Politics

The Midterms Are About Who Controls Your Body

Abortion rights. Trans rights. Basic health care rights. They’re all on the ballot.

An illustration of a skeleton.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

No matter who we are or where we live, we all traverse this earth in the sack of bones and blood we call a body—our first and forever possession, the vessel we must inhabit until we die. Right now in the United States, the basic terms of that ownership are being rapidly, one-sidedly renegotiated.

At my house in Washington, D.C., I am the sole proprietor of my internal organs, with full jurisdiction over their contents. When my plane touched down on a recent trip to Texas, where abortion is illegal in nearly every circumstance, the deed to my body transferred to state officials, who assumed control over what my body could lawfully expel. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Americans have lived with this dehumanizing, patchwork system of laws under which a pregnant person might drive across a state border, begin to miscarry, and suffer for days without the life-saving care she would have immediately received at home. In these midterm elections, voters will decide which part of that tragedy is the bigger outrage: the pain and injury arbitrarily inflicted on the patient, or the price of the fuel in her gas tank.

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The bodies of transgender Americans are on the ballot as well. Florida is denying adult Medicaid patients access to gender-affirming hormones and surgery; many states now mandate that trans teenagers develop certain secondary sex characteristics, against their own wishes and those of their parents, who may be charged with abuse if they seek care for their children. Should a mother who helps her child obtain desperately wanted puberty blockers be sentenced to life in prison, as a Michigan bill would allow? Should state lawmakers concoct and enforce strict genital standards for all bodies within their borders? Any shift in the margins of Republican-led legislatures—a few more fanatics here, a smaller majority there—will determine exactly how far the party’s punitive crusade for gender conformity will go.

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With the Supreme Court eager to green-light the most extreme items on the GOP wish list, elected officials and their appointees at all levels of government now have carte blanche to assume possession of whichever parts of our bodies they like. The midterms may dictate whether girls’ genitals are routinely inspected before athletic competitions; whether government agencies can tell us who must have breasts and who absolutely cannot have them; whether preteens are considered mature enough to endure compulsory childbirth but too childish to be reliable narrators of gender dysphoria; whether a pregnant cancer patient can access treatment or if she must sacrifice her own body for the fetus inside it.

This election has been discussed as a referendum on the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization: If voters are angry enough about the end of nationwide legal abortion, the thinking goes, they may turn out for Democrats to make their voices heard. But while the midterms may capture the initial reaction to Dobbs, they are just the first of many elections about it. Dobbs didn’t just mark the end of a generations-long struggle against abortion rights—it also kicked off a new one. Republicans have a newfound permission to seize authority over our most intimate bodily functions. Every election for the foreseeable future will determine what they do with it.

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