For the past six months, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many of the underlying social problems in the United States into the spotlight. In addition to thinking about the issues of systemic racism, police brutality and health inequity, I have also been continually returning to the concept of bodily autonomy.
The bottom line is that bodily autonomy is a human right. In the U.S., however, it has historically been awarded only to those with power and privilege. What makes the pandemic different is that it has placed restrictions on bodily autonomy for all Americans for the first time. We all are required to quarantine, wear masks and adhere to social distancing regulations.
The fact that so many white Americans are upset over these restrictions is incredibly ironic. White America has taken away bodily control and dehumanized minority groups for centuries.
While many may be familiar with the idea of bodily autonomy in the debate surrounding a woman’s right to choose, when it comes to COVID-19, we often struggle to identify the role it plays in public health law. In fact, outlandish and hypocritical claims to bodily autonomy have everything to do with why this pandemic has been left unchecked and has wrought havoc on the health, economy and political stability of the U.S.
In looking back on our history, we can see how bodily autonomy has never been fully guaranteed for minority groups. This history exposes the complete hypocrisy of contemporary discourse around public health regulations and how they limit our personal freedoms.
Starting with the mass genocide and forced relocation of Indigenous people and the subsequent exploitation of Black Americans in slavery, oppressive institutions have taken medical rights and bodily control from millions.
The field of gynecology was created by a physician who violated his patients’ bodily autonomy. The “Father of Modern Gynecology,” J. Marion Sims, experimented on enslaved women, who were unable to consent to the procedures he performed. Without anesthesia, he investigated the surgical process of repairing postpartum vaginal tears. Sims later wrote textbooks and garnered acclaim for his work in the field.
Another notable abuse of bodily autonomy was the Tuskegee Study, in which the U.S. Department of Public Health denied Black men antibiotics for syphilis and inhumanely observed as their disease progressed to death.
There has also been a history of eugenics in the U.S., in which Black and Latina women have been sterilized without medical consent. Sterilizations have also been performed on incarcerated men and women, disproportionately impacting people of color.
The story continues today. There is a nonprofit called Project Prevention that gives money to men and women with substance use disorders to receive sterilizations or long-term contraceptives. As recently as 2017, a Tennessee judge offered reduced prison sentences to men and women who received vasectomies or birth control implants. Time and time again, our society has decided to control the bodies of people who have been deemed inferior.
The cruelty and indecency that have been forced upon minorities are simply incomparable to the social distancing guidelines written to keep us safe. The plight that Americans feel when they have to put on a mask to head to the supermarket pales in comparison to the harm and abuse that public health law has inflicted for so many years. It defies imagination that Americans would protest government mandates designed for our protection. In light of centuries of oppressive public health practices, these protests make a mockery of our own history.
At the center of public health law is the idea of risk. Public health is collective, and it must be achieved through the coordinated actions of everyone within a society. If certain individual actions — such as refusing to wear a mask, going to a house party or ignoring a 14-day travel quarantine — put others at risk, it is the responsibility of a government to create laws to ensure the population remains healthy.
After a long history of controlling the bodies of the oppressed, people with power and privilege are losing access to bodily autonomy for the first time. When a law prevents people from recklessly harming others, it is a justifiable law, not an affront to one’s personal liberties.
ELAINE LOUDEN is an MPH candidate at the School of Public Health. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .