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When Will Governments Stop Targeting Women's Bodies?

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Last week, the United States Center for Disease Control issued a warning directed specifically to women about alcohol consumption. The warning relayed the risks of drinking too much, which according to the CDC include: injuries/violence, sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy. Shortly after, a report published by the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada stated that "women can be more vulnerable to sexual assault or other violence when drinking beyond their capacity" - neglecting to include any warnings for men or specify anything about the actual perpetrators of sexual violence.

When public health agencies issue warnings, the purpose is to offer timely, relevant, evidence-based and high quality information for people to be equipped to make decisions about their own bodies and their health. The social media storm that followed reflects exactly how both the CDC and our Public Health Officer completely missed the mark.

Between mocking, raising concern or being just plain angry, across the social media wave, most share the same baseline: what could have been important and valuable insight was presented in a way that not only plays into paternalistic narratives about whose bodies need to be under surveillance and controlled, but also how easy it is to brush these off as clumsy scare tactics.

The CDC factsheet and Public Health Officer's report are just two representations of the many spaces in which governments and institutions attempt to control women's bodies and sexualities - and their ability to make autonomous decisions.

When it comes to pregnancy (and, specifically, women's bodies) the level of control that our social culture tries to exert is disproportionate to the information we actually have. Consciously or not, the language choice and tactics used run deeper than a genuine concern around scientifically proven harm to a person's body or an actual or potential pregnancy.

It points to how we, as a society, view certain choices and bodies and how we punish those who transgress. Warnings like these perpetuate essentialist views of gender, reproduction and sexuality, which can stigmatize certain populations and are potentially harmful from a health standpoint.

What such messages allude to is how our culture really feels about women's bodies (and its ownership over them) and women's assumed (in)ability to make complex decisions about their health, bodies and families, navigating the unique circumstances of their lives. This kind of approach should not inform public health campaigns, policies, services etc.

And yet, the messaging is everywhere. Women's bodies are constantly being shamed and controlled - the Ghomeshi trial and the Zika response are two high profile examples of just that.

Women complainants are being "discredited" by narrowing in on irrelevant factors that rely on comparing their behaviour before, during and after the assault. The narrative in and outside of the courtroom is overridden with stereotypes around how the victim - not the perpetrator - ought to behave. As happens time and time again in sexual assault cases, discriminatory assumptions about a witness's behaviour and what she did wrong are anything but uncommon. In no other category of trial is it so apparent. Even women's stories about their own bodies are questioned.

The initial response to the Zika virus has similar undertones. As governments and health care workers across the Americas are scrambling to stop the outbreak, they too have completely missed the mark on women's rights. Now that the virus is thought to be linked to higher incidences of microcephaly, governments like El Salvador are directly targeting women. In a country where abortion is illegal and contraception is hard to come by, women are being told not to get pregnant until 2018, while there is no messaging aimed at men to stop having procreative sex, oblivious to what that asymmetry is rooted in, or examining how the birth defects are on the rise specifically in poor areas of the countries most affected.

For those who choose to avoid pregnancy, there are no services in place to truly realize their reproductive rights, nor are there services to support and empower those living with disability.

It is true in Canada too, as, while abortion is legal, conscientious objection, crisis pregnancy centers, stigma and the reality that only 1 in 6 hospitals offer abortion services (most in urban areas) all lead to significant barriers and remind us how little we as a culture trust women to make decisions for themselves and their bodies.

Across the board the message is loud and clear. When it comes to making a decision about their own bodies, our governments and our social institutions don't trust women to "make the right one."

That is especially true for women of colour, women who are poor, Indigenous women. Instead, women are being served heaps of blanket advice without meaningful conversations about differential circumstances and determinants of health, without questioning why the onus is on individual women to stop sexual assault, STIs and unwanted pregnancies, and finally, without recognizing that offering choice and information without support and resources ends up being pretty meaningless.

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