Earlier this week I found myself reading a paper from Sheffield Hallam University by researchers Zubia Mumtaz and Sarah Salway. It’s titled: Understanding gendered influences on women’s reproductive health in Pakistan: Moving beyond the autonomy paradigm, and it makes for some interesting reading.
Basically it draws on various surveys and studies to point out how the Western feminist notion of reproductive autonomy is actually quite inadequate in Asian nations (their primary focus is on Pakistan), and that there are good reasons to doubt whether it is even that empowering or liberating for women.
Here’s what they have to say in their abstract (emphasis added):
“Using empirical ethnographic data, this paper draws attention to the incongruities between the concept of ‘women’s autonomy’ and the gendered social, cultural, economic and political realities of women’s lives in rural Punjab, Pakistan. These inadequacies include: the paradigm’s undue emphasis on women’s independent, autonomous action; a lack of attention to men and masculinities; a disregard of the multi-sited constitution of gender relations and gender inequality; an erroneous assumption that uptake of reproductive health services is an indicator of autonomy; and a failure to explore the interplay of other axes of disadvantage such as caste, class or socio-economic position. This paper calls for alternative, more nuanced, theoretical approaches to conceptualizing gender inequalities to enhance our understanding of women’s reproductive wellbeing in Pakistan.”
The problem that these researchers are highlighting isn’t new, and it isn’t just a problem for Asian nations, this is really an issue about the major flaws in the outdated Western feminist theories which elevate female autonomy to a quasi-religious status.
There are three major flaws in the autonomy arguments, especially as they are commonly used by those who want to try and give ethical justification for abortion based on the notion of female autonomy:
1. Female autonomy arguments for abortion completely ignore the right to autonomy of unborn females (and males, obviously)
It is completely contradictory to claim that women need abortion to protect their bodily autonomy (‘my body, my right’, etc.), while at the same time using that as a justification to do harm to the bodily autonomy of another female (or any other person for that matter), yet that’s exactly what this results in with abortion – right to bodily autonomy for the mother, but not for her daughter (or son).
2. Female autonomy arguments for abortion usually discriminate against males
Autonomy arguments rely on the notion that women, and solely women, should be free to decide what happens to the baby growing in their womb, but here’s the rub, if they choose to keep their babies then the societal expectation is that the male (who, by the way, was just as responsible for the creation of that new life as the female was) will lose all autonomy at this point and be expected to provide financial support to that child whether he wants to or not.
Even if he decides to walk out on mother and child, the courts can still (and rightly so) compel him to pay for that child until it is an independent adult.
This happens because the courts rightly recognise that if you conceive a child a unique bond exists between you and that child, and that special bond (parenthood) comes with certain unique and important obligations, the most important one being the obligation to nurture and care for that child.
The problem with the female autonomy arguments for abortion is that they expect men to be bound to a much higher and stricter standard than women in this regard, and most proponents of these arguments would consider it perfectly acceptable to deny males any autonomy, instead expecting them to be forced (by law if necessary) to accept and care for children they may not want.
3. Female autonomy arguments for abortion are inconsistent with reality
Basically no human being exists in a vacuum, and neither do human rights – these always exist in relation to other persons, and they are always exercised within some form of society, be it big or small. What this means is that my rights are always partnered with certain responsibilities that I have to the other members of society.
I can’t justify causing harm to others by saying ‘I am simply exercising my right to personal autonomy’, because in doing so I am robing another of their rights. Ironically our autonomy and freedom comes not by doing whatever we like, but by restricting our actions – and when everyone works to these fundamental restrictions (i.e. do no harm) then we are all a lot more freer to live our lives. This exact opposite happens when everyone wanders around doing whatever the heck they like (i.e. living out pro-choice type personal autonomy arguments in all areas of their life).
But when it comes to female autonomy arguments for abortion they completely ignore this reality and instead propose that doing whatever you like, even if it harms another human being, is actually some sort of female ‘right’.
At the end of the day Zubia Mumtaz and Sarah Salway have done us a favor in highlighting the major problems in the autonomy ideology being used in Pakistan – now if only we in the West could see just how outdated and flawed such notions are for us as well.
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