“In the broadest sense,” write the feminist pioneers of Our Bodies Ourselves, “violence against women is any assault on a woman’s body, physical integrity, or freedom of movement inflicted by an individual or through societal oppression.” Broad as that definition is, it says little about assaults on a woman’s mind, spirit or workplace equality. But it underlines the significant, if incomplete, advancements in women’s rights since the 1960s, progress based on the belief that a woman’s body should be protected from coercion from both individuals and the state. That’s precisely what Cassandra C. claims in a recent essay in The Hartford Courant: “This is my life and my body,” the 17-year-old wrote, “not the state’s.” Cassandra, however, was writing about Connecticut’s efforts to force her to take chemotherapy for her Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She and her mother call chemotherapy “poison,” but doctors testified that it gives her an 80-85% chance of recovery and without it she will die. The state asserts that Cassandra is a minor, overly influenced by her mother. Cassandra insists it’s her decision. When she turns 18 in nine months, the state cannot intervene, but her chemotherapy will probably be over.
Meanwhile, down at Guantanamo Bay the doctors’ response to widespread hunger strikes is to force-feed prisoners, which many human-rights advocates consider, not a life-giving intercession by the state, but torture.
Belief in the inviolability of a person’s body and mind is the foundation of an individual’s right to be free of state coercion. We continue to probe its limits.