The overturning of Roe v Wade harms all women and all who can get pregnant around the world by making their body-ownership merely conditional. This undermines their equality with others.
Many people are reeling from the recent decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade, so that states may now make it illegal to obtain or perform an abortion. For many of us, even if we do not live in the US, this feels like a personal blow. I use my work in moral philosophy to explain this feeling. If we feel personally affected it is because we are personally affected. The ruling diminishes the self-ownership of all women (even if they cannot get pregnant) and all those who can get pregnant, wherever they live.
The decision is likely to leave 33 million people in the US without access to abortion. These are the people most directly affected by the ruling. Evidence shows that being denied an abortion harms a person’s health, finances and family life. Those in the US who are forced to continue pregnancy may lose their dreams, or even their lives.
But the effects of the US ruling are global. Anyone who can get pregnant now knows that they cannot travel or move to the US and be recognised as an equal with equal rights. The same is not true for our male compatriots.
Of course, the US is not the only place where access to abortion is restricted so the development in the US amounts to an additional blow to equality, rather than a loss of what had been perfect equality. But the size and influence of the US make this additional blow very significant.
What is body ownership and why does it matter?
You own your body when you have the authority to make decisions about what is done to it and how it is used on the basis of your own interests and desires.
Body ownership is a fundamental part of moral standing for humans. It is through my body that I act on the world: when I bake a cake, write a book or build a house, I use my body. It is through my body that the world acts on me. When I am struck by the beauty of a sunrise, enjoy a cool breeze, find myself convinced by an argument, these effects on me need to go through my body. How my body is, makes up a major part of how I am: if my body is hurt, I am hurt. Body ownership is needed to respect the unique relationship between me and my body.
Body ownership is needed for a valuable kind of agency that I call full-fledged agency – the freedom to select one’s own ends and adopt a settled course of action in line with those ends. Maybe I value helping the sick and want to become a doctor. This requires me to commit to study for many years. I can only do this if I have at least some authority to decide what happens to my body.
None of this means that you are never required to use your body for others: it’s pretty uncontroversial that I am required to call an ambulance if the person next to me has a heart attack and this does not undermine self-ownership. However, for me to genuinely own my body, there must be limits on these requirements. I must have a say in how my body is used for the benefit of others.
Lack of access to abortion can undermine your body ownership even if you never actually need an abortion. If you can get pregnant but access to abortion is limited, then you only get to decide what happens to your body so long as you are not pregnant. You are not entirely free to decide on the actions needed to achieve your goals.
Indeed, I believe legal restrictions on abortion undermine body ownership for any woman, even if she cannot get pregnant and even if she never plans to travel to the US. Her control over her body still depends on the ability or inability to get pregnant and on where she is in the world. A woman’s right to control her body should not rest on such accidents.
Philosopher T.M. Scanlon discusses a “friend” who would steal a kidney for you if you needed one. Scanlon argues that this person is not a true friend to you, because of what his view must be of your right to your own body parts: “He wouldn’t steal them [from you], but that is only because he happens to like you.”
We need our friends to recognise that we have rights to our body parts because we are people, not just because they happen to like us. As a woman, I need recognition that my body belongs to me because I am a person, not merely because I happen not to be able to get pregnant or happen not to need to go to the US.
So all women and all those who can get pregnant are personally affected by the overturning of Roe v Wade – and all threats to abortion access. Recognition of why this is might help us understand otherwise puzzling feelings, both in ourselves and others. It might also help us to work together to defend reproductive rights.
Fiona Woollard held a Non-Residential Fellowship in Philosophy of Transformative Experience at the Experience Project (September 2016-February 2017), funded by the Templeton Foundation, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has also received funding from the Mind Association, the ESRC, the AHRC, and been on a project funded by the European Research Council.