Overview:

Bodily autonomy is the most fundamental human right. The more diligently we protect it, the freer and better society is, but theocrats want to pull us in the other direction.

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You own yourself. You are sovereign over your own body. No one else owns you: not your parents, not your spouse, not your church, not your job, no one.

If there’s any such thing as a natural right, it’s this. Property isn’t natural in this sense, because there’s no inherent way to exclude everyone else from a patch of land or a spring of clean water. But I’m the only one “in” my body, the only one who sees through its eyes and steers its limbs. It’s mine in a way that nothing else in the world is.

Every other right we possess flows from this principle of self-ownership. What foods to eat, what clothes to wear, who (if anyone) to have sex with, where to live, which religion (if any) to practice, what employment to seek, who (if anyone) to raise a family with… all these life decisions large and small rest on the bedrock that your body is yours and yours alone. It’s the one thing you always own, even if you have nothing else.

If there’s any such thing as a natural right, it’s this.

Recognition of this right has been a long time coming. Monarchies, theocracies and dictatorships through history have treated their people’s lives as property of the state, to be disposed of as the rulers saw fit. Slaves were forced to labor for the comfort of idle masters. Conscript soldiers were forced to fight in ruinous wars.

But women (and people with uteruses more generally) have borne the heaviest share of this burden. While men have been subjected to violence and servitude, they’ve also had more freedom, historically speaking, to choose their own purpose in life. They could fight, travel, write books, learn a trade, go into business, run for office.

Meanwhile, women have more often been treated as if their only value was bearing children. They’ve been taught that it was their duty to have sons to fight the wars of rulers or pay the tithes of churches—regardless of whether they wanted to. And to ensure that they carried out that duty, they were severely constrained in their freedom of choice.

Now that freedom is in danger again. With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, and an avalanche of anti-choice laws certain to follow, it’s more crucial than ever to establish why sovereignty over our own bodies is a fundamental building block of justice.

When can human rights be limited?

Like all rights, bodily autonomy isn’t an absolute. It can be circumscribed to uphold a lawful society, to protect others from harm, or to ensure their ability to exercise the same right. You can’t cite free speech to excuse threats or defamation. You can’t appeal to freedom of religion to practice human sacrifice. You can’t wield the right to privacy to conceal evidence of crimes you committed.

Bodily autonomy has limits as well. We ban smoking in restaurants, airplanes and other places where unwilling people would be forced to breathe in your secondhand smoke. Schools and employers can require proof of vaccination, because an individual’s choice to forego it endangers others by spreading disease. A person suffering from mental illness which severs them from reality and makes them incapable of rational decisions can be committed for treatment.

But in most cases, we uphold bodily autonomy even when we think people might make bad choices with it. We don’t force anyone to eat a healthy diet or to exercise. We allow people to have sex with anonymous strangers. We don’t outlaw skydiving, motorcycle riding, rock climbing, and other fun-but-hazardous hobbies. We allow people to dress how they want, dye their hair, or get tattoos or piercings even if others disapprove. We allow people to refuse medical treatment even if they’ll die without it.

Most of all, we don’t require people to offer up their bodies for the benefit of another. We don’t force anyone to donate a lung, a kidney or a piece of their liver to save a sick stranger’s life. Organ donation is major surgery which entails pain and suffering, risk of death, and possible lifelong restrictions. We judge that no one should be subjected to that if they’re unwilling, even if they’re the only match and the recipient will die without a transplant.

This is the analogy that anti-choicers need to answer. The uterus is an organ, no less than a heart or a lung. If we don’t believe in coerced organ removal, how can we justify forcing anyone to “donate” their uterus, even temporarily?

The best guardians of our own interests

Just like surgery, pregnancy is a prolonged and risky ordeal. The potential complications include anemia, gestational diabetes (which can cause blindness), hyperemesis gravidarum (debilitating nausea and dehydration requiring months of bed rest), obstetric fistula (resulting in lifelong incontinence without surgery), and life-threatening dangers like preclampsia and hemorrhage.

Even in industrialized countries with advanced medicine, women die in labor every day. A disproportionate share of these deaths are among Black women and other minorities, the symptom of a society shot through with structural racism.

The fact that reproductive choice is even up for debate is a giant step backwards for personal liberty.

Pregnancy is always a sacrifice. For people who consent to that burden, it can be a beautiful symbol of love for their future children. But to force anyone to be pregnant or to give birth against their will is morally monstrous. It’s the cold hand of a theocratic state imposing itself on the most intimate and life-changing decision a person will ever make.

The fact that reproductive choice is even up for debate is a giant step backwards for personal liberty. It’s no more justifiable than forcing people into any other kind of servitude. It’s also proof that the religious right’s rhetoric of “freedom” is an Orwellian lie. The only freedom they seek is the “freedom” to force everyone to conform to their inhuman rules.

A freer, better society

We’d have a freer, better society if we protected bodily autonomy in all its forms. Reproductive choice is at the top of this list, but there are many fruitful applications of the principle.

For example, ending drug prohibition ought to be an easy decision. Save for special circumstances like drunk driving, altering your own consciousness harms no one, and there’s no justification for punishing people who experiment with chemicals to do it. If someone gets addicted, we should treat it like the medical problem it is, not throw them in jail.

We should also protect the right to assisted dying. If our lives are our own, we can lay them down when we choose. We should help people to make a dignified exit when their lives are unbearably painful or otherwise not worth living. (Many countries outlaw suicide on the religious theory that our lives belong to God, and it’s a sin to dispose of them at a time of our choosing, rather than his.)

All these conclusions flow from the principle that I’m the best guardian of my own interests. I have to live with the consequences of my decisions, and that gives me the best possible motivation to make good choices. If someone else could choose for me, they wouldn’t feel the consequences, so they’d have no reason to care what happened to me. That grim logic is going to unfold before our eyes, if American theocrats achieve their long-sought-after dream of dictating what women can and can’t do with their bodies.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...