Whose Bodies Should Government Control?

The hypocrisy of wanting the state to stay out of people’s lives, and yet opposing the right of others to make their own choices

Sarah Zucca / Flickr

This month, California took a major step forward in becoming not only the fourth state to enact a death with dignity law but, in doing so, also giving people more power over their bodies and lives.

The move comes after a string of incidents in which pregnant women have been jailed for the deaths of their babies. In Iowa, a pregnant woman who fell down a flight of stairs was arrested for attempted fetal homicide after she sought medical attention at the hospital. In Utah, when a woman who was pregnant with twins gave birth and one was stillborn, she was arrested for fetal homicide for choosing to delay having a c-section. A pregnant South Carolina woman who tried to commit suicide by jumping out a window was arrested and jailed for homicide because she lost the pregnancy.

And, in April 2008, Amanda Kimbrough prematurely gave birth at 25 weeks. Following the death of her baby, who lived for just 19 minutes, Kimbrough tested positive for methamphetamines. As a result, her other two children were removed from her custody and the government-mandated parenting classes and drug treatment. Then, six months later, the state of Alabama charged Kimbrough with “chemical endangerment” of her child, a Class A felony. Kimbrough plead guilty and received the minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

In Indiana, a woman who suffered a miscarriage and delivered a still-born fetus was charged and convicted of both “feticide” and “felony neglect of a dependent”—despite the fact that the first crime requires terminating a pregnancy while the fetus is still in the womb while the latter requires delivering a live baby and then neglecting it. Logic doesn’t seem to matter when the state is trying to protect women’s bodies from their owners.

Death with dignity laws imply, at least, that non-pregnant (and arguably older) women as well as men should control their own bodies and choices. California’s recent adoption of its law may lead more states to follow suit. For example, a recent poll found that over 80 percent of New York residents support such a law in that state.

Yet many conservatives, who at least deserve points for consistency, oppose all of this. For instance, while upwards of 78 percent of Democrats and Independents alike support death with dignity laws, only 64 percent of Republicans do—and almost a quarter of Republicans oppose such laws, compared with just 11 percent of Democrats. Let’s be very clear: They want the state to control your body, not you. Especially if you are a woman or a person of color or, heaven forbid, both.  This is why many pro-life conservatives fervently support the death penalty, and want the government to step in and criminalize everything from drug use to sodomy.

The anti-government rhetoric of the American right wing largely confines its concerns to white male bodies and white male wealth. Don’t make “us” wear helmets. Don’t make us participate in a health-care system that ensures the common good. Don’t make us go to racially integrated schools. Don’t make us pay women equally. Don’t take our money.  Don’t take our guns. But many of those who oppose government interventions that might apply to them want to use the apparatus of state force to control the bodies and choices of everyone else.

Hillary Clinton pointed this out in one of the more stirring moments of the Democratic debate. “They don’t mind having big government interfere with a woman’s right to choose and take down Planned Parenthood,” she said of ideological conservatives. “They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of it!”

Guns are especially instructive here. Even though white people are six times more likely to be killed by another white person than by a black person, implicitly or explicitly racialized fear-mongering around black criminality has been used regularly to attack even the most minor common-sense gun regulations. But while many conservatives don’t want government to stop them from legally being able to shoot and kill anyone who enters their home, they also don’t want women to be able to stop government from entering their bodies.

Such conservatives might respond to this line of argument by asserting they’re trying to protect the bodies of lawful gun owners in their homes and fetuses in-utero and the aging and the ill. But the difference is that (mostly) white conservative men trust themselves to make their own decisions vis-à-vis their guns, their lives, and their property—but take that same power and autonomy away from women and people of color. Even the most restrictive of the gun-control regulations proposed would still allow law-abiding citizens to get and keep guns. But the most innocuous-seeming restrictions on abortion rights, let alone attempts to outlaw and criminalize abortion altogether, plainly keep women from controlling their own bodies and choices. This is hypocrisy, plain and simple.

Regulations are necessary, as in the death with dignity laws, so that patients receive informed and careful counsel; and in the case of abortion rights too, so that no more butchers like Kermit Gosnell can fester underground. Americans need quality, affordable health care, drug-treatment programs, and access to contraception. No one wants pregnant women to be using drugs. No one wants to be in a situation where she needs an abortion. And no one wants to have a terminal condition or simply face a point at the end of life where dying is preferable to living.

What anyone does in those situations should be their own damn choice, just like conservatives want the choice to keep a deadly weapon under their pillows at night. The constant crowing about restrictions on freedom in making it a wee bit harder to get a gun sounds awfully perverse coming from many of those who continually try to restrict the freedoms of women and people of color.