The US Supreme Court plan to restrict abortion reminds us that progress is never linear when it comes to feminist liberation. It can also serve as a vital and timely reminder of the urgent need for coalition between cis women and trans people.
Too often these demographics are pitted against one another by transphobes who want the world to think that cis women’s rights and the rights of trans people are mutually exclusive.
Well, they aren’t.
Bodily autonomy is a foundational principle of feminism and human rights but it’s under siege.
Before news broke of the US Supreme Court's plan to overturn Roe v. Wade, in 2021 Texas made international headlines for banning abortion after six weeks, which constituted one of 106 abortion-restricting laws to be passed in the US that year. Only a few months ago in the UK, politicians planned to get rid of at-home abortions that had been made available during the pandemic and ran a consultation that was flooded with responses from the organised anti-abortion group Right to Life. At-home abortions are here to stay thanks to outcry from medical experts but this summer in the UK a 24-year-old woman will stand trial for ordering abortion medication online.
All told, this amounts to a policing of the bodies of women and people with uteruses.
The bodies of trans people are subject to similarly invasive ideological patrols.
In the UK’s own Supreme Court recently, judges finally closed down the Bell v. Tavistock case, a failed legal attempt to remove young trans people’s right to consent to gender-affirming treatment through the NHS Tavistock and Portman clinic. The claimant Bell’s case hinged on dismissing Gillick competence, a gauge of young people’s capacity to consent to their own medical treatment. Sexual health charity Brook intervened in the case with concerns that, should Bell’s claim be successful, it could open up young people’s access to abortion to political attack.
Brook’s suspicions were shrewd, given that Bell’s solicitor, Paul Conrathe, appears to specialise in cases that attempt to undermine abortion access. Conrathe has previously acted for the ProLife Alliance and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, both anti-abortion organisations. In 2001 he represented a man seeking an injunction to prevent his former girlfriend from accessing an abortion, and separately sought to raise the age of consent for gay people. In 2005 he fought a failed case seeking to overturn government policy allowing under-16s to have an abortion.
The bodies of women and trans people will always be the battlegrounds of state control and the culture wars that divide us.
In the US there are similar links between those who perpetuate anti-abortion views and those who seek to undermine the autonomy of trans people. The same politicians and evangelical elite who are spearheading the rollback of abortion rights are attacking trans rights and gay marriage in the same breath. Some of the tactics used by organised transphobic campaigners in the US, like protests outside clinics and harassing doctors, are lifted directly from the anti-abortion movement. In both the US and the UK, anti-abortion 'campaigners' stand outside abortion clinics, harassing people who need abortions and the clinic staff who provide them.
In the UK, conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who is introducing measures targeting trans athletes, previously proposed to cut the abortion time limit from 24 to 20 weeks and strip abortion providers of the ability to counsel women. She has also voted against gay marriage and compared homosexuality to paedophilia. As Refinery29 has already identified, the minister for abortion herself, Maggie Throup, has voted against the decriminalisation of abortion in the UK and against legalising abortion in Northern Ireland. She abstained on the vote for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
In Poland, where over 100 regions have declared themselves 'anti-LGBT zones', there is now a total ban on abortion.
The bodies of women and trans people will always be the battlegrounds of state control and the culture wars that divide us. This is because we exist in a world where the dominant and exploitative structures of patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy are largely upheld by us not having agency or control over our bodies – particularly when it comes to our most intimate sexual and reproductive decisions – because it keeps us exploitable.
As these relentless attempts to roll back our rights persist, we need to cut through the cacophony and recognise what these political and legal attacks on bodily autonomy imply for all of us.
Bodily autonomy means that your body is your own. It means that you have the right to make decisions about your body and access to the means to carry out those decisions. The latter is key, as a rights-based approach alone does not take into account how race, poverty and class impact different people’s ability to act on their decisions, no matter what’s on the law books. For instance, if you are wealthy and you live somewhere where abortion is restricted, you likely have the means to travel in order to access it elsewhere.
As the reproductive justice movement led by women of colour in the US has established, rights alone don’t mean much if you can’t afford contraception or an abortion. But abortion is just one example of the importance of bodily autonomy. It also takes in queer people's right to sex, Muslim women’s right to wear a hijab or niqab, trans people’s right to healthcare. Legally, rights set the absolute minimum standard for what society deems necessary for a dignified life; they also set the boundaries for how much the government can interfere with your body.
There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.
If feminists can agree that bodily autonomy is non-negotiable when it comes to pregnant women accessing healthcare to terminate a pregnancy and live free from the trauma of forced birth, the logic also applies to trans people accessing the healthcare they need and living free from coercive conversion 'therapy'. This is not a plea for charity. 'My body, my choice' must extend to us all, otherwise all of our respective liberties are at stake.
These allegiances lay bare the controlling intentions of governments seeking to restrict our rights to our own bodies and consequently our lives. The anti-abortion, anti-trans, anti-gay worldview and the legislative strategies that seek to force this worldview upon everyone else are held in the same hands: those of right-wing, power-wielding politicians who are wedded to fixed, white, heteronormative ideals of family, marriage and reproduction from which feminists and queer communities have sought freedom throughout history. It’s no surprise that both anti-abortion and anti-trans campaigns are supported by – and rooted in – ideology shared with organised white supremacy groups, or that the same governments introducing these measures are also enforcing fiercely Islamophobic policy and xenophobic anti-immigration legislation like the Nationality and Borders Act in the UK.
Amid this onslaught, we need all hands on deck to strategise and resist. Feminists in the UK who are enraged by recent US abortion restrictions must look at who else’s bodies are targeted by the governmental assault that’s gaining ground on both sides of the Atlantic. By identifying who will be harmed most when the state gets the final word on what happens to and within our bodies, we will find our strongest allies. As the journalist and writer Jude Doyle has said: "Fire always spreads. Look around you and see what’s already burning."
Our freedom to live free from violence and coercion is a battle between the public and the state, certainly not between cisgender women and trans people. The American writer Audre Lorde taught us that "there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives" and it’s time that we stopped compartmentalising our liberation movements as single-issue struggles competing for airtime because our opponents and oppressors are one and the same. We are all in the crosshairs of a rampant power grab on our bodies. Our individual freedoms are contingent on our collective capacity to work together in coalition and defend all bodies from state control.
The most basic foundational principle for a liveable, liberated life is that your body is your own and you get to decide what happens to it. Whether it’s termination or transition, if the state is trying to intervene in anyone’s right to make decisions about their body, there are consequences for all of us.