In the face of the constant terrors brought about by the misrule of President Donald Trump and his GOP enablers, how do we organize politically? Come up with a laundry list of laudable policies? Abandon identity politics (as if there are any politics that aren’t about some form of identity)? Micro-target the needs of specific communities? The diversity of the American left is where we find our strength, but it presents challenges to organizers and sloganeers alike.
As an advocate for disability rights, I’ve been seeking ways to link my core issues to those of other groups—people who prioritize reproductive justice, racial justice, decriminalization of narcotics, queer rights, antipoverty measures, and so much more. Each of us exists at specific intersections of needs and concerns. To win, we must find ways to unite our struggles without erasing our differences. One place they connect: the need to defend bodily autonomy.
“Bodily autonomy,” as an abstract philosophical principle, dates back at least to the ancient Greek philosophers. Over the centuries, legal scholars and political philosophers have thought hard about the relationship between rights and laws, the individual and the group, and the sovereign state and the autonomous individual. In American activist circles, bodily autonomy is most often invoked around the fight for reproductive rights. But what I haven’t seen is an effort to harness this principle in a way that binds our seemingly separate movements together.
Let’s start with the disability piece. I’m the father of a boy with Down syndrome. My concerns for him and for the extended disabled community include opposition to institutionalization, forced sterilization and other eugenic practices, involuntary surgery, mandatory drug regimes, denial of rights for disabled parents, protection for disabled children from violent caregivers and teachers, and lack of accommodations for non-typical bodies. In each case, these issues require a government that refrains from coercing disabled bodies and protects disabled bodies from private coercion. Bodily autonomy extends over these seemingly quite disparate issues.
Reproductive rights has long been the most obvious place where we must empower each individual to exercise sovereignty over their bodies. Time and again, “pro-life” Democrats demand to be included within the party. Despite Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez’s flirtation with that faction, our response should be clear. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs and to develop practices based on those beliefs, but the government may not regulate anyone’s access to full reproductive choice. A woman exercises sovereignty over her body and that’s not subject to debate, whether we are talking about abortion, birth control, or stopping sexual violence.