A Primer on Bodily Autonomy
Bodily autonomy is related to the philosophical and legal concept surrounding bodily integrity and the human right of each being to determine what can and should be done to their bodies.
This breaks down in several ways: ethical (what is moral for an individual with their body?), legal (what laws, if any, give a state oversight to an individual’s’ body?), and political (as a human being with human rights, what may one do with one’s body). While on the surface the ideas of bodily autonomy may not seem controversial, many countless hours have been spent debating the various facets of what bodily autonomy means in specific cases.
The American legal philosopher Martha Nussbaum defined bodily integrity as one of the founding “capabilities” that a morally decent state entity must secure for its inhabitants. The idea that, as agency resides in every individual, every person should have the freedom to “be able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault (including sexual assault and domestic violence), have opportunities for sexual satisfaction, and for choice in matters of reproduction.
Often when discussing the concept of bodily autonomy in philosophical/ ethical context, abortion tends to have the most literature devoted to it. The idea of bodily autonomy is a central tenant to the “Pro-Choice” movement as the belief that Women can and should be the sole arbiters of what happens to their bodies.
In medical ethics, discussions of bodily autonomy often involve research and understandings of patient rights as it relates to the need for ethical disclosure of risks within a medical study, urgent care, or within a research protocol. Do-not-resuscitate orders, for instance, fall into medical ethics around the patient’s desires for determination over their own body rather than say, the wants of their loved ones. This has implications also in body hacking with individuals promoting rights to disrupt, change, implant, and modify their own bodily systems as they see fit, regardless of prevailing understanding or mores.
At times, governments and states create laws concerning bodily autonomy. Often because laws lag behind technology or prevailing ethics of scientific and medical breakthroughs, legal ramifications relating to bodily autonomy may seem overly broad or outdated. In many parts of the UK, for instance, laws are in place that one has legal rights to prevent their body from being interfered with, to maintain rights to protests like hunger strikes or to prevent police brutality or torture while in custody.
In the United States, laws relating to bodily autonomy and bodily integrity run both sides of the spectrum, granting freedoms like reproductive health choice and privacy (which often relates directly to what citizens can and cannot do with their bodies) while at the same time granting the state rights to violate autonomy by outlawing euthanasia, certain drugs and pharmaceuticals, and granting rights for the state to strip-search and forcibly draw blood.
Other laws exist to protect citizenry at the cost of autonomy such as mandating safety equipment or, in the case of Canada, to allow the state to violate bodily autonomy in cases where a citizen may not have the mental ability to consent; such as administering antipsychotic drugs to those having episodes or other extreme cases in mental health.
Political and Human Rights
Often, states acting in bad faith will violate tenants of bodily autonomy and integrity with regards to citizens. Torture – cruel and inhumane treatment is perhaps the most common, with many states engaging in extra-judicial torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners of war being performed in the name of state security or intelligence gathering.
Slavery is also a component of civil and human rights abuse as keeping another person as property violates their autonomy as individuals. In many parts of the world, slavery is still a custom practiced in a domestic setting or in society at large.
While much of bodily autonomy relates to human beings in general, often much attention is given about the subject to the rights of women-identifying persons as systemic patriarchy often robs them of reproductive rights and freedoms and domestic violence is overwhelmingly directed at women. Rights to education and freedom from isolation are also key tenets of human bodily autonomy rights that directly affect women, as many women are denied these worldwide.
As we discuss what persons are and are not allowed to do to their bodies and minds, consideration should be given to each facet of bodily autonomy. Often the realities of the situation depend greatly on the socio-economic status of individuals, the state entities they live within, and the moral implications of their actions.