Bodily Autonomy

The right of people to control what happens to their bodies. Bodily autonomy means people get to make their own decisions about their bodies.

Our Bodies, Our Rights: What’s Going On at the Supreme Court?

Content Note: ableism, racism, sexism, eugenics, forced sterilization

Bodily autonomy is very important to people with disabilities.

We have the right to make our own choices about our bodies.

We should be the only ones to decide what happens to our bodies.

Nobody else should get to decide for us.

All people, including people with intellectual disabilities, have bodily autonomy.

Our thoughts and choices about our bodies matter.

The government should not force people to be sterilized.

The government should not force people to get medical care.

And the government should not stop people from getting medical care, like abortion.

Everyone has bodily autonomy.

It is wrong to force someone to get any surgery that they do not want to.

It is wrong to say what someone wants doesn’t matter because they have a disability.

Forcing people with disabilities to have abortions is also part of eugenics.

It is part of eugenics because it is saying people with disabilities shouldn’t have children.

People with disabilities also have the right to have children if we want to.

Other people shouldn’t be able to make us have abortions.

Our Bodies, Our Rights: What’s Going On at the Supreme Court?

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, antipoverty 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.

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 famously 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.

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 and torture, and defend the rights of prisoners (including disabled prisoners, an issue of special concern to me).

My Body, My Choice: Why the Principle of Bodily Autonomy Can Unite the Left | The Nation

The hardest thing about the current framing of the abortion debate for disability justice advocates is that it forces us to choose between two of our core convictions: Inherent human worth and bodily autonomy. As a disabled person, an asexual non-binary person who was assigned female at birth, and an activist, I hate the ideas and circumstances that have put these principles in opposition to each other. Still, the choice is easy for me to make. My nearly absolute belief in bodily autonomy means nothing if I’d support forcing a person to remain pregnant and give birth against their will for any reason because of my own opposition to eugenics.

But I also know that the same ableism that has justified historical and ongoing attempts to outright eliminate disabled people has even more often led to violently imposed restrictions on our autonomy. The same conditions that have led me to strongly oppose eugenics have also served as the justification for involuntary surgery and medication. On a broader basis, nondisabled policymakers, doctors, educators and family members have segregated disabled people in institutional settings, tied or held our bodies down to floors and furniture, electrically shocked us, and involuntarily sterilized us. And that’s a very incomplete list. A lot of this has been or continues to be done supposedly for our own good, for the good of society, or some mix of both.

Because the disability community knows the costs of medical coercion, we shouldn’t support, much less work toward, any restriction on reproductive freedom in the name of opposing eugenics, nor should we allow ourselves to be used by anyone who would. The result of opening the door to such restrictions will necessarily be more people being forced to be pregnant and give birth against their will.

The Disability Rights Movement Must Be Pro-Choice | NOS Magazine

Bodily autonomy is a core principle of the disability rights movement, and disabled people have fought hard to win respect for our capacities, the right to make our own choices, and the support and access necessary to participate fully in American life. We believe wholeheartedly in these values and principles.

We must do all we can to preserve bodily autonomy and prevent further harm.

AAPD Statement on the Overturning of Roe v. Wade – AAPD

Congress should protect bodily autonomy and self-determination by codifying the right to an abortion in federal law. The disability community has fought long and hard for bodily autonomy and self-determination, and we will always oppose attacks on these rights. Disabled people have faced eugenics throughout history. We still do today. Disabled people must be the only ones who decide whether we have children or not, and when. We should not be forced to continue fighting for our right to both pregnancy and abortion on our own terms. Enough is enough. We must move forward instead of back.

ASAN Condemns Supreme Court Decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization – Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Disabled people have the right to self-determination and bodily autonomy. We have the right to make our own decisions. Our human rights include reproductive rights. Abortion rights are disability rights.

People with disabilities already face barriers to abortion and contraception. Sex ed is not accessible to us. Health care and telehealth are not accessible. Transportation is not accessible.

We are more likely to live in poverty and we are more likely to rely on the government for health care. Many of us are multiply marginalized.

We are more likely to be sexually assaulted. Especially people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Some of us have complex medical conditions and pregnancy is dangerous. The government already tries to control our lives and our bodies. Disabled people need abortion.

Abortion bans do not protect people with disabilities. Abortion bans do not help us end eugenics. DREDF fights to make information about disability and disability supports available to pregnant people who have received prenatal diagnoses. DREDF fights for the services that disabled people and families with children with disabilities need to live meaningful lives in their communities.

DREDF Statement on the Supreme Court’s Ruling Overturning the Right to Abortion – Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund

Reproductive rights, self-determination, and bodily autonomy have long been principles of the disability rights movement. Disabled people, especially those who are multiply marginalized, face overlapping and compounding forms of discrimination, and when reproductive rights are infringed, so are our human rights.

Disabled and Pro-Choice Coalition Letter to Congress

People cannot be free and equal without the fundamental right to bodily autonomy and privacy, and states are rapidly revoking these rights. A human-centered system requires fair, democratic, and humane policies that care for people and ensure they have access to care. It respects science and the body of evidence showcasing the negative impact of restricting access to an abortion.

Human Restoration Project

Autistic people have become increasingly mobilised and vocal in defence of stimming. Autism rights or neurodiversity activists believe that stims may serve as coping mechanisms, thus opposing attempts to eliminate non-injurious forms of stimming (e.g. Orsini & Smith, 2010). They decry practices such as ‘quiet hands’ (which teaches the suppres- sion of hand flapping), instead using ‘loud hands’ as a met- aphor both for using such non-verbal behaviour to communicate and for cultural resistance more broadly (Bascom, 2012). In addition, autistic scholar-activists denounce attempts to reduce their bodily autonomy (Nolan & McBride, 2015; Richter, 2017) and declarations of their stimming as unacceptable or as necessarily involuntary (Yergeau, 2016).

‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming – Steven K Kapp, Robyn Steward, Laura Crane, Daisy Elliott, Chris Elphick, Elizabeth Pellicano, Ginny Russell, 2019
A sin to some, accident's dying
The desperate need to have it all
Body snatchers, death for dining
A floating house, mouth full of bones

It's the end of my bloodline
It's mine and you're greedy, it's mine
It's the end of my bloodline
It's mine and you're greedy, it's mine

There's little truth in power's timing
Its desperate need to have it all
On my device, the silver lining
Misplaced your faith, leave me alone

End of My Bloodline by Screaming Females

Managing reproduction was the linchpin of eugenics.

Superior: The Return of Race Science
I came to bother you fellas
Who want my body divided among the lot of you
Give us a lie to help us survive it
And I know you'd rather you kill us than have us loving our bodies
Believe it, Moor Mother Goddess

Baby, take a sabbatical, you should sit back
'Cause I will never suppress what is under this dress
It's my decision if I will undergo fission
Envision, flesh is a prison, the warden is a physician
Insist on making incisions, but that's by steel and precision
Insists he's driven by kismet, but everyone know he isn't

I would rather go missing than not defend my position
You like my body so much? Just take my bottom and kiss it
I don't need no pot to piss in, but can you do me solid?
I pay the rent here so listen, no gentrifying my body, it's mine

It's the end of my bloodline
It's mine and you're greedy
It's mine

It's the end of my bloodline
It's mine and you're greedy
It's mine

End of My Bloodline (Remix) by Screaming Females featuring Moor Mother and Sammus

This most recent use of forced or coerced sterilization is part of a long legacy of reproductive violence in policies and practices that was explicitly directed at Black and Indigenous Women and others of Color who can become pregnant. In California between 1997–2013, almost 1,400 women, again mainly Black and Latinx, were forcefully sterilized in prisons (McKay, 2020). Through the 1960s and 1970s, it is estimated that up to 25% of all Indigenous girls and women between the ages of 15–44 were sterilized, many coerced or without their knowledge (Lawrence, 2000). From the 1930s to the 1970s, one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized (Andrews, 2017). Latinx women were also targeted for sterilizations in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s (ibid). Forced sterilization rates rose along with desegregation when Black women became specific targets. From 1937 to 1966, large numbers of Black women were forcibly sterilized in North Carolina, with dramatic increases coinciding with desegregation orders (Minna Stern, 2020).

DisCrit Expanded: Reverberations, Ruptures, and Inquiries

Forced sterilizations became so common that Fannie Lou Hamer, who had been forcibly sterilized herself, publicly shared her own experiences with and fought against what she coined the Mississippi appendectomy (Hamer, 1964). Connecting the emergence of forced hysterectomies at ICE facilities with a longer historical context of targeting Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color, and others who can become pregnant—many who were also disabled—for state violence in the form of forced and coerced sterilizations reveals the long-standing reverberations of eugenic-based violence.

DisCrit Expanded: Reverberations, Ruptures, and Inquiries

DisCrit was created to address the connections between racism and ableism, and nowhere are these connections clearer than in eugenicist projects such as forced sterilizations. Rooted in the eugenicist belief that society can wipe out those of lesser intelligence, learning, and behavior by cutting out the possibility of reproducing, these sterilizations are not simply an egregious violation of bodies through state violence, they are also a human rights abuse, stealing babies from their mothers and cutting off futures. As Dorothy Roberts (1999) writes in Killing the Black Body,

“I turn to a discussion of eugenics because this way of thinking helped to shape our understanding of reproduction and permeates the promotion of contemporary policies that regulate Black women’s childbearing. Racist ideology, in turn, provided fertile soil for eugenic theories to take root and flourish. (p. 98)”

Roberts’ text clearly lays out how eugenicist thinking relies upon ableism and racism, grounded in the belief that race is located in genetics and that genetics prescribed future capabilities.

DisCrit Expanded: Reverberations, Ruptures, and Inquiries
Pastors and politicians shake hands, exchange their cards
My bodily autonomy met with total disregard
A quote-unquote “democracy” when all I see are oligarchs
Blur the lines ‘tween lord and leader

I’ll (I’ll make you)
Make (make you hate)
You (hate yourself)
Hate yourself for what you do
I’ll (I’ll make you)
Make (make you hate)
You (hate yourself)
Hate yourself just like I do

Embryo by VIAL

Hellfury – Toxic Agenda (Official Video)
It's toxic and infuriating
They think they can control
My body and my right
To save a life or stand up and fight
What gives you the right
Don't you push your agenda on me
Don't tell me what I'm allowed to do
What retribution do you owe for your sins
What are you trying to prove
It's my fucking body, and it's my goddamn right
No fucking government is going to tell me
What I can, or can't do with my fucking body

It's toxic
And infuriating
They think they can control
My body and my right
To save a life or stand up and fight
What gives you the right
Don't you push your agenda on me
Don't tell me what I'm allowed to do
What retribution do you owe for your sins
What are you trying to prove

Toxic Agenda by Hellfury

The Pill
You wined me and dined me
When I was your girl
Promised if I′d be your wife
You'd show me the world
But all I′ve seen of this old world
Is a bed and a doctor bill
I'm tearin' down your brooder house
′Cause now I′ve got the pill

All these years I've stayed at home
While you had all your fun
And every year thats gone by
Another babys come
There′s a gonna be some changes made
Right here on nursery hill
You've set this chicken your last time
′Cause now I've got the pill

This old maternity dress I′ve got
Is goin' in the garbage
The clothes I'm wearin′ from now on
Won′t take up so much yardage

Miniskirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills
Yeah I'm makin′ up for all those years
Since I've got the pill

I′m tired of all your crowin'
How you and your hens play
While holdin′ a couple in my arms
Another's on the way
This chicken's done tore up her nest
And I′m ready to make a deal
And ya can′t afford to turn it down
'Cause you know I′ve got the pill

This incubator is overused
Because you've kept it filled
The feelin′ good comes easy now
Since I've got the pill

It′s gettin' dark it's roostin′ time
Tonight′s too good to be real
Oh but daddy don't you worry none
′Cause mama's got the pill

Oh daddy don′t you worry none
'Cause mama′s got the pill

The Pill” by Loretta Lynn

Songs about Bodily Autonomy, starting with “The Pill” by Loretta Lynn.

Further reading,