"There is a concept called body autonomy. It’s generally considered a human right. Bodily autonomy means a person has control over who or what uses their body, for what, and for how long. It’s why you can’t be forced to donate blood, tissue, or organs. Even if you are dead. Even if you’d save or improve 20 lives. It’s why someone can’t touch you, have sex with you, or use your body in any way without your continuous consent.
“A fetus is using someone’s body parts. Therefore under bodily autonomy, it is there by permission, not by right. It needs a person’s continuous consent. If they deny and withdraw their consent, the pregnant person has the right to remove them from that moment. …
“By saying a fetus has a right to someone’s body parts until it’s born, despite the pregnant person’s wishes, you are doing two things. 1. Granting a fetus more rights to other people’s bodies than any born person. 2. Awarding a pregnant person less rights to their body than a corpse.”
—Stand With Texas Women activist Paul Zepecki, adapted from a Wiki
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That’s me in the Texas Senate chamber on June 25, 2013, with Sen. Wendy Davis filibustering in blue on the floor below.
I have been using Facebook a ton these past few weeks and far more politically than I ever have before. I struggle with that. You are not supposed to talk about money or religion or politics in polite society, right? I feel certain there are those among my friends who cringe at just the sight or sound of the word “abortion.” I admit that sometimes I feel that way too. In my mind, I hear people groaning, “Oh God, she is posting about abortion again. When is this going to be over?”
Those voices are not unlike the ones I heard in my head (and read in my Facebook comments) after the Trayvon Martin shooting case. “Please no,” they said. “Do we have to keep talking about racism?” At the risk of sounding crazy, I’ll admit I hear those voices in my head pretty much every time I post on Facebook lately. And the truth is, part of me feels for those of us who are sick of abortion rights and race talk and all of this. I really do.
I say “us” here on purpose. My minister, Rev. Meg Barnhouse of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, gave a sermon once on the problem of “us vs. them” and it stuck with me, so I am trying to think of all people, regardless of our political views, as part of a big “us.”
I am genuinely empathetic to those of us who are sick of seeing posts about politically and emotionally charged topics because part of me is sick of it too. I don’t live to talk about abortion. I live for creating community and working for positive change, yes, but I’d much rather be directing my energy elsewhere—to my rock band, to art with my kids, to public education, you name it.
So again, to those of us who are uncomfortable right now, myself included, I want to say once more: I feel you. I do. I am very uncomfortable too. I wish so many laws weren’t taking human rights backwards instead of forwards in 2013. I wish we didn’t have to talk about this.
But we do. Or we are screwed.
I don’t have all the answers. Not even close. But for starters, I would just ask that we each find some time to sit quietly with our discomfort—meditate, pray, hide your cell phone, whatever you do. Let that anxiety breathe a little. Let it be. Then let us all try to imagine, for example, how a woman who needs an abortion and has no safe clinic to serve her might feel. Let us do what we can to walk in each other’s shoes, if only in our hearts at first. We need to get to a place where we are all considered fully human, we are all “us”—because it is going to take all of us to create the comprehensive Human Rights Movement that the world needs.
Please know: I’m not saying each of us needs to fight all the fights. That’s a recipe for major burnout. But we each need to find the particular human rights issue that speaks to us, shout it from the rooftops, and get to work. And getting past “us vs. them” would make that work go much faster. Dem, GOP, Libertarian, Green, Socialist, independent, religious, atheist, citizen, noncitizen, etc.—I truly believe there is a human rights cause for everyone. It won’t happen overnight, but we can be allies.
So now a little bit about me: I am proud to be a fourth-generation native Texan. I have two hilarious young children and family and friends across a wide political and religious/atheist spectrum. I have been a teacher in Austin and run literacy programs in Chicago. I love babies, kids, teenagers, grown-ups. I am a certified People Person.
And I am not made of stone.
I see how strongly some anti-abortion protesters seem to feel about fetuses, I hear the phrase “fetal pain” and see the gruesome protest images, and I pause. I am not an unthinking ideologue or part of some “unruly mob,” as my fellow pro-choice protesters and I have been portrayed. I have strong convictions, but I have not stopped listening to and considering the position of the other side, as much as I may ultimately decide to disagree with it.
And that is why, to get back to the quote at the top, I am so damn grateful to Paul Zepecki for his comment explaining body autonomy. I had never heard that term until yesterday on Facebook. It brought everything into focus. Because, for me, “body autonomy” clearly details the logical, unassailable imperative of abortion rights. It shows how you can love babies and children and, yes, fetuses—that you can want to reduce the number of abortions (as most pro-choice people do, via birth control and sex ed)—yet still believe whole-heartedly that abortion is a human right and a perfectly moral choice.
The key phrase in that description of body autonomy has to be:
“By saying a fetus has a right to someone’s body parts until it’s born, despite the pregnant person’s wishes, you are … awarding a pregnant person less rights to their body than a corpse.”
Body autonomy applies to the death penalty too (which I vehemently oppose). It applies to drone attacks and force-feeding Gitmo hunger strikers, LGBTQ and disability rights, and so many other human rights issues.
I have learned so much in the course of this recent wave of activism, and it is invigorating. I am grateful. And I am going to need new insights and education like this to keep me going for the long haul.
Yes. I am in it for the long haul.
Which brings us back to social media, where I heard about the Texas abortion bill and Stand With Texas Women events in the first place. I think sometimes about the slightly surreal way Facebook works—how my posts are pieces of a very different puzzle for each of my 1,198 Facebook friends. My feed is mostly full of people talking about feminism, punk rock, parenting, and of course, the latest meme video of a sloth crossing the road. When I post about the fight at the Texas Capitol or over Trayvon Martin’s killing, my links and views may fit right in on some friends’ feeds. They may stick out like a sore, liberal thumb on others’. I may come across as a total political newb to some, meanwhile educating others, all in the same post, depending on who’s reading. (For more on this, I highly recommend Jacob Clifton’s article “Please Please Pull It Together on Facebook.”)
Simply put: it’s weird. And it can be uncomfortable. I hear the voices in my head again as I wrap this up. “This post is too extreme!” “It is not extreme enough!”
I’ve decided the best I can do is listen to my own heart and be true to my own mind.
Sure, I will always post about pop music and The Mindy Project and my daughter’s wacky antics. But you will definitely also see the word “abortion” in my Facebook status again. You will see more heartfelt, possibly clumsy thoughts on race, and reflections from religious leaders. You will see shared links and discussion of many other human rights issues. Hopefully, more often than not, you will see calls to action and you will see me directly participating in the work that needs to be done. None of this is going away—unless we fight it off one fire-breathing dragon at a time.
Of course, sometimes all that Standing With Texas Women will get tiring and I will desperately want to sit down, shut up, and have a freaking margarita. And you better believe I will. But I will sit down on my terms, and not for too long, I expect. Because the Texas abortion fight has awakened something in me. For perhaps the first time I feel very strongly, deep in my gut, what many other oppressed people have felt—that the government and special interests are trying to take away my right to control my body, my life, my very self. I am late to the party, but now that I’m here, I am not going anywhere. Challenges to body autonomy are unlawful, immoral and unacceptable.
As a large group of Texas clergy wrote in a recent letter to our state legislators, “We celebrate dignity through autonomy. When women must relinquish their freedom and surrender their bodies to the decree of the state, they are stripped of their humanity… . This denial of liberty is an affront to religious teachings of human freedom and a violation of human rights.”
To this I say: Amen.
Back at the Texas Capitol on June 26, the day after Sen. Wendy Davis’s filibuster, for a silent vigil of protest with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty at the hour of the 500th execution. Photo by my 4-year-old daughter.
At in the Capitol rotunda again on the night of July 12, when the abortion bill did finally pass. Here’s to taking a stand and making your voice heard. On to the challenge in the courts!
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— Erin J. Walter is a mother and former newspaper reporter living in Austin, Texas, where she serves on the board of the Texas After Violence Project and Girls Rock Camp Austin and co-runs a local preschool co-op with fellow parents. Erin coordinates the all-volunteer Young Writers Workshop at the public, neighborhood elementary school where she attended as a child. You can follow her on Twitter @erinjwalter