Whose Bodies? Whose Selves? Whose Choices?

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Dr. Malcolm Cross

“Our bodies, ourselves,” initially the title of a book on women’s health, and “our bodies, our choices,” have traditionally been the rallying cries of activists determined to preserve and advance abortion rights.  Both the ongoing issue of abortion and the developing issue of vaccination raise new questions about whose bodies, whose selves, and whose choices we should recognize.

The possibility that Associate Justice Bret Kavanaugh will help lead the Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade has inspired fear in the pro-choice movement and hope among pro-lifers.  If Rove v. Wade were to be reversed, power to regulate abortion would return to the states, presumably with no federal guidance or interference.  Some blue states, eager to protect abortion rights, have passed, or are considering, new legislation which would remove practically all limits on abortion.  But several red states have passed laws limiting abortion under almost any circumstance—including instances wherein women and girls become pregnant through rape.  Clearly the purpose of these laws, obviously unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade, is to provoke legal challenges which will in turn give the Supreme Court a chance to overturn one of the most divisive opinions in American constitutional history.

A major—and, indeed, the oldest—argument in favor of abortion rights is that a woman’s body belongs exclusively to her, that nobody has the right to tell her what to do with it, including whether she can end her pregnancy, and that restrictions on her right to an abortion constitute the assertion of ownership of her body, whether by the state, or by the man who impregnated her.  

Many pro-lifers say they are not trying to control a pregnant woman’s own body.  Rather, they’re trying to protect the body of the embryo/fetus/unborn baby, created through consensual sex.  In so arguing, they claim that the body within is a separate body, or self, and that while a woman can control her own body while determining if, when, where, how, and with whom she has sex, she cannot harm the new body she helps create.  However, honest pro-lifers should admit that the laws which would deny abortions to victims of rape and incest help justify the pro-choicers’ beliefs that the states which pass the more radical anti-abortion laws may not recognize their bodies as theirs.

The question of who owns and controls whose body is also central to the question of whether people should be vaccinated, perhaps with state sanctions for those who otherwise won’t allow themselves or their children to be so treated.  The issue is taking on more urgency with the spread of the entirely-preventable measles epidemic, caused by the drop in childhood vaccinations.

The opponents of vaccination offer several reasons for their stance:  Leftist nut jobs claim that mandatory vaccinations exist only to fatten the profits of Big Pharma, while rightwing nut jobs maintain that mandatory vaccination is simply another instance of big government overreach which should be resisted in the name of freedom.  Many continue to believe the long-discredited myth that vaccination causes autism, despite the fact that no reputable scientist has found any such link (but then again, there are those who believe that the earth is flat or that the moon landings were a hoax).  But whatever the stated reason for rejecting vaccination, the real questions are who owns whose body, and may adults who claim to own their own bodies also have so strong a claim on their children’s bodies that they can deny them, and the society of which they’re a part, access to means of preventing otherwise serious and communicable diseases.

How these issues will be resolved—assuming they can ever be resolved at all, which is not necessarily a valid assumption—remains to be seen.  No doubt the new anti-abortion laws will be appealed to the Supreme Court, and no doubt whatever it decides will trigger more resistance from the losers.  And no doubt challenges to whatever laws allow or prohibit exemptions to mandatory vaccinations will be challenged as well.  Opponents of mandatory vaccinations will cite the infringements on personal liberty, while supporters will cite the need to protect the health of children and the public health of all.  And the losers, whoever they may be, will resist court decisions, whatever they may be.

Only two things are certain—Who controls whose body is literally a matter of life and death, and this issue will never be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned.


Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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