This week, Yale University made headlines for effectively clarifying its definition of “consent,” giving clearer guidelines about how students can make sure they’re engaging in healthy sexual activity. Rape prevention activists praised the effort as a good way to communicate how consent works in practice.
It’s fairly clear that teaching people to understand all of the angles of consent — how to give it, how to take it away, and how to recognize when either of those things are happening — is a good way to instill the cultural approach to sexuality that helps prevent sexual crimes. A recent international study on rape found that many male rapists don’t understand that they don’t automatically have a right to take control of women’s bodies, and those unhealthy attitudes take root at an early age. To combat that, sexual assault prevention advocates recommend thoroughly instructing young men and women about their bodily autonomy and how they can navigate around the boundaries of physical consent.
But consent is a concept that doesn’t just begin and end with sexual assault. Pervasive cultural attitudes toward other areas of sexual and reproductive health reveal that Americans could learn how to better apply it elsewhere, too.
At the heart of the anti-choice movement is a lack of understanding of what it means to consent. Ultimately, denying women the access to the reproductive services they want is forcing them to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term without their consent. It’s preventing them the basic right to make their own choices about what happens to their body. And even though Roe technically still stands, this violation of bodily consent is still happening all the time. Even when state-level restrictions to abortion care don’t ban the procedure outright, they often still end up limiting women’s right to make their own decisions about their bodies.
For instance, when states impose mandatory waiting periods before women are allowed to have an abortion, that forces women to remain pregnant longer than they want to and would have otherwise. There’s no reason to deny women the right to choose that medical procedure immediately. Studies have shown that nearly 90 percent of women are “highly confident” about their decision to end a pregnancy when they first approach a doctor, and being forced to wait extra time doesn’t change their mind.
Some women are forced to put off their abortion procedure until they can receive an ultrasound procedure that they haven’t actually consented to. That’s one of the clearest images of a violation of consent. Forced ultrasound laws often mean that women having early abortions must have a transvaginal ultrasound, which is conducted with an invasive probe. While that’s a normal type of medical exam that is frequently recommended by medical professionals — and often the only way to accurately detect an image during the first trimester — it’s not actually medically necessary. A state-mandated law that requires it in every situation ultimately removes women’s consent from the equation, and that’s why women’s health advocates have decried these type of laws as “state-sponsored rape.”
And many low-income women can’t realize their decision to end a pregnancy even after navigating a web of complicated state laws. Economically disadvantaged women often can’t get an abortion because it takes them too long to save up the money for it, and public insurance programs have been barred from helping to cover the procedure. Most of those women go on to have unintended births, and are more likely to slip deeper into poverty. The women who carry a pregnancy to term against their will are more likely to have long-term mental health issues.
And one of the things that’s hardest for the anti-choice community to grasp is the fact that consensual reproductive rights don’t just apply to the right to have an abortion if you want one. The concept of consent also extends to the women who want to remain pregnant and have a child — a decision that shouldn’t be taken from them. This week, a Florida man pleaded guilty to slipping abortion-inducing drugs to his girlfriend without her knowledge, ultimately ending her wanted pregnancy. Abortion opponents typically leap on these cases as an example of a double standard — why should a man who ends a pregnancy get jail time, when a woman who does the same thing doesn’t? The answer is, of course, the issue of consent.
As sexual assault illustrates so clearly, the absence of consent signals violence. It’s a specific kind of violence inflicted on an individual, one that’s perpetrated on removing their autonomy and control. And it’s why reproductive rights advocates are so insistent that the movement that calls itself “pro-life” can’t also call itself nonviolent.