Editor’s Note: This article is part of a pre-election series
featuring leading voices in sexual and reproductive health advocacy,
showing how shared American values underpin their support for sexual
and reproductive health, rights, and justice. Read them all here.
There are certain words that reverberate in our soul. While
they mean different things in different contexts, locations and times, they
serve as compass points. Some call them virtues, some values; these words
represent our deepest aspirations. Freedom, justice, compassion, love,
generosity – you add the one that speaks to you. Often we are attracted to the
one we most lack. And for women, that lack is often freedom: the freedom to
allow their bodies to speak.
The oft quoted sentiment of Margaret Sanger cries out: "No
woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can
call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not
be a mother." We love the title "Our Bodies Ourselves," for in fact the only
thing we really own is our body. I had
never been more moved or better understood why I have committed my life to
reproductive freedom than when I heard Bernice Johnson Reagon sing the freedom
song, Oh Freedom – "and before I’ll be a
slave I’ll be buried in my grave" at a reproductive health funder’s briefing.
And yet, we rarely frame reproduction in terms of this most
quintessential American value vaunted by both liberals and conservatives. Only
radical feminists unafraid of being called selfish dare to talk of reproductive
freedom or more boldly sexual freedom. We speak of reproductive choice,
reproductive health or reproductive justice.
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But freedom is the word that speaks most loudly to me.
Freedom is the ability peacefully to live a life of one’s choosing. I continue
to struggle to be the subject of my life. Free, as Marlo Thomas put it, to be
me; free to find out who I am. In that search I have only my body – and the
bodies of all the others I encounter – to help me learn who I am. My body
speaks to you; it tells you who I am. In
a recent address on human rights, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams
got it.* He said "The ultimate form of slavery would be a situation in which
your body was made to carry the meanings or messages of another subject and
never permitted to say in words or gestures what was instinctive for itself as
the embodiment of a sense-making consciousness." He continues: "The irreducible
core of human rights is the liberty to make sense as a bodily subject."
Human rights, human freedom exist in the body. The freedom
to speak is a body right, the freedom not to be tortured or enslaved is a body
right, freedom from hunger is a body right and the freedom to reproduce or not,
along with the freedom to express ourselves sexually, is the most intimate of
body rights and human rights. For women it sends a central message and carries
to the world the meaning of who we are.
So let’s look at what has been the hardest reproductive
freedom to defend. The well educated, financially well off woman who becomes
pregnant as the result of consensual mature sex and strongly believes that it
is not part of who she is, of her essential identity, to be pregnant, to give
birth to child or be a mother. Is she, as those who fear autonomous women say,
selfish? Or is she simply and correctly insistent about the message her body
will send and the preservation of her bodily integrity? I remember my cold anger during conversations
with Jim Wallis who when asked about how he saw women who had abortions could
only imagine women as victims, victims of poverty, rape, marginality and who
was stunned and silent when told that there are indeed many women for whom the
decision to abort is a mature, healthy expression of their identity and nature
and that he needed to respect those women and their decisions.
Much work needs to be done to develop the way in which we
think about intimacy, the body, and bodily integrity. This work is in process
with feminist ethicists, theologians and scholars making serious contributions.
In the reproductive freedom movement, some are brave enough to think and talk
about pleasure, a good that is separate
and distinct from procreation. It is
perhaps more imperative to work on the meaning of being pregnant, of gestating
and of giving birth. The philosopher Margaret Little has written about the way
in which gestation is depicted. It is as if the woman as person, as voice did
not exist. A passive carriage of time which belongs not to the woman but to
nature. Little asks: "What is at stake in asking a woman to
continue a pregnancy?" The physical risks we ask women to take are well known
and especially urgent in the developing world where half a million women a year
die of pregnancy related conditions. In these cases we have asked women to give
up their very right to life.
But for every woman, the act of pregnancy is extraordinarily
intimate and perhaps not in a positive way. We ask a woman, as Little says "to
allow another living creature to live on and off [her] body for nine months."
And I would add to live after birth with the reality of being a mother, whether
she wanted to or not and whether she kept or gave the child away. These are
deep intrusions on one’s freedom and identity. It is imperative to enable
others to understand that this is precisely the form of slavery Rowan Williams
described as "a situation in which your body was made to carry the meanings or
messages of another subject." In this case the other subject is someone who
believes that the essential message of a woman’s body is the acceptance of a
pregnancy at all costs.
Freedom is allowing each woman’s body to speak. It is
demanding that other bodies listen to what she is saying. Each of us who has
committed ourselves to sexual and reproductive freedom has committed ourselves
to that goal. Let us not be timid in making our case.
*I do not want
to misrepresent Archbishop Williams’ views. The most interesting part of his
address is the fact that he so brilliantly described the embodiment of human
rights and its violations while insisting that it had no applicability to
pregnancy. It is a clear indicator of how much work needs to be done.