Body Autonomy

Heads, shoulders, knees and toes...  We all have bodies which help us across our lifetimes achieve everything from running marathons to binging our favourite TV shows! Below we are going to take a look at the political concept of body autonomy. Such a concept describes the choices we are able to make about our bodies. 

Body Autonomy Body Autonomy

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    It is a term which is often applied using feminist theory, therefore throughout this article we will take a number of deep dives into how body autonomy is an essential element of creating fairer and more equitable societies.

    Body autonomy meaning

    Body Autonomy Illustration of a woman sitting on the ground StudySmarterFig. 1 Person illustration

    Each of our bodies is unique. Bodily autonomy is a far-reaching umbrella term which describes the free and informed choices that each person has the right to make, concerning what makes you….YOU!

    Acts of bodily autonomy could include:

    • Choosing how you dress and express yourself,

    • Choosing who and how you love,

    • Taking decisions related to your health and wellbeing

    The important thing about body autonomy to remember is, that the concept centres on individuals being able to control and freely decide when making choices about their bodies.

    Body autonomy

    Body autonomy allows individuals the freedom to make their own choices about their bodies. This is significant to a person’s health and wellbeing.

    Feminism and body autonomy

    The foundational principle of body autonomy is universality and equality. Body autonomy is a concept that applies to everyone, regardless of their gender, sexuality or body!

    Body autonomy is closely linked with feminist theory because of this emphasis on equality, laying the foundations for fairer and equal societies. Body autonomy is an area focused on in feminist movements, as those with access to make free choices about their body are greater empowered to participate and gain agency over their own futures.

    However, in practice, the application of body autonomy in patriarchal societies is not equitable or universal. Often, bodies are not viewed to be equal and the bodily autonomy of many marginalised people is targeted and limited.

    Patriarchy

    Often referred to as a patriarchal system, patriarchy typically favours the interests of cis-gendered men, often to the detriment of women and gender variant individuals.

    The work of feminist movements often centres on protecting and advancing the equal application of body autonomy.

    An example of a feminist slogan related to body autonomy includes:

    My body, my choice.

    Body Autonomy Activists holding up signs that read My Body My Choice StudySmarterFig. 2 Pro-choice protest in San Francisco

    This slogan is most often applied by feminists when talking about the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women. As we will explore further, in this article, sexual and reproductive health and rights are a very important part of body autonomy and an area in which body autonomy is often limited through laws and policies.

    Body autonomy principles

    Three of the foundational principles of body autonomy include:

    • Universality

    • Autonomy

    • Agency

    Universality of body autonomy

    In the context of body autonomy, universality describes the universal right for all people to exercise bodily autonomy.

    Body autonomy is based on the principle that everyone, regardless of their gender, sexuality and body, should be able to make informed decisions about their body, health and wellbeing.

    Such a principle is reinforced by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA):

    Rights are for everyone, full stop. That includes bodily autonomy.”- UNFPA, 2021 1

    Autonomy

    As the name “body autonomy” suggests, autonomy is a foundational principle.

    Autonomy

    Autonomy describes the action of self-governing, in the case of body autonomy, this refers to a person having the freedom to independently make decisions about their body.

    It is crucial to note that autonomy rests on choices being made which are free from threat, violence, manipulation, fear or coercion.

    Exercising autonomy can describe countless actions, such as deciding for yourself which socks you will wear in the morning; making an informed choice to engage with medical treatment; and deciding independently, whether or not you wish to have children.

    Agency

    Agency is another key principle linked to bodily autonomy. Agency refers to someone’s capacity to exert power or influence. In the case of bodily autonomy, this relates to a person’s power and influence over their own bodies.

    When considering body autonomy, the principle of agency is often referred to by feminist movements. As we’ve already highlighted body autonomy covers countless decisions a person has to make about their bodies. The number of decisions a person can make about their body will increase their overall agency over their entire body.

    Many feminists point to the importance of “empowering” often marginalised groups, such as women of colour and individuals of gender variants, as an important part of creating fairer more equitable societies.

    Feminist writer, Audre Lorde, highlighted in her foundational work Dare to be Poweful (1981)2:

    I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”- Audre Lorde, 1981

    Body autonomy examples

    So we’ve thought a lot about the basis of bodily autonomy, now it's time to see what it looks like in action!

    As we’ve previously noted, acts of body autonomy represent countless choices we can make regarding our bodies, these can range from minor day-to-day decisions to ones which have long-term impacts. Below we will take a closer look at reproductive justice, a feminist concept that when applied enables people to exercise bodily autonomy.

    Reproductive justice

    Reproductive justice describes a person’s bodily autonomy to control their sexuality, gender and reproduction.

    It was a term first coined in 1994 by the Black Women’s Caucus of the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance, a feminist movement which aimed to increase the bodily autonomy of marginalised populations.

    In practice, the Black Women’s Caucus of the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance define reproductive justice as:

    At the core of Reproductive Justice is the belief that all women have

    1. the right to have children;

    2. the right to not have children and;

    3. the right to nurture the children we have in a safe and healthy environment.”3

    This application of reproductive justice, mostly refers to cisgendered-women. However, it is important to remember that will be applicable to many others such as trans-men and non-binary individuals.

    In action, reproductive justice is a great example of body autonomy as it advocates for individuals universally to be able to make significant decisions concerning their reproductive health.

    In order to obtain reproductive justice, four key policy areas must be achieved:

    1. Legally enshrined abortion rights and equitable access to services

    Enables individuals to access essential healthcare and make safe choices regarding their right to decide when and if a person wishes to have children.

    2. Equitable access to family planning services and choices concerning contraceptive methods

    Allows individuals to make decisions about their reproductive health and access essential healthcare.

    3. Comprehensive sexual health education

    Enables individuals to make informed decisions regarding their sexual health and sexual relationships. By providing people with information, it affords individuals more agency over their bodies.

    4. Equitable access to sexual and maternity health services

    Allows individuals to make essential decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health.

    Body Autonomy Rights

    It is important to note that body autonomy is considered to be a foundational right, by that we mean it is a right that other important human rights are built on.

    Our human rights, mental wellness and futures all depend on bodily autonomy”- UNFPA, 20214

    The importance of bodily autonomy was acknowledged internationally at the 1995 UN World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace, hosted in Beijing. At this milestone conference the Beijing Declaration5 was signed by 189 countries, making a global commitment to protecting body autonomy, with a strong focus on improving bodily autonomy for women and girls.

    The empowerment and autonomy of women and the improvement of women’s social, economic and political status is essential for the achievement of both transparent and accountable government and administration and sustainable development in all areas of life.” - Beijing Declaration, 1995

    Bodily Autonomy Law

    However, it is crucial to highlight that body autonomy is not universally applied and is often restricted by laws and policies.

    For example, in 2021 the UNFPA report titled My Body is My Own, found that 45% of women, globally, cannot exercise basic body autonomy.

    Restrictive laws on body autonomy

    A high-profile example of how governments relates to barriers to safe abortion services. Political barriers such as legal bans on abortion significantly restrict the bodily autonomy of many women and gender-variant individuals worldwide.

    Globally, there are 24 countries which have total bans on abortion. Many others, such as Chile, are highly restrictive. Therefore it is estimated that 90 million people of reproductive age are unable to access legal and safe abortion services.6

    Feminist critics often highlight that legal restrictions surrounding the sexual reproductive health and rights are utilised in patriarchal structures to police the bodies of marginalisation people.

    Academic Jeanne Flavin7 argues:

    Policing of reproduction affects every woman, including women who will never see the inside of a patrol car, courtroom, or cell. But the failure to ensure reproductive justice lands hardest on the most vulnerable members of society.”- Favin, 2009

    Body Autonomy - Key takeaways

    • Body autonomy allows individuals the freedom to make their own choices about their bodies. This is significant to a person’s health and wellbeing.
    • Body autonomy is a concept that applies to everyone, regardless of their gender, sexuality or body!
    • Three of the foundational principles of body autonomy include:
      • Universality

      • Autonomy

      • Agency

    • Reproductive justice is a feminist concept that when applied enables people to exercise bodily autonomy.
    • Body autonomy is considered to be a foundational right, by that we mean it is a right that other important human rights are built on.

    References

    1. UNFPA, Bodily autonomy: Busting 7 myths that undermine individual rights and freedoms, 2021
    2. A. Lorde, Dare to be Poweful, 1981
    3. In Our Own Voice: Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda, 2022
    4. UNFPA, What is bodily autonomy? 2021
    5. UN, Beijing Declaration, 1995
    6. E. Barry, The State of Abortion Rights Around the World, 2021
    7. J Flavin, Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Womens Reproduction in America, 2009
    8. Fig. 1 Person illustration (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Person_illustration.jpg) by Jan Gillbank (http://e4ac.edu.au/) licensed by CC-BY-3.0 *https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Common
    9. Fig. 2 My Body My Choice (https://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dosya:My_Body_My_Choice_(28028109899).jpg) by Lev Lazinskiy (https://www.flickr.com/people/152889076@N07) licensed by CC-BY-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.tr) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Body Autonomy

    What is body autonomy?

    Body autonomy is defined as the ability of one person to demonstrate power and agency over choices concerning their own bodies. These choices must be made without fear, threat, violence or coercion from others. 

    What is the importance of body autonomy?

    It is important to note that body autonomy is considered to be a foundational right, by that we mean it is a right that other important human rights are built on. 


    The importance of bodily autonomy was acknowledged internationally at the 1995 UN World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace, hosted in Beijing. At this milestone conference the Beijing Declaration was signed by 189 countries, making a global commitment to protecting body autonomy, with a strong focus on improving bodily autonomy for women and girls.

    What is the theory of body autonomy?

    Body autonomy is closely linked with feminist theory because of this emphasis on equality, laying the foundations for fairer and equal societies. Body autonomy is an area focused on in feminist movements, as those with access to make free choices about their body are greater empowered to participate and gain agency over their own futures. 

    What are the principles of body autonomy?

    Three of the foundational principles of body autonomy include:

    • Universality

    • Autonomy

    • Agency

    What are examples of bodily autonomy?

    Exercising bodily autonomy can describe countless actions, such as deciding for yourself which socks you will wear in the morning; making an informed choice to engage with medical treatment; and deciding independently, whether or not you wish to have children. 

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