Culture | Hands off!

Speakers at McGill stress our right to take control of our bodies

Bodily self-determination is the idea that you, and no one else, decide what your body is and what you do with it. Four women gathered at McGill last week for a panel discussion entitled “Bodily Self-Determination: Reimagining a Feminist Framework,” and each speaker discussed the importance of bodily self-determination within feminist, trans, and disability rights theory and practice.

According to Indu Vashist, one of the head organizers of the panel, the impetus for holding the talk grew from the feelings of some that the “battle is not yet won,” in light of recent “neo-conservative” tendencies that pose a threat to the bodily sovereignty many of us take for granted. Vashist cited legislation such as Bill C-484 that reminds us “we need to be constant in our vigilance in keeping these rights.”

Counselor and former abortion-clinic worker Maryruth Stine began by discussing the history of the pro-choice movement. She framed the criminalization of abortion within the context of 19th century industrialization in an attempt to offset the tendency to “de-historicize” and “de-radicalize” abortion issues. Rather than solely being a question of morality, Stine claimed, the criminalization of abortion stemmed largely from the desire to control bodies and people for socioeconomic purposes.

In this way, Stine illustrated the importance of bodily sovereignty as a possible “through line” or means of connection between the pro-choice movement and other human rights struggles.

Nora Butler Burke works at Action Sante Travesties et Transsexuelles du Quebec, a Montreal organization which aims to promote the health and well-being of trans people in Quebec. Burke took a more concrete approach to the panel’s themes, as she spoke about the institutional barriers that “criminalize, police, and medicalize our bodies.” Above all, she stressed the importance of access to hormones, government identification, detox centers, and shelters as one of the central issues that shape and define the lives, and bodies, of trans people. Nonetheless, Burke proffered these institutional barriers as the “strategic places where we can make alliances.”

Next, Toronto-based artist and author Anne K. Abbott spoke about the difficulties she faced growing up with a disability. Abbott recounted chilling memories of doctors poking and probing her body – times when she recalled feeling that “[her] body was not quite [her] own.” She also spoke about her family, friends, and careworkers dismissing her childhood dream of becoming a mother, claiming she was “too delicate and unprepared to have children.”

And though she proved them wrong by having kids after all, Abbott pointed to the infamous “Ashley X” case as an example of the ongoing sterilization of disabled people. Ultimately, she called for the need to “take control of our own bodies” and subsequently “be in control of our destinies.”

Similarly, A.J. Withers – an author and activist on radical disability politics – spoke about the widespread misuse of pre-natal testing. Often, pregnant women are encouraged or pressured to abort disabled foetuses, yet these egregious violations of bodily self-determination go unchallenged. In these cases, as she emphatically argued, this is “not choice, it’s coercion.” Thus, Withers stressed the need for women to have the necessary opportunity and support, whether they decide to terminate the pregnancy or not.

Withers ended with a rallying call akin to that of the other speakers – asserting that “we all must work to tear down [conceptions of] certain types of bodies and minds that have more value than others,” align ourselves with all those who suffer from oppression, and “recognize the tremendous commonalities between us.” In so doing, we can reimagine a feminist framework premised upon inclusion, solidarity, and unified action.


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