When did parts of the left get so contemptuous of the principle of “bodily autonomy”? Answer: Just about the time they started fetishising vaccines as the only route out of the current pandemic.
Only two years ago most people understood “bodily autonomy” to be a fundamental, unquestionable human right. Now it is being treated as some kind of perverse libertarian luxury, as proof that the “deplorables” have been watching too much Tucker Carlson or that they have come to idealise the worst excesses of neoliberalism’s emphasis on the rights of the individual over the social good.
This is dangerous nonsense, as should be obvious if we step back and imagine what our world might look like had the principle of “bodily autonomy” not been established through centuries of struggle, just as were the right to vote and the right to health care.
Because without the principle of bodily autonomy, we might still be dragging virgins up high staircases so that they could be sacrificed to placate the sun gods. Without the principle of bodily autonomy, we might still be treating black people like animals – chattel to be used and exploited so that a white landowning class could grow rich from their enforced labours. Without the principle of bodily autonomy, we might still have doctors experimenting on those who are “inferior” – Jews, Romanies, Communists, gays – so that “superior races” could benefit from the “research”. Without the principle of bodily autonomy, we might still have the right of men to rape their wives as one of the unwritten marital vows.
Many of these battles and others were won far more recently than most of us care to remember. I am old enough to recall listening in the car on the way to school to “serious” debates on BBC Radio 4 about whether it was justifiable for the courts to presume a husband’s right to rape his wife.
Arguments about whose bodily autonomy has primacy – a woman’s or the foetus she is carrying – are at the heart of ongoing and inflammatory abortion debates in the United States. And protection of bodily autonomy was the main reason why anyone with an ounce of moral fibre opposed the US torture regime that became normalised in the war on brown people known as the “war on terror”.
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