Women’s Empowerment Requires Control Over Her Own Body

Last week, I was on a coaching call with a client and we were talking about women’s empowerment and how to best contribute to the empowerment of other women. We were speaking primarily about the professional and business context.

The Most Fundamental Requirement for Empowerment

She stopped what we had been talking about and asked, “What do you think is the most fundamental requirement for women’s empowerment?”

My response: control over their bodies.

If you think of it in the context of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, it is right there at the base — physiological. If I cannot prevent the trauma of rape, if I cannot determine when and how many children I bear, and if I cannot get the healthcare I need everything else is unstable. I am not free.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Control Over Our Lives is Now Precarious

The Supreme Court, in a stunning decision by an extremist court last Friday, overturned Roe Vs. Wade stripping these fundamental rights away from 50% of United States citizens. Almost half of U.S. states have either trigger laws or pre-existing bans on abortion that immediately go into effect. Only 16 states have laws that explicitly protect the right to abortion.

Many of those states where abortion is now illegal — Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas — allow no exceptions for rape or incest.

The argument about abortion rights tends to happen at a theoretical level and centers around things like the definition of life, morality, religion, and who has the power to decide. People who believe life starts at inception argue that the freedom to have an abortion infringes on their rights — although they somehow seem to think that their perspective should supersede others’ even though they will not be forced to have an abortion — only live in a society where others can choose to have one. For me, these conversations bring up images of trying to swaddle a 12-week-old fetus which is, of course, ridiculous.

But loss of control over a women’s body is anything but theoretical and without understanding the details it is easy to argue about it. It’s clear from many comments I’ve seen recently that there is a fundamental lack of understanding about these details and their implications and a sanctimonious morality lacking any grounding in reality.

The Cruelty of this Loss of Freedom

For weeks now, we’ve been hearing about these trigger laws that have ‘no exception for rape and incest.’ It gets repeated so often that it becomes familiar and our brain glosses over it; rape and incest. rape and incest. rape and incest. We no longer focus on the details. Or the horror. But the details are where the impact, the cruelty, and the trauma live.

These anti-abortion laws effectively mean that a majority of people in those states think it is right to force 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old children who have been raped to carry a baby to term.

Children who have been raped by relatives.

Children whose bodies are still so small that a pregnancy would almost double their body weight.

Children who may not even understand what sex is.

I cannot fathom the cruelty.

Even if you think a 6-week-old pregnancy is a life, is it crueler to terminate it than to make a child go through a rape and pregnancy? The trauma that follows will ruin their lives — never mind that they might not even have the health care to ensure they or their babies are taken care of during and after the pregnancy.

What I have seen is men who are adamant because it is righteous and women who dismiss this scenario as ‘unlikely.’ How nice for them that they have no experience of this. This is the cruelty of privilege; to deny the experience of others because they have no experience with it and it doesn’t threaten them personally.

It is obscene.

Who protects the children and women who live in isolation and abuse, unable to act and without the resources and connections to get out of their situations? Who helps the children who don’t even understand what sex, rape, and pregnancy really means or what should be ‘normal?’ They would have a hard enough time getting to their local hospital never mind a regional women’s health clinic and they definitely cannot get to another far-away state. You know who will suffer? The poor women. The poor children. The rural women. The Black women and children who are disproportionately poor.

Forced pregnancy is slavery. It is fascism. It is apartheid. In a country where we proclaim — even riot — for ‘freedom.’

It is obscene.

The Impact of Abortion Restrictions on the Privileged

While those who are privileged, like me, may not have to endure the same depraved cruelty that does not mean we won’t suffer real and negative consequences when we lack access to abortion.

I will tell you my story because it illustrates why abortion care — EVEN when everything goes according to the fever dreams of those who would prevent it — matters.

I was late starting a family. What that meant is that I had a lot of miscarriages (a surprise that should not have been a surprise but that I was not particularly ready for thanks to miscarriages being such a taboo subject). Miscarriages happen to almost everyone — even younger mothers. For me, they happened in the context of a loving marriage where we were trying to have children.

I had three miscarriages and two of them were missed-miscarriages — essentially two of my pregnancies resulted in fetuses that had heartbeats at 6 or 7 weeks but did not at 10–11 weeks — but that my body did not expel. It was devastating given how long we had tried to get pregnant. For me, that devastation grew to an odd kind of panic; knowing I was carrying around a dead fetus that would not miscarry. It is a condition that, if not resolved, can kill a woman.

Early pregnancy and miscarriages are something women go through in isolation. For me, as an executive who was the sole woman on a management team of ten men, I was not going to bring it up at work. My peers didn’t understand and burdening the individuals who reported to me was not right. No one even knew I was trying to get pregnant because telling people at work when you are on the management team changes how people interact with you; they become even more dismissive because hey, you’re announcing that you will be unreliable in their minds.

When I had my first missed miscarriage I first tried the pill that induces a miscarriage (or abortion). It did not work. That odd panic increased. It was hard to think about anything else. My doctor recommended a “D&C” — a dilation and curettage — otherwise known as an abortion. It was a relief. I could grieve and move on.

When I had my second missed miscarriage I was preparing for a big board meeting where I was presenting plans on a new generation of products, that would transition the product from an implementation to a self-service architecture and with it, change the business model of the company. It was a big deal. The disappointment of another failed pregnancy and the panicky feeling of carrying around a dead fetus combined with the prospect of a miscarriage happening in the middle of a 3–4 hour board meeting (or right before).

Should I make my excuses to the management team days in advance so they could prepare someone else to present (and give away credit, position, and power) — and be in a situation where I had to tell them about my condition because the situation needed a meaningful excuse?

Should I call the morning of the board meeting saying I was sick and put everyone in a bind?

Or should I do what would probably be necessary anyway and schedule a D&C?

What do you think I chose?

The ability to have an abortion had a direct impact on my career.

Abortion IS Healthcare

If I were in a state or country where abortions were illegal I likely could not have gotten an abortion to clear a missed miscarriage even though it technically was not killing a fetus. The equipment wouldn’t be available nearby or there would not be a doctor willing to take the risk of being arrested because a D&C and an abortion are the exact same procedure. You can say that won’t happen but I have no assurance of that given how intent the anti-abortion power brokers are.

If a missed miscarriage is not cleared is can KILL a woman. I could have died. Same with an ectopic pregnancy and a whole range of other issues. Pregnancy, it turns out, is not an exact science and the early days of pregnancy come with all sorts of issues. Contradicting a phrase I hear mostly from men, it turns out you can be “a little bit pregnant.” I was no longer pregnant but I was not, not pregnant. It’s why many of us, when people say that life starts at conception struggle to agree — early pregnancy is precarious and I had many other situations where I likely miscarried even before I knew I was pregnant — and that also impacted my career (one of these painful incidents happened when I was at a work conference).

Abortion is often the best healthcare choice.

My Story Shouldn’t Matter

I tell my story, not because it is justification for the legality of abortion but because it is the BEST CASE SCENARIO trumpeted by those who would restrict it and EVEN then I need abortion services. But the reasoning should not matter.

The right to have babies when and how a woman wants impacts their entire lives; their future options, their power, their happiness, and their economic prospects. Without the freedom to choose, they have no ability to plan and act on the future they want for themselves.

Lack of choice makes women unequal to men.

If we believe that women are full humans, with all the rights and responsibilities of men, then abortion access is critical.

Without access to abortion services, women are subjects.

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Rachel Happe

Rachel Happe

Connector of ideas & people. Fascinated by social dynamics & false truths. Founder of Engaged Organizations and co-Founder of The Community Roundtable.