“My Body, My Choice”: Tricky territory

South of the border, half the population lost a constitutional right to privacy in health care when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, which has for over two decades protected a woman’s right to choose whether or not to be pregnant. “My Body, My Choice” was a strong and clear demand that American feminists asserted when opponents of abortion challenged this basic freedom to plan and control the timing and composition of their families. In an ironic twist, Covid-19 anti-vaxxers appropriated the words for themselves, just before the Court yanked choice away from women.

Here in Canada, a right to abortion is not protected in our constitution, but nor is abortion illegal. Rather, restrictions on abortion violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms“. It is a part of women’s health care, pure and simple, paid for by federal health transfers, and regulated under provincial and territorial health systems. (Access to abortion is still quite difficult in some parts of the country, but a province can lose some of their healthcare funding if they fail to provide any access).

Since 2016, what we do have a right to (at least on some interpretations) is doctor-assisted death, if we are in the process of dying a natural death. Or, since 2021, if we have a “grievous and irremediable” disability even if we’re not dying. Advocates for this “right” claim that, like abortion, assisted death is “just health care, pure and simple” and they worry about access to the service, just like women have worried about access to abortion services.

So now, in Canada, “My Body, My Choice” is claimed equally by feminists, anti-vaxxers and pro-euthanasia activists. The other organization (DWD) uses “It’s your life. It’s your choice” as it’s byline. The “liberal” response to anti-choice positions has always been: If you don’t want X, Don’t get X. If you don’t want an abortion, don’t get an abortion. If you don’t want a vaccine, don’t get a vaccine. If you don’t want MAiD, Don’t get MAiD.

Those of us who support reproductive choice, but are trying to articulate and communicate the problem with Track 2 MAiD, run into this argument like a brick wall. Because while that reasoning might work for most dying people (Track 1), it does not work for non-dying people with disabilities who don’t have the support, resources and social respect that they need to live.

It’s kind of like saying to a starving person — in any number of famine-stricken countries around the world — if you don’t want to starve, just eat. That’s absurd! If no food is available, it’s not a choice to go without. If no safe housing is available, unsafe housing (or a tent or a car) is not an acceptable alternative; nor is institutionalization, with its documented short-comings and inevitable restrictions on freedom.

Poverty is a huge problem, but it’s not the only problem. Prejudice and stigma also play a major role. People can get swept up in the dominant narrative that suggests that their lives are worthless and they have nothing of value to contribute to society; that they are a drain on the public purse or on their long-suffering family; that they don’t live up to standards of attractiveness or sex appeal; that they will never get a girlfriend; that if they need to have their bum wiped by an employee, they shouldn’t have to go on living. These are common and widespread cultural attitudes. Many honest non-disabled people will admit to having thought, whether aloud or quietly to themselves, when encountering a person with disabilities, “I couldn’t live like that!” This often leads to claiming to be “inspired” by the disabled person’s “bravery” — but that’s a thin veil over an underlying gut reaction, whether of pity or disgust. They can’t imagine it, and they don’t want to. They want to fix it or get rid of it — out of sight, out of circulation, out of mind. “Disabled people have been fighting for the right to exist since the beginning of history,” says Carrie Ann Lucas in the New Mobility article. “We have to say no, we help people live, we don’t let them die.” 

There’s another problem in the simple “My Body, My Choice” slogan. The implication is, “I own this body!” This is highly debatable and would make no sense in any system other than capitalism. When we first come into the world, our parents have naming rights, nurturing responsibilities, and disciplinary powers over us. But do they “own” us? As we mature, we take over “title” to ourselves and we assume the duties and responsibilities of caring for ourselves. But do we ever actually “own” our bodies?

Indigenous peoples don’t think in terms of “ownership” at all, but instead honour an infinitely intricate and complex web of relationships amongst all creatures — rocks and rivers; animals and plants; individual humans in small, large and larger communities — all benefitting from the existence and well-being of all the others. This view most closely accords with Living with Dignity’s mission.

We are “social animals”, after all. We — our bodies and minds — occupy places in the world, following the rules, norms and customs of our social group.

“My Body, My Choice.” Sounds simple. But it’s way more complex than it appears!

As always, your comments are welcome.

There’s also the problem of unequal access to opportunity. People who have struggled to achieve academic success despite barriers discover that the employment scene is rife with inequalities and failures to hire and/or accommodate differences. Discrimination is illegal, of course, but infringements of the law are difficult to prove and take a long time to rectify under human rights law.

What about people who avoid getting healthcare at all costs because their doctor (if they’re lucky enough to have one) doesn’t respect their disabled ways, hesitates or refuses to prescribe needed meds, is helpless in the face of chronic pain or illness; is ignorant about “life hacks” or leading-edge technologies; but may be more than willing to refer for MAiD.

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