Abortion and Bodily Autonomy

My decision to write and post this came from something Seanan McGuire shared on Tumblr (in which Hannah Goff talks about bodily autonomy and organ donation) and from Wendy Davis’ filibuster of an abortion bill in Texas.

Right now, a sixteen-year-old child is dying of kidney failure. He’s on the waiting list for an organ transplant, but he’s running out of time. Doctors figure he’s got a week left. Maybe two if he’s lucky.

Fortunately, it turns out that you’re a match. You’re the right blood type, the right body size, the tissue matching is positive … your kidney could save this child.

The ambulance will be arriving at your house tonight to take you to the hospital for surgery.

Wait, what? You can’t do that. What about the risks? Kidney donation is major surgery, and there’s always the chance of death by bleeding or infection!

You’ll be happy to know that I’ve considered the risks for you, and I’ve found them to be acceptable, given the stakes.

But I have a medical condition that makes surgery extremely dangerous. There’s a good chance this could kill me.

I’m sorry to hear that. Please make sure you don’t eat or drink anything from now until the procedure.

The surgery requires three weeks off of work. I’ll lose my job! I’m a single parent trying to look after three children.

Your inability to plan and manage your own life shouldn’t cost this child his chance.

Hey, I just read the file on this kid, and he’s much sicker than you said. Even if I donate my kidney, he’s still going to die.

That doesn’t matter. Your kidney is a match, so you’re required to donate. If you refuse, you’ll be arrested and fined, and the procedure will be performed in the prison hospital.

Who’s going to pay for the procedure and the medications I need while I’m recovering?

You’ll need to pay those costs out of pocket. Insurance companies don’t like to cover this stuff.

Look, I’m a compassionate person, and I don’t want this kid to die any more than you do. But what gives you the right to force me to donate my kidney to save him?


A while back, my mother chose to donate a kidney to a family friend. Because my mother is awesome. The procedure went great, and our friend is doing much better. Mom is back to running ridiculously long races and doing karate with me on Monday nights. And y’all should totally sign up on the organ donor registry, if you haven’t already.

But here in the U. S., nobody has the legal right to force you to sign up to donate your organs. Every state requires your legal consent for organ donation. Even if the surgery wouldn’t cause you any serious complications or side effects. Even if it would save a child’s life. Even though more than 6000 people die each year for lack of available organs.

The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act of 2006 “strengthens the power of an individual not to donate his or her parts by permitting the individual to sign a refusal that also bars others from making a gift of the individual’s parts after the individual’s death.”

In other words, U. S. law gives you control over your body. Even if that means someone else will die. Even after you’re dead and presumably have no further need of those organs. Your corpse has the right to bodily autonomy.

I’m not going to argue about when a group of cells transforms into a human being, whether that happens at conception or birth or some nebulous time in between.

But if the “right to life” is so important, why don’t we have mandatory organ registries in this country? Why isn’t everyone required to have their blood type and other information entered into a national database? Why don’t we require living organ donations, since most of us have some redundant organs we could give with no significant loss to our own quality of life?

Why have we so enshrined our right to control our own bodies … unless you happen to be a woman?


I’m closing comments on this post. I love you all, but I know how emotional and contentious and complicated this issue is. Given the state of the Internet these days, I don’t trust what would happen if comments were left open, and I don’t have the time and energy to clean up that mess.