SCOTUS Ruling: Pregnant Bodies as Public Property

personal-space

Susan’s note: You can read my analysis of the “Hobby Lobby” ruling here

Yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling striking down 35 foot buffer zone around women’s health clinics in Massachusetts on the grounds that it is “extreme” baffles me. I just paced out 35 feet from my front door. It’s not a lot. I find it hard to believe that anyone who can use a ruler would see 35 feet as an over-zealous restriction on freedom of speech, especially given the bloody history of attacks on abortion clinics and providers.

When a group of educated and intelligent people (at least in the case of most of the justices) make a declaration that so clearly flies in the face of commonsense I have to ask if there is some other agenda driving them. It’s the same question I ask regarding those who deny climate change: Do they really understand the evidence or are they driven by broader anti-science or anti-government regulation of industry sentiments?

“Agenda” sounds like a harsh word, implying greed, personal aggrandizement or some other scurrilous motive. But the reality is that all laws and legal decisions are agenda-driven in the sense that they arise and are adjudicated within social contexts.

So when news of the ruling broke the first thing that popped into my mind was not a point of constitutional law but rather a conversation I had a few days ago with a pregnant woman who complained that everyone – relatives, co-workers and total strangers – feel that it’s okay for them to touch her belly. People who would never dream of invading anyone else’s bodily space in that way seem to believe that a pregnant woman’s body is somehow public property. She’s even had people make nasty comments to her when she asks them to refrain, and she told me that she’s thinking of putting a sign on her belly saying “Hands Off .”

I’m a medical sociologist. My job is to think about the social forces surrounding bodily experiences. And one thing I’ve learned over the years is that we seem to have a consensus in the United States that women’s reproductive experiences are a matter in which the collective legitimately has a deciding role.

What do these phenomena have in common? Outlawing lay midwives or homebirths. Incarcerating women for refusing a caesarian section? Disallowing welfare benefits for a child born less than two years after a previous ‘welfare baby’. Taking away children from women who use drugs, even when there is no evidence that the mother neglected or abused the children. In my work I’ve seen criminalized women pressured into having an abortion with the threat of the State taking away their other children if they go ahead with this “irresponsible” pregnancy. And I’ve also seen criminalized women coerced into looking at pictures of ultrasounds when, upon incarceration, they were found to be pregnant.

The SCOTUS ruling was based on freedom of speech arguments. So while I am tempted to see the ruling as part of a broader attack on women’s right to choose, it’s worth noting that the judges actively offered suggestions as to how Massachusetts can protect women entering clinics by changing traffic laws or vigorously enforcing the laws against blocking entrance to or egress from the building. But basically, the ruling came down to the Court privileging the rights of others (of anyone?) to weigh in on women’s reproduction, even people who have demonstrated associations with groups who have used violent and deadly tactics in the past, over the rights of women to bodily integrity.

I do think the state has a rightful role in protecting the health of women, children, men and even animals. But I am concerned that this role seems to expand out of all proportion regarding women’s reproduction. Today’s ruling was narrow in focus – it related only to women’s health centers. So I can’t help but wonder what the ruling would be if the case involved anti-vaccine activists standing outside children’s health centers and yell at parents who choose to vaccinate their children. Or Scientologists standing outside mental health centers yelling at people who see psychiatrists? Or celibacy advocates standing outside urologist offices and yelling at men seeking treatment for erectile dysfunction?

I find it interesting that the lead plaintiff, Eleanor McCullen, is described in the press as a “grandmotherly” woman whose claim is that “I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere with anybody.” My pregnant friend, I’m guessing, would see her as one of the “belly patters” whose motives may have been kind, voyeuristic or anything in between, but whose actions constituted an assault on her private bodily space.

5 comments

  1. You hit the nail on the head, Susan. I remember accompanying a young woman to a Planned Parenthood clinic for a gynecological exam and a discussion of birth control options. In Massachusetts she was covered by Mass Health (Medicaid) and this was an affordable option for her. When we pulled up and she saw the loud protestors with their signs she was frightened and wanted to leave. With my accompaniment and encouragement we walked into the clinic together. She was heckled with the comments of people assuming she was coming in for an abortion. It was a traumatic experience for her, and a horrible environment for anyone, let alone women who might be facing difficult and emotional choices when they need help. I was grateful for the safe zone that day. Without it, i’m not sure whether this young woman would have had the courage and gumption to push through the “helpful” hands and quick assumptions of such a determined group of people.

  2. I think it’s very interesting that we are seeing anti-gay laws struck down all over the country, while laws protecting women are being destroyed. I think it is an interesting correlation as one would suppose that we would instead see an upswing in protections for women along with the other. Instead we are seeing the opposite. I have come to the opinion that we need to give women who are seeking assistance at planned parenthood, which I have long supported, stun guns and other weapons. How much more jeopardy must women be placed in? Grandmotherly women my ass.

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