An Open Letter to a Law Student for Life

Self-control is always free poster

To the HLS student who gave me this flyer and told me that “self-control” is an adequate form of birth control:

I envy you. I envy the fact that you do not have to live in a world where whether you actually have “control” over your body is a contested issue. I envy that your control over your body is not constantly threatened, as mine is, whether it be through explicit acts of sexual violence exerted over my body, or through more subtle normative suggestions about what is the right or appropriate way to use my body.

Women who are victims of rape have lost control over their bodies, just as women who feel obligated to engage in sex, or who feel obligated to have children, whether it be by their partners or societal pressures, have also lost a degree of control over their bodies. And when institutions or individuals then decide that women do not have the choice to determine the outcome of those external forces acting on their bodies, they have been doubly subjected to an elimination of their autonomy and their personhood.

While I think pushing “self-control” as an effective method of birth control makes about as much sense as not warning teens of the dangers of drunk driving because they should be exercising self-control and not engaging in drinking in the first place, I urge you to think about frameworks where encouraging self-control might be productive.

Encourage young (and adult) men to exercise self-control in their interactions with women. Encourage them to exercise self-control in their intimate and familial relationships. Perhaps promoting self-control in this context will result in fewer women losing their bodily autonomy, whether that be through street harassment, workplace harassment, campus sexual assault, domestic violence, rape, or any other form of gender violence.

If we allow women to regain some of the autonomy that they have systematically been denied, I believe we can reduce the need for women to have to exert their right to bodily autonomy through abortions. A culture that continues to view women solely as sexualized objects, or solely through the lens of their reproductive capacity, will only enhance the problem that you purportedly seek to address.

No woman wants to be faced with the decision of whether or not to have an abortion, and again, I envy that you will never be faced with such a decision. But that is precisely why you do not, and should not, get to have a say over when and how women can exert control over their own selves. No matter how you view the morality of abortion, I hope you can understand how difficult it was for myself and the other women in the room to have to be told by a man that we, in fact, should not have the right to control our own bodies, our lives, and our futures.

It is also difficult for me to believe that when you engage in this kind of anti-contraception rhetoric the issue you actually are championing is the right to life, and not a man’s right to deny a woman self-determination over the life she has. At the end of the day, though, I most envy that you can walk out of that room, leave the conversation, and not be subjected to the very real ways in which I, and every other woman, do not have the ability to “self-control” our bodies.

Sarah Gersten is a 3L.