Privacy vs. autonomy
So I worked up a post in my head about the way the Bristol Palin story exposes the tension between the real feminist argument for reproductive rights, and the compromise argument, and I had my misgivings because I feared the story is getting overplayed. And Lord Saletan’s nonsense grossed me out. But still, I think it’s interesting, so if you’ll indulge me.
I find it interesting how the McCain/Palin campaign tried to shut down the P.R. disaster that is Bristol Palin’s pregnancy by calling for privacy, which was, just short of their invocation of “choice”, about hiding behind feminist values to assault feminism itself, since they wish you and your family have neither privacy nor choice when it comes to management of your life. But what I find especially interesting is that “privacy” was not actually a feminist value until it had to be in order to get reproductive rights established. Which isn’t to say that I’m against respecting people’s privacy (and really, this is the last mention of the Palin thing in this post*), but that rooting reproductive rights in the value of privacy instead of autonomy and self-determination has actually created some massive problems for us.
Privacy is a double-edged sword. Outside of its use by feminists to get what we want (reproductive rights) without scaring people by arguing for women’s equality, privacy is generally a patriarchal value. It shields rapists and wife-beaters. The sense that women are the private property of men is still more ingrained in our society than the idea that uteruses are the private property of women. To illustrate, here’s an interesting story from Jessica:
Another one (apologies, can’t find a link to the original article anywhere) was from a couple of years ago when a woman was grabbed on a crowded subway platform by a strange man who was attempting to drag her away. As she fought him, he pretended that they were having a “lover’s quarrel” – saying things like, “Oh honey, I’m sorry, come on now!” – so that the surrounding crowd wouldn’t help her. The victim ended up grabbing another woman passing by and saying to her, “I don’t know this man.” The woman beat him off of her and held him until police came. (It was a good story!) But I remember asking myself why people wouldn’t stop to intervene even if they did think it was a fight between a couple.
What percentage of people who wouldn’t interfere with a man beating “his” woman would still think a woman doesn’t have a right to control what’s done with her actual uterus?
Privacy is often a wonderful thing. Thank god we live in a society where we can shield ourselves away from the prying eyes of others to make love, pick our noses, or eat a can of beans straight from the can. But it was a compromise position to argue reproductive rights, a way to shoehorn a feminist belief into the pre-existing patriarchy. Instead of arguing that women should control our own bodies because we’re full citizens entitled to autonomy and because the value of self-determination laid out in the Declaration of Independence requires women to have this control, we instead shoehorned it into the pre-existing understanding that men have a right to conduct their marriage (and the sex within) as they see fit. Only after men got a right to sexual privacy spelled out in Griswold did the Supreme Court extend it to women in Eisenstadt and Roe. It’s very fashionable to say Roe was badly decided, but rarely do I see such critics (usually male critics) argue that it should have been rooted in the belief that women have an equal right to our bodily autonomy. Which is really the only argument that I think would have actually help lift the debate out of the muck it’s in. Men have a right to father an actual child who is a living, breathing person with a birth certificate and then refuse to give that child a kidney if it needs one to survive. Surely women have a right not to be forced to donate our bodies to people who aren’t even people yet. I’m not a lawyer, and don’t know how to work that argument into a constitutional framework. But it has much to recommend it from a philosophical point of view.
Not that I’m second-guessing the route feminists in the 60s and 70s had to take to get our rights secured for us. Politics is a game of pragmatism underneath all the high-flying rhetoric. But let’s understand that privacy was a second rate argument that had to be used because autonomy was too frightening to the powers that be.
By the way, there’s another argument to be made for why “choice”—another compromise word to shield people from the fact that feminists are actually arguing that women have rights—presents similar problems. But Rickie Solinger writes about this in her books. So you should read those.
*I want to recommend Ruth Marcus’s explanation of why this is going to be a story and should be, however. Sample: “Like it or not, Bristol Palin’s pregnancy is intertwined with an important public policy debate about which the two parties differ and on which Sarah Palin has been outspoken.”