May 4, 2022

Marry-your-Rapist Law: Coming Soon to the United States?

Abortion law has sprung to prominence once more in the world news.

The United States is rocked by the leaking of a Supreme Court draft decision which, if passed, would overturn Roe v. Wade and end federal protection for abortion. Issues of abortion law would then be returned to the states and, disturbingly, 26 of them would seek to ban or greatly restrict abortions almost immediately.

Why disturbingly? Well, the United States is a superpower—a world leader in so many ways—so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that where the U.S. leads, others may follow. Were this to happen, it would be a retrograde step that could return us to the days when patriarchy was the unquestioned way of the world, and women’s rights were limited to the right to choose which brand of washing powder to buy. 

In 1969, the United Nations General Assembly stated that “parents have the exclusive right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.” That same year, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) was created. As the UN sexual and reproductive health agency, its mission is “to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.” The Roe v. Wade decision occurred in 1973, and thus it seemed that the path to bodily autonomy was on an upward trajectory.

On April 14, 2021, the UNFPA released its State of World Population report, titled My Body is My Own. The report focused on “the power and agency of individuals to make choices about their bodies without fear, violence or coercion.” Shockingly—or so it seemed at the time—nearly half of all women are denied this bodily autonomy.

Why is bodily autonomy so important? Without it, we lose the authority to make decisions about our own lives and futures. The UNFPA states that “Respect for autonomy is a core tenet of international medical ethics.” 

While the UNFPA is working hard to ensure that women throughout the world can be assured of this basic human right, it would seem that the U.S. is heading in the opposite direction. If this Supreme Court decision is enacted it’s not too fanciful to think that by 2072 we may all be emulating Emmeline Pankhurst and chaining ourselves to railings outside seats of government throughout the world.

The My Body is My Own report identifies 20 countries that have “marry your rapist” laws. These are laws that allow rapists to walk free if they marry their victims! How is this possible? While I’m not suggesting the U.S. would ever dream of passing a similar law, it’s not hard to see that such patriarchal obscenities are an extreme consequence of denying women bodily autonomy. Each step taken toward this denial is a step back in time to the days when women were regarded as possessions—a lower order of humanity.

The UNFPA has identified seven myths that surround bodily autonomy. Several of these are of particular relevance. 

The first states, “There is no right to bodily autonomy.”

Really? If we took this myth to its logical conclusion we would find ourselves back in the feudal system of medieval Europe, where most of us were effectively owned by the Lord of the Manor. Or perhaps to the days of slavery, with all its attendant evils. Ridiculous? Perhaps, but this potential overturning of Roe v. Wade is certainly a move that is anti-equality and anti the rights of half the population. The UNFPA holds that “Not only is bodily autonomy a human right, it is the foundation upon which other human rights are built.”

The second myth of particular concern is that “Bodily autonomy represents radical individualism; it undermines group decision-making.”

Is it radical to believe one should have some agency in the direction one’s life should take? Or is it a hard-won freedom that is about to be taken away? Is it radical to believe that one’s body is one’s own? Disturbingly, it seems that it could become so. How can group decision-making be effective when half the population is subject to laws which rob them of their voice and potentially threaten their mental and physical health? The UNFPA states that “group decisions cannot circumscribe the rights of individuals…in fact, the realization of individual bodily autonomy actually requires collective action.” This is a message that has perhaps not yet reached the Supreme Court justices.

The final myth I want to mention is that “Bodily autonomy is just another women’s issue.”

But how can an issue that affects half the population be dismissed as trivial? Furthermore, bodily autonomy doesn’t only apply to women. It is also the right of men, children, the LGBTQIA community—in short, everybody. The overturning of Roe v. Wade seems to me to be opening the door to a withdrawal of the human rights we have been fighting for since the early 20th century.

I live in Australia, and I wouldn’t presume to tell Americans how I think they should run their country. But I can make a heartfelt plea to their Supreme Court: Please, please don’t do this!

As a superpower, the United States needs to be aware of its influence. These justices need to consider that any decision they make will have repercussions around the world. They need to be aware that if they pass this ruling it will negatively affect half the population, not just in the U.S., but in the world. Those 20 countries with the “marry your rapist” laws? They may take the overturning of Roe v. Wade as justification.

Roe v. Wade was a landmark. It placed the U.S. in the vanguard of forward-thinking countries, a pioneer and warrior for human rights. To overturn it now would be a tragedy of unthinkable proportions for the world.

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