Canada
3 min

Our bodies, our selves

The need for self-determination unites us all

The right to control your own body is the foundation upon which all other freedoms are based. And the fight against forces that unfairly constrain our self-determination is a potential unifier of many diverse groups — from women to gay men to transfolk, from drug users to sex workers to people living with HIV.

The recent hogwash hoopla opposing Dr Henry Morgentaler’s overdue appointment to the Order of Canada has served as a potent reminder to me of the extent to which corporeal freedom of choice is in so many ways tenuous, historically recent and incomplete.

After all, we still have a province where it is impossible to get a safe and legal abortion, and there are still barriers to access around the country, including the fact the number of hospitals that actually perform this basic health service is shrinking each year. For too many women, the question of how to address an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy is still faced with a sinking feeling of apprehension and fear.

Many trans people require surgical solutions to align their physical bodies with their gender identities. But whether or not this is even an option can depend on where you live and how much money you have. Financial coverage of the procedures is inconsistent across the country, and aspects of the approval process in some provinces have been criticized as demeaning and unrealistic.

Medical advances mean many people with HIV live long and comparatively normal lives, receiving treatment that has drastically reduced the risk of transmitting the virus to others. But they are still last on the list for organ transplants, and some governments still want to track their movements across borders. The message? First, you should consider yourself lucky just to be alive. Second, you need to be kept under control.

Drug use and sex work are complex matters of personal and professional choice. Like other behaviours and professions, they sometimes have associated harm, but in these cases much of the risk and danger comes specifically from the fact they are against the law.

Legal and social prohibitions around drugs and sex work have something in common with the situations of people with HIV and women seeking abortions. Acquiring a virus or terminating a pregnancy are seen by many — including some in positions of social and governmental power — as moral failings rather than medical issues.

And while there have been tremendous changes in the lives of gay men and lesbians, it’s important to remember how recently that oppression began to lift. I recently watched the 1961 film Victim, which dramatizes the situation faced by queers who were victims of blackmail and extortion because of Britain’s anti-sodomy laws. Many killed themselves.

Gay sex was only decriminalized in Canada the year before I was born. South of the border sixteen years later, a Georgia police officer barged into the bedroom of Michael Hardwick and placed him and a sexual partner under arrest for sodomy. Today, around the world from Cairo to Moscow to Kampala, queers face oppressive circumstances many of us in North America would find hard to imagine.

Sex workers, drug users, trans folk, people with HIV, women seeking reproductive control: queers fall into all of the these categories-though too often many members of these groups want nothing to do with each other. But I think we remain divided at our mutual peril.

As we’ve seen in the US and with the Harper government, changing political tides can threaten to erode the rights we have already won, let alone the progress we still need to make. Together, we could send a message loud and clear: The ways we live-and love-are not up for debate.

Update: Opposing HIV-transmission criminalization around the world

In last month’s Free Agent, I reviewed some of the potential problems with the application of criminal law to address HIV transmission. Criminalization laws have been a growing trend in various international jurisdictions, sometimes putting people in jail even when no HIV transmission actually occurs.

“There are no data indicating that the broad application of criminal law to HIV transmission will achieve either criminal justice or prevent HIV transmission,” according to the UNAIDS, the joint United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS.

The influential international body made a statement at the recent AIDS 2008 conference in Mexico City opposing most forms of HIV-transmission criminalization, arguing that:

Instead of applying criminal law to HIV transmission, governments should expand programmes which have been proven to reduce HIV transmission while protecting the human rights both of people living with HIV and those who are HIV negative. Such measures include providing HIV information, support and commodities to people so they can avoid exposure to HIV through practising safer behaviours; increasing access to voluntary (as opposed to mandatory) confidential HIV testing and counselling; and addressing HIV-related stigma and discrimination. Prevention programmes should include positive prevention efforts which empower people living with HIV to avoid transmitting HIV to others, to voluntarily disclose their positive status in safety, avoid new sexually transmitted infections, and delay HIV disease progression.

I will be speaking on the topic of HIV criminalization alongside noted ethicist Dr Udo Schuklenk at the Queen’s University’s annual Health and Human Rights Conference on Oct 4. Visit the conference’s website for more information.