Autonomy, Birth Control, and Intersectionality: Women's Ability to Control Their Own Bodies

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The Ohio State University

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This paper explores the role of autonomy within the context of birth control. It is generally accepted that having autonomy is good, and lacking autonomy is bad. Further, it is also generally accepted that birth control increases women's autonomy. Autonomy has a central role in bioethics, especially as new reproductive technologies, including new forms of birth control, become available. However, a closer analysis of the mainstream definition of autonomy reveals that autonomy is not a gender-neutral concept but is in fact gendered to favor male individuals and is thus exclusionary and dangerous for women and minority groups. Moreover, mainstream definitions of autonomy fail to acknowledge the impact of larger systems of racism, sexism, and patriarchy. In this thesis, I criticize the way mainstream masculine definitions of autonomy continue to limit the way we conceptualize autonomy for patients using birth control. I ask two central questions: (1) How can autonomy for birth control users can be improved without centering masculine conceptions of autonomy, and (2) For which groups of women does autonomy increase with use of birth control, if at all? Through the analysis of the definitions of autonomy, the history of birth control, and of informed consent, I argue that birth control has never had the same impact on autonomy across different groups of women historically and currently. To ensure women have equitable control over their bodies and lives, a feminist relational autonomy approach must be integrated into both the processes of informed consent and the medical systems wherein informed consent acts.