Bodily Autonomy

As a child who was forced to hug relatives I hated, I learned that I didn’t get to make decisions for my own body. As a 16 year old who was sexually assaulted in a relationship, I was blamed for being alone with the person and not listening to my parents. As a 19 year old who was dragged to an oral surgeon I didn’t trust to form a plan to remove my wisdom teeth, it reinforced that lesson.

Bodily autonomy is in the news a little more right now, since the whole Covid vaccine debacle and now with Roe v Wade overturned, it’s even bigger. The more I think about what it means to have complete control over your body, the more frustrated and angry I get. I think it’s more of an illusion of control that extends way beyond whether you get/refuse the Covid vaccine or you support/don’t support the right to an abortion.

Think about it this way…if you are 21 years old and confident that you don’t want, have never wanted, and will never want children, can you actually walk into a doctor’s office and schedule a sterilization procedure with no trouble? What if you’re 25 and don’t want children? Does it make a difference if you’re male or female? I’ve never met anyone who was successfully able to get a tubal ligation or vasectomy unless they had multiple children and were in their 30s. It just seems like there’s more focus on whether you will regret that decision in the future instead of giving you the informed choice to make for your own body.

Think about surgeries too. If a person is in a terrible accident and shows up unconscious in the emergency room, choices will be made for the person. Unless you are somehow in the hospital’s system, no one knows your allergies, your preferences, or anything about how you would make those decisions for your body. The assumption has always been that the doctors would do no harm and would make the best choices for your health. MAKE THE BEST CHOICES FOR YOU. But they don’t even know you. If you were a uterus bearer, would they focus more on preserving reproducing capabilities instead of making the best decision for your overall quality of life? Here’s another surgery thing-I did have a tubal ligation and the consent form that I signed said that the surgeon would choose from the available methods at the time of surgery. It listed 2-3 methods and then he STILL used a different method that I didn’t specifically sign for. And that method used something I was allergic to that was noted in my records. His defense of “this is the gold standard of tubals” doesn’t mean much if I’m allergic to that “gold standard.” But I was robbed of the opportunity to make a decision for my own body.

I don’t think that I know better than doctors for a lot of things. I don’t think I can direct my own surgeries or tell them how to do medical things. But I do think that we all deserve to know what a surgery involves and what types of decisions the doctor will make when we are unable to consent. If I’m going to bleed out, of course I want to doctor to do everything to stop that. But let’s discuss that upfront where I can have a better idea of what the plan will be for that contingency. Let’s review my allergy list so that I don’t end up with medal in my body again that I am allergic to.

I also think that if a person wants to have a tubal or a vasectomy, that is their choice. They are the only person the doctor has to hear from. No spouse, no parent, no other person deserves to question that for anyone else. Doctors need to focus on the procedure and not interfere with questions about regret or is this really what you want. If a patient has taken the time to schedule an appointment with a doctor and brings this up, then the doctor needs to proceed with the surgery if there’s no other risks involved. The consent form can acknowledge the regret piece, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of the discussion, no matter how old the patient is. Not everyone wants to have children and not everyone will regret sterilization if they had it done while they were young. Most people probably won’t regret it ever.

The last part of bodily autonomy that I think about a lot is choosing when and how you die, particularly if you are terminally ill and/or in a lot of physical/emotional pain. Why is it illegal in some states to assist a suffering patient? If someone is going to die, why can’t they make that final decision on their own? Physician-assisted suicide is legal in a few states, but euthanasia (where a friend or family member assists) is illegal in all 50 states. Why? Why aren’t both legal in every state? It makes no sense to me that someone who doesn’t want to live anymore is forced to unless they happen to live in one of the few states where it’s legal for a physician-assisted suicide. But no one can choose to have a family member help them end their suffering peacefully on their own terms. I know this is a very charged issue, but if we want to argue for bodily autonomy, shouldn’t that include all decisions that a person can make for their own body, right up until that final decision?

I can see both sides on a few of these issues, but I do think informed consent and recognizing that people should have the power to make decisions for their own body are the key parts of all of this. Knowing exactly what is going to happen during surgery and making choices about sterilization are extremely important.

And don’t force your children to hug anyone, even relatives. It teaches them way too early that they don’t control access to their own body.

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