self sovereignty – what do i mean

G wants me to write this out in one place, definitively. But I seem to be bad at directed rants. I haven’t been able to gather my thoughts on this very well so this is my third attempt. I deleted the earlier drafts.

I used the terminology of self sovereignty at the Feminist Classics Revisited talk. I don’t remember how it came up. It was in the question and answer section. I was talking about women’s reproductive rights and my history of activism. It came out spontaneously. one of those moments where I am in the moment and the thoughts just crystallise.

I used it again in my discussions with M about our introduction to the Body and Society special issue. We had a debate about it. A problematic concept. And yet what else is there that expresses ones right to determination over one’s own body. The inalienable right over the disposition of one’s own self and life, vis a vis someone else’s interest, whether that is intrusion, or exploitation, or ownership, or life and death, medical treatment or not. What wards off the insistence that the pregnant body is a public body before it is your own, or not your own at all. What is the bulwark against the categorical devaluation of your citizenship in those circumstances, relegated to the status of a minor, or a slave. Even minors, in that capacity, progressively grow out of that prerogative of state or kinship, or the assertion of strangers. What of the biopolitics of life and death. The dying self who is understood to owe her life to other lives. What is the concept that shields against these grotesque abrogations against you. It is an imperfect one  but it is one all the same.

and yet. What about people in the armed forces. Or employees and emotion work, or uniforms, or body searches and critical texts to intimidate them, make them walk faster, bend down, hold their bladders. There is no sovereignty there in ones bodily disposition. There are so many ways that people are conscripted, or demeaned.

Nevertheless. I put it in my advance directive. So this first and last wish of mine is not stolen from me. Sacrificed because someone is afraid, unequal to the situation, or because they feel you owe them the  percentage points. Or because there aren’t any decent alternatives. Even though its true, there aren’t decent alternatives. Even then.

M from palliative care told me that she was concerned that one of my provisions in the directive is not legal in the UK. The one about terminal sedation. Yes I am aware of that, I told her. But it is what I wish for. The law is wrong. And I protest it. And it stays in.


Dear M,

…It’s also probably why the self-sovereignty thing has resurged for me so powerfully. However problematic and compromised the concept is — it has re-emerged as my conceptual bulwark against the medicalisation of my life and the unwanted opinions of people who treat my condition like a permissive space (in this cancer is like pregnancy – both states in which you get recast as a public body, subject rightfully to other people’s opinions, intrusions, moral estimations and unasked for advice). There have been so many conversations where I’ve had to clarify that as far as I’m concerned — my sovereignty over the disposition of my person is entirely and unequivocally mine. I claim absolute sovereignty over everything to do with my personal person. I do feel absolutely me — there are no blurred boundaries. Just yesterday I had to write to the lawyer about this so that my advance directive is actually directive — no medical personel gets to override my wishes for any reasons, in any context (or gets to override the wishes of whomever I designate to act on my behalf should I become unable to do so).

Anyway – its not that I don’t entirely agree with the points you raised vis a vis my discussion of self sovereignty in the intro. Its that I feel both ways. And I know it keenly in this context — there is still the profound, pervasive political/pragmatic problem of other people’s and multi-institutions’ sense of right to the expropriation of your life whether on grounds of gender, or on grounds of cancer. So an absolutist language against that helps clarify my position.

I do think it is a shame that the crazy Tea Partiers in the USA expropriated ‘Don’t Tread on Me’. I sometimes wonder if we can take it back!

(Excerpt from my email to M on completing our joint introduction, 2015]

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