Who Owns a Woman’s Womb? What’s Sovereignty Over One’s Body?

Serena Anderlini's picture

Reflections on the Assassination of Dr. George Tiller, a “Late-Term” Abortionist.

Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio

When I teach Mary Wollstonecraft in my course on practices of love across histories and cultures, I forewarn my students that in her time a woman who left the conjugal abode lost her children and all that belonged to her, this even she had an abuser husband who got home drunk and beat her every day, even if these beatings occasionally worked as a procured abortion from a pregnancy she had not desired.  Many women did not make it to old age then, one or another of these un-chosen pregnancies would result in a delivery that was fatal to the mother, and the mother was often sacrificed to the newborn child if a choice between the two was to be made.

Eventually women gained the right to vote in political elections and became represented in political democracies as if they were men.  But the reality is that women are NOT men, because unlike men, when in a fertile age, they become pregnant, and therefore hosts to the fetus that is their womb’s temporary tenant.  But the house where they host this tenant is part of their body and belongs to them .  If fetuses grew in a man’s colon, would anybody think that extracting them would be a crime?  If men wish to have control over the growth of fetuses to term, couldn’t they vote to fund research to have uteri implanted into those men who feel so eager to carry?  Surgical technologies can do almost everything these days, including lots of cosmetic surgeries that are at time more dangerous to the well being of the patient than not.  So why is science so behind on uterus implants?

Sure, men depend on women for the continuation of our species, which is actually not necessarily a good thing, since we’ve become noxious and way too numerous on the face of the earth.  See global warming and other kinds of pollutions and contaminations we can hardly afford.  But then is that a good reason for power systems to claim sovereignty over certain parts of a woman’s body?  And more precisely those parts that are necessary to produce babies?  A woman’s rights to vote, go to school, make money, travel, practice professions, do not amount to equality as long as a woman’s body is not completely under her sovereignty.  In other words, if even the slightest little piece of this body does not belong to her, then this woman does not own herself.  And so cannot be called a complete citizen in a democratic state.  Women have always gotten rid of unwanted pregnancies, one way or another.  But when this process is criminalized, when it is not accepted as part of what needs to happen when all else in the ways of controlling fertility fails, then a woman is not only deprived of the right to choose, she is deprived of the right of sovereignty over her own body, she does not own herself, she (or at least the part of herself that is subject to becoming pregnant) is enslaved to a power outside of her.

Many wonder why late term abortions happen.  It seems so much more decent to do it early, when the potential child is just a little blob.  It must be that women are really bad, they want their cake and eat it too, they want to have fun and then wait until the last minute to get rid of the consequences.  But the reality is that late-term abortions are a result of the difficulty of getting early-term abortions in a system where the right to choose is under siege and where effective education about fertility and amorous behavior has been evacuated and replaced by so-called education to celibacy, which boils down to a version of “just say no” which is even sillier than the one about drugs.  

So that’s why late term abortions must be defended.  For some women they are the last shore before their lives are discombobulated by the arrival of a child for whom they are unprepared.  Just like the same people who uphold family values then send undocumented workers back to Mexico even though this divides their families, so those who defend life foment the birth of children most likely condemned to poverty and to selling their lives to the army in return for a subsidized education, if by lucky chance they don’t get killed in some imperialistic war and prolonged occupation thereof.  How honest is that?

And yet is still happens today.  Dr. George Tiller was shot in front of his own congregation in Wichita, Kansas, where fundamentalist homophobia also runs rampant.  But what is the real fear behind all this?  What if women, as well as all other kinds of humans and other animals, really owned their bodies?  What if the sovereignty a woman has over the power of maternity was restored to her?  Then this power would have to be revered and appreciated.  Then it would have to be used sparingly.   Then the Pope would not be allowed to go to Africa and recommend no contraceptives, so that enough poor children are born that the Vatican can recruit form among them for the sexless (and sexist) profession of being a Catholic priest.  Then the religious right could not forbid the teaching of the arts of loving.  The people would choose to learn these arts and enjoy the pleasure, instead of reproducing poverty. Then the army would not have enough poor families to recruit form for the next invasion and imperialistic war.  

Yeah, let’s reclaim a woman’s sovereignty over her body, let’s advocate the power of maternity, let’s have this power revered and appreciated, let’s have it, like all good things, be used sparingly, so that more harmony can be created in the world.  
A world where it is safe to live is a world where it is safe to love.

These reflections were inspired by a dialog on Facebook, and by some of my favorite authors, including Adriana Cavarero, Simone de Beauvoir, Jennifer Baumgardner, Naomi Wolf, and others.

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