for defending my right to my own body, James!