Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bodily autonomy vs. the rights of property

"What's Wrong With The World" is the most ironically perfect name for a blog in the entire electronic world. This post, by Lydia McGrew, is an excellent example of their poorly-analyzed, pretentiously written, and thoroughly mean-spirited output. For those without the stomach to read it, Ms. M takes the position that liberals only advocate for laws requiring accommodations for the disabled because we like to mess with businessmen. (Oh, and she means businessMEN, too. WWWTW's vicious misogyny is, however, the subject for another post.)

Ms. M and her commenters spend many pixels wondering why liberals favor both wheelchair-access laws and support a woman's right to abort a disabled fetus. They believe that compassion for disabled people requires putting the rights of a disabled fetus over and above the woman pregnant with it. She describes the current legal status of abortion as a "search and destroy mission for which the most important thing is that we not miss one, that we decrease the number of babies born with birth defects, which has about the same relation to "eliminating birth defects" that a can of Raid has to eliminating mosquito bites." In her interpretation, the fact that the state does not prevent women from aborting a pregnancy when the fetus has serious abnormalities constitutes an organized campaign. Francis Beckwith, another writer for the site, comments "the fetus is sequestered from personhood because it has diminished capacities as a consequence of immaturity, whereas the postnatal handicapped person has diminished capacities as a consequence of illness." Based on this comment, I conclude that liberals base the existence of rights on, well, something.

Neither the writer nor the commenters ever discuss the real reason liberals support both abortion rights and laws requiring accommodations for disabilities: everyone has a right to bodily autonomy. No one may use another person's body without the second person's consent. (There are a very few exceptions to this, all contained within the criminal law.) Each person's mind is part of the body for purposes of this principle. Fetuses, before about the 26th week of pregnancy, can't exist outside the body of the pregnant woman. The pregnant woman, who already exists, has a right to evict the unwelcome tenant fetus. Once born, however, the child has the same rights to bodily autonomy which much be recognized. Thus, she has the right to be able to use public buildings without requiring assistance from random strangers, which is the preferred solution of Kevin J. Jones in the first comment.

The principle of bodily autonomy for people trumps in all circumstances rights related to property. Owning property automatically makes the owner privileged, and with privileges come responsibilities. Society, using the means of the state's legal authority, is obligated to use its power to ensure that as many people as possible have the ability to exercise their bodily autonomy. (Any commenter who can think of a shorter way to express the idea "exercise their bodily autonomy" wins a prize of my choosing.) Therefore, the state can require developers to build shopping centers with wheelchair parking and accessible bathrooms. The public schools should have to provide classes for students with learning disabilities or neurological defects, so that those students can live as independent lives as possible. The families of the disabled deserve payments from the public purse to support caring for their disabled members with as little inconvenience as possible.

Conservatives of the WWWTW stripe, however, put the rights that come with property ownership and traditional hierarchy over those of individual people. The misery of an abused wife counts little so long as the privileges of husbands are preserved. The fact that being carried up stairs is thoroughly humiliating matters little, so long as the able-bodied carrier gets to feel noble. The fact that the disabled person may be never chance on the random person willing or able to haul him upstairs is never acknowledged.

It is important to note that the principle of bodily autonomy only restricts the government. The state can restrict a person's activities only when those activities constitute an obvious threat of harm to others. Being a drunk adult at home may be stupid, but in and of itself doesn't hurt anyone else. Therefore, the state should not restrict the sale of alcohol to adults in most circumstances. Most intoxicants fall into this category. Non-coercive sex poses no threat to anyone but the participants, so of course the state should stay out of it. In contrast, mountaintop removal mining causes immediate and observable damage to neighboring landowners and people using the area's water. The state, therefore, has a right to prohibit it to protect those neighbors.

It is important to understand that an essential element of bodily autonomy is the capacity to give consent. Children and people with serious cognitive impairments do not have this capacity. Thus, the state should intercede on their behalf to protect them. Age of consent laws are one obvious example. In most cases, however, the best people to make decisions for those without the capacity to make their own are family members. Supporting the family members and eliminating as much hassle as possible is the best way to ensure that those family members make decisions in the best interests of their dependents.

4 comments:

mmy said...

Excellent, well-argued post.

My suspicion is that for many of the crowd you are speaking of don't actually consider women "full human beings with autonomous rights over their own persons" consequently they see no contradiction/contest between the rights of the mother and the rights of the fetus.

I would gather that in their world there are 'those who have property' (white men) and those who are 'under the protection/guidance' of those who hold property.

Karen said...

Thanks for the nice words, mmy. I'm afraid you're right about our opponents, too. There are Responsible Adults, meaning wealthy white men, and those who have to depend on the RA's good will, which is everyone else.

Shanna-Banana said...

The problem with these people is that they can't fathom what disabled people, or women who are pregnant with disabled fetuses, are experiencing. They have never been personally involved in a situation in which they must make a decision concerning the life of another. It's easy to be high and mighty, when you've never had to get your hands dirty.

Karen said...

Exactly S - B. They have zero appreciation for complications.