There’s been much ado here at Ordinary Times about the contraceptive mandate. From the most basic question – is contraception a necessary part of women’s health care (yes, it is) — to the religious rights of the Greens, we’ve examined this from just about every angle imaginable.
But I continue to feel a lone voice for what I consider to be the most important consideration: my right to bodily integrity. Just imagine that tomorrow, someone needs a kidney or bone marrow transplant, and for some reason, they identify me as the perfect donor. Bodily integrity means that no, they cannot force me to donate my bone marrow or my kidney, despite their potential death without my becoming a good Samaritan.
In the U.S., bodily integrity is not an enumerated right; it’s a right built on Common Law, and on precedent. That precedent began, for purposes of my discussion, in the 1891 Union Pacific Railway Co. v. Botsford decision, when Justice Horace Gray wrote, No right is held more sacred or is more carefully guarded by the common law than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person, free from all restraint or interference of others unless by clear and unquestionable authority of law.
The right to lady-parts bodily integrity finds itself expressed through Due Process and the Penumbra of privacy, beginning with Griswold v. Connecticut, and continuing through Roe v. Wade. Interestingly, it seems all of the cases that build on that penumbra seem to entail this notion that other people have some right to tell women what they can or cannot do with their lady parts.
But I want to step back through history a little bit. Because history lacks women’s voices. We did not write it, we did not make laws, we were not the philosophers that guided ethical development, and have had to fight for every bit of progress we’ve made to get a seat at the table. The weight of history – the weight of tradition – is a deep habit. Men who wrote that women were not fit for leadership and decision making and the priesthood are greatly admired as great thinkers; and if I were to say, “Aquinas was a despicable sexist,” I’d offend a lot of people. But these are his words:
There is another kind of subjection which is called economic or civil, whereby the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good; and this kind of subjection existed even before sin. For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.
Aquinas view of women as not-capable of wisdom and subjugated is the story of women through recorded history. Until now.
What’s changed is contraception. Women, for the first time in history, are not burdened by their biology. They can go to college, become lawyers, doctors, prime ministers, presidents. And they can stay home, and care for their young children, as I did. This miracle, the advance of medicine, science, and technology that frees half the population, giving them control over their bodily integrity, ought be celebrated, cultivated, curated, and all sorts of other nice ‘c’ words as one of the most significant events in human history.
This pushes against the weight of history; the entrapment of biology that brings us to “you throw like a girl,” the laws and wisdom and thoughts of men, piled up year after year, century after century, without women’s wisdom and insight. What an incredible and profound loss to our culture that is; it grieves me to not have windows into what my foremothers thought; they were too busy being pregnant and raising children (or dead in childbirth) to have a say.
This new voice, women’s voice, requires cultivating. It’s not assured space to blossom; not in a world where 100 girls in a boarding school can be spirited away into the woods simply for the wrong of going to school. Bodily integrity should be one of the first considerations we examine whenever someone’s religious freedom comes up, because it’s likely their view of freedom is control over some girl’s integrity.
It my fervent hope for that the Supreme Court will recognize this in the HL case – a small stepping stone in the penumbra of privacy. Our lady parts are ours; we have the right to our bodily integrity; and to have the liberty to education, to space our children as we see fit, and the exercise of our own beliefs. This should be a right is so basic to common law that it does not require enumeration.