The notion of bodily autonomy should not be a difficult concept to grasp. It isn’t radical: it is simply that each person should have control over his or her own body. Yet we continue to see policies that deny this autonomy to individuals, particularly women, through rationales often based on religion or other personally held moral objections.
Over the last few years, women’s basic reproductive rights have been trampled through systematic discriminatory legislation on the state and federal levels. This backward motion shows no signs of slowing, especially in conservative states that use women’s reproductive autonomy as a political bargaining chip. State legislatures enacted 205 abortion restrictions from 2011–2013, more restrictions than the total number enacted in the entire previous decade. Then, earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. favored corporations’ religious freedom at the expense of women’s access to contraceptive care, a decision that has led to a fresh onslaught of religious exemption lawsuits and requests.
Some of these challenges follow in Hobby Lobby’s footsteps and seek exemptions specifically from the ACA contraceptive care requirement. But, troublingly, others are using the Hobby Lobby decision as leverage for exemptions from other legal requirements, such as the group of religious leaders who urged President Obama to include a religious exemption to his LGBT anti-discrimination executive order.
The aftermath of Hobby Lobby proved what we’ve known for years—an attack on women’s rights can very easily translate into an attack on everyone’s rights. So while bodily autonomy is at the core of the reproductive justice movement—women and their families should be able to decide how, when, and with whom to form their families—Legal Voice is also working in other issue areas to change systems that deny women (and men) the right to control, protect, and make decisions for their own bodies.
For instance: health care coverage for transgender people. In the health care system, transgender people have repeatedly been denied the opportunity to have control over their health care decisions. Both public and private health insurance policies routinely include clauses that specifically prevent transgender people from having the same coverage for medical services that is provided for other policy holders. Some plans exclude coverage for surgical or non-surgical services for medically necessary transition-related care, while in other cases, insurance companies outright deny coverage to the individual. We are currently representing a transgender woman who was denied coverage for gender reassignment surgery by her insurer on the grounds that it was “cosmetic”—despite the fact that her health care providers unanimously regard the surgery as medically necessary under well-established standards of care.
Bodily autonomy is also at the core of end-of-life decision-making and care. Death with Dignity laws provide options for elderly and terminally ill individuals to control their own end-of-life care. People living in states with these laws—Washington, Oregon, and Vermont—have access to one of the greatest human freedoms: to live, and die, according to their own desires and beliefs.
But people living in states without Death with Dignity laws—or people whose secular, taxpayer-supported hospitals have merged with Catholic hospital chains—lack the ability to control what happens (or does not happen) to their bodies at the end of their lives. You may have heard of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and who wanted to die on her terms—without suffering and surrounded by the people she loved. Living in California at the time, Brittany lacked the legal right to request that her physician aid her in dying. To obtain the right to control her end-of-life care and to access appropriate medication legally, Brittany and her family moved to Oregon and, in an act of complete autonomy, Brittany ended her life on November 1.
We believe all people have the right to make decisions regarding their bodies without politicians, insurance companies, employers, hospital policy-makers, or anyone else telling them what decisions to make or how to make them. We have actively worked to change culture and policies that threaten individuals’ autonomy over their own bodies by:
· Sending a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to renounce enhanced criminal penalties for women on the basis of pregnancy.
· Working with the Seattle City Council to pass a resolution calling on federal lawmakers to repeal all bans on public insurance coverage of abortion, including the Hyde Amendment.
· Engaging in civil discourse about sexual abuse, street harassment, non-consensual pornography, and other violations to women’s bodies.
· Advocating for Washington’s Public Employees Benefits Board (PEBB) to provide inclusive health benefits for transgender people covered by PEBB plans, which they approved earlier this year.
When a woman has the power to decide when and how to get pregnant—or when and how to not get pregnant—she has control over her body. When transgender people have the ability to receive the medical treatment they need without the fear of discrimination, they have control over their bodies. When a woman approaching the end of her life has the ability to make important decisions for herself, she has control over her body.
Photo courtesy of Steve Rainwater.