June 24th, 2009

Our Continued Awakening

I have generally not commented much on abortion and reproductive rights on this blog. This is not because I don’t find the topic important (I have been a reproductive rights activist almost my entire adult life and have worked in that area professionally at times when I’ve had a day job) but rather because it is so commonly covered elsewhere (where sex worker rights and the advocacy of open sexual dialogue, understanding, and appreciation seem to me not nearly so much). However, reproductive rights are of course intrinsically linked to sexuality, and in response to two articles I have come across recently, I do feel like I would like to say something about the subject here.

I actually wrote the first part of this post a few weeks ago when I encountered the first article referenced above. An opinion column in the New York Times, it is entitled “Not All Abortions are Equal” and is written by Ross Douthat. (It may be that this article will only be available to NYTimes Select subscribers. I will do my best to quote the things from him to which I am responding directly in case that is the case.) I did not see the second article mentioned above, by Kate Harding on Salon.com, until today when I followed a link from Shanna Germain’s blog. So I will be going over the response in me to Mr. Douthat’s column first and following up with the relatedness I see in Ms. Harding’s.

The argument in Mr. Douthat’s article seems to be (and I did not understand all of it, which I will get to) that just because some abortions are sought and performed due to traumatic circumstances like rape or because a woman’s life or health is in danger if she continues a pregnancy does not mean that abortion should legally be a completely unrestricted procedure.

From the article:

“The argument for unregulated abortion rests on the idea that where there are exceptions, there cannot be a rule. Because rape and incest can lead to pregnancy, because abortion can save women’s lives, because babies can be born into suffering and certain death, there should be no restrictions on abortion whatsoever.

As a matter of moral philosophy, this makes a certain sense. Either a fetus has a claim to life or it doesn’t. The circumstances of its conception and the state of its health shouldn’t enter into the equation.

But the law is a not a philosophy seminar. It’s the place where morality meets custom, and compromise, and common sense. And it can take account of tragic situations without universalizing their lessons.”

This is probably the part of this article where most of the responses I lay out here come from.

Something about the arrangement here doesn’t resonate with me. Not all cases of rape (for example) are “equal,” either, but that doesn’t mean we nuance the law around it and say, “Well, if this person knew her/his assailant, it’s a little different so not quite as illegal,” or “Well, if she was out by herself at night, that’s a little different so the law changes.” (There may be social attitudes surrounding this that encapsulate such unconscionable perspectives, but thankfully they are not apparent in official laws at this time.) Rape is illegal because it appears to violate a basic human right. Abortion is legal because it appears to uphold one.

In neither case does it seem to me appropriate to begin qualifying law based on what we see from the outside as interesting or nuanced. To be sure, there are nuances. Of course there are. But while Mr. Douthat touts law as a “place where morality meets custom, and compromise, and common sense,” I would offer that this seems erroneous. To me law seems basically the opposite. Law necessarily calls for guidelines that are not based on compromise (do we say, “Murder is illegal unless, well, it seems like I think it’s justified” or “The speed limit is this—unless you find yourself justified to drive this particular speed to get where you’re going”?). The legal process does include some degree of recognizing nuance, and it generally takes place in the courts, e.g., juries of peers who consider such things. It is not written into law—if it were, the structure law purports to provide would contain a certain flimsiness that would render it far less credible and useful.

It strikes me that the philosophy surrounding the abortion and reproductive rights issue has sometimes seemed not particularly considerate of the fact that quite real, immediate impacts exist and occur regarding the individuals about whom we so fiercely debate. While we go on and on about rights and life and viability, a woman may be facing a pregnancy that she finds breathtakingly fearful, desolate, joyful, euphoric, crushingly uncertain, or any number of other things that those debating may not—because they are not pregnant or surrounded by the circumstances of that woman’s particular situation.

Regarding fetuses: Some people claim to feel a protectionism toward fetuses. I will admit I feel suspect of this; in some cases they may genuinely believe this is what their focus is on, but it does seem to me that the discussion is so fundamentally about male and female, sexuality, and autonomy that there is likely more at play than a simple concern about fetuses. In many instances, incidentally, I have observed the same people so concerned about fetuses seem rather un-concerned about babies once they are born. To feel concern about fetuses is one thing, but it seems to me it would carry over into a concern about babies as well, and frequently this has seemed to me not to be the case. Not once they are separate units themselves, out from under the protection of a woman’s body.

Which brings me right back to one of the main things it seems to me this controversy is about.

I’ve generally not adhered to comparisons when it comes to abortion. E.g., “It’s murder, taking a human life,” or “She’s just having a medical procedure done.” Pregnancy, abortion, and childbirth seem to me not particularly ripe for comparisons because they concern a unique process. There is simply nothing else like it. Thus to say either of these or related comparative things seems to me to be speaking of something in a way diluting of its inherent and unavoidable uniqueness.

In fact I think this uniqueness may be what has made the process such a target for controversy. On some level I think it is recognized in us that there is nothing else like it. There are also perspectives in us about it that stem from some basic things that may be largely unconscious and thus seemingly unknown to us. Combined, there is a tendency in us is to use things about which we know, about which we already have established conceptions, to fit the subject in question into/around these unconsciously-motivated feelings.

To me, denying a woman the choice to obtain abortion feels viscerally repugnant, eliciting a conscious seething, frothing, fury in me. The unconscious motivators for that may be numerous—a ferocious rebellion against male domination of female, against one person’s control over another person, against external control or oppression of sexuality…all this resonates with me. For others, there may be a similarly unconscious aversion to almost the opposite—female having autonomy, equal control of women with men over something, or perhaps something even further: In the case of pregnancy, something has happened to which both a female and a male contributed. In the case of abortion, the female may make an ultimate decision without the involvement or consent of the male part of it. It is not just equal say—it is a full-blown demonstration of female autonomy that may overrule the male part of the equation, ultimately rendering him without a voice about something with which he was inherently involved. A certain fundamental sexism is so ingrained in us societally that in the unconsciouses of some, this could feel searingly threatening in its unfamiliarity and disruption of a centuries-long collective identity.

In being presented with the argument that if a woman chooses to have sex, she must be willing to face the consequences of having a baby, I have heard statements along the lines of, “It’s just biology. It’s not fair, but biology isn’t fair.” Interesting to me that the above offering could be presented in the exact same language. What makes one more valid than the other?

Historically I have almost never felt oriented toward or resonant with separation on the basis of gender, sex, or biological characteristics in general as far as human potential and certainly rights. Thus I have rarely recognized a distinction in the perspectives or experiences of men and women in general, feeling oriented rather toward recognizing that everyone is an individual and one’s sex does not override basic human potential and uniqueness. The only area in which I can ever remember making any such distinction (barring biological characteristics of the physical body) is regarding pregnancy.

Biologically as far as we understand human life to have existed, it is simply the case that men do not become pregnant. As such, when a man has stated a preference for the disallowance or restriction of abortion, I have felt in me a visceral rebellion that has at times felt almost overwhelming.

It is not that I think men should have no perspective or voice about it. To deny such a thing seems outrageous to me. If a male wants to say he does not feel abortion should be allowed, I have no desire to squelch that voice. I simply recognize that it does not resonate with me.

For that perspective from that source to come to pass, that is, for it to be made a rule affecting females, feels unconscionable to me.

I assure readers I am making no claim whatsoever that all men are anti-choice, which in my experience has been obviously not the case, or that all females are pro-choice, which in my experience has been equally obviously not the case. I simply mention that because it is another nuance surrounding the issue that seems unique to pregnancy and therefore abortion.

To go back to Mr. Douthat’s article, the following are (parts of) the closing paragraphs:

“One reason there’s so much fierce argument about the latest of late-term abortions […] is that Americans aren’t permitted to debate anything else. […]

If abortion were returned to the democratic process, this landscape would change dramatically. Arguments about whether and how to restrict abortions in the second trimester—as many advanced democracies already do—would replace protests over the scope of third-trimester medical exemptions.

The result would be laws with more respect for human life, a culture less inflamed by a small number of tragic cases […].”

This is really an area where I do not understand what Mr. Douthat is saying.

“Less inflamed by a small number of tragic cases”? I wonder if he thinks that if the “landscape drastically changed” due to “the democratic process” that those of us frankly concerned about not only our personal lives but also the concept of the female population’s bodies being relegated to susceptible to state control as agents to produce babies will just say, “Oh, whew, we have much more to debate now that people aren’t paying attention so much to the ‘small number of tragic cases’ that have occurred in this area. I don’t think we need to worry quite as much about it in general now, do you?” What does this even mean? This is not the only area in which I felt genuine bafflement about what exactly Mr. Douthat was implying, arguing, or presenting. I am not sure exactly what he means by this statement, but I offer that for some abortion is not a philosophical concept to be debated “democratically” but an immediate life-altering issue, and even for those for whom it is not, for those who have the theoretical ability to get pregnant, it carries a more significant implication in that at some point that could be the case.

For men this will simply never (as long as the biological workings continue as they have since our understanding of human beginning) be the same consideration.

The second article I referenced at the beginning of this post is by Kate Harding and entitled “Voluntary Childlessness ‘Unnatural’ and ‘Evil.'”

This article speaks to reproductive rights being fundamentally about female autonomy and presents evidence of social perception on subjects beyond the realm of abortion. The author mentions the similarity she saw between the “vitriol” directed at Polly Vernon, a thirty-something woman who proclaimed in the Guardian that she was choosing to not have children, and that which Harding has historically observed from the anti-choice faction, such as “‘terrifying’ letters and e-mails calling her ‘selfish … unnatural, evil'” that Vernon received.

It was when I came across and read this article today, which basically echoes much of what I have said above, that I felt drawn again to blog about this. Harding writes the following:

“When you’re talking about abortion, specifically, you can muddle that basic issue with questions about fetuses’ rights. But it becomes crystal clear when you take the fetus out of it: A woman says she doesn’t plan to have children and is thus taking measures to prevent unintended pregnancy indefinitely, and she gets the very same load of crap: She’s unnatural, evil, mentally ill.”

Basically, that offers an anecdotal summary of what I have referenced here that seems clear to me: Reproductive rights is about something much broader than abortion—and the resistance to abortion as a choice is too.

Here’s to our continued awakening, sexually and otherwise.


“Every time I hear people say it’s never gonna change, I think about you, like it’s some kind of joke, some kind of game, girl I think about you…I think about you, eight years old, big blue eyes and a heart of gold, when I look at this world I think about you…”
-Collin Raye “I Think About You”

18 Responses “Our Continued Awakening”

  1. Wow, Emerald, my brain is all abuzz with the many wise, thoughtful and thought-provoking riches in this post!

    First, the words from Collin Raye were an extremely powerful coda to your arguments. It is all about the future for our daughters and our sons.

    Harding’s observation is equally powerful–take away the fetus and the agenda is so very clear. It’s about control of women’s bodies. I wonder if some people, men and women alike, just can’t deal with the awesome creativity of conceiving and giving birth. Creativity must always be regulated by “civilization” in some way, doesn’t it seem so? And more often than not, the regulation crushes some very positive things.

    Mr. Doubt-that’s arguments strike me as a right-wing intellectual’s attempts to tackle those smart-ass liberals in their own vat of pudding. It’s the right-to-life rhetoric dressed up in a professor’s gown. I feel the same sense of unease with his arguments–but certainly couldn’t deconstruct them so completely and eloquently.

    Will think more on this, but thank you for this incredible post, Emerald!

  2. Erobintica says:

    Emerald, you just saying that you were feeling some ” insecurity about articulating effectively right now for some reason” – well, that insecurity seems to me to be completely groundless – I’m sitting here going “wow.”

    I’d be tempted to go read the original articles right now but have to get ready to take my son to the dentist. There is too much good stuff to read right now (or maybe not all “good” but interesting).

    There’s a lot to think about here and I think I’m going to have to return later (maybe much later since my evening is busy too) in order to have the time to think and write.

    What’s that bumper sticker saying? If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. I think that’s it.

    Like Donna said, my brain is buzzing. Good post.

  3. Alana says:

    Emerald, I appreciated your post very much. Thank you.

    Question re: societal perceptions and prejudice: If women who prefer to remain childless are “evil” and “unnatural” is my son’s father, who has no interest in being my son’s parent, “evil” and “unnatural” as well?


  4. Erobintica says:

    Ah – Alana – good question. When the shoe’s on the other foot…

    okay, yeah, I shouldn’t be here typing comments – *please step away from the internet* ;-)

    back later

  5. Emerald says:

    Thanks so much, Donna.

    I hear you about the impression you had of Mr. Douthat’s (lol @ the revision of his name) presentation. His biography does suggest to me both conservatism and intellectualism as far as his background.

    “I wonder if some people, men and women alike, just can’t deal with the awesome creativity of conceiving and giving birth. Creativity must always be regulated by ‘civilization’ in some way, doesn’t it seem so?”

    What a fascinating offering. The first sentence definitely resonates with me, and the part about creativity being regulated had never occurred to me before. A very interesting proposition — thank you so much for sharing!

    Thank you very much for coming by and for reading and commenting.

  6. Emerald says:

    Yes, Robin, I believe you have the phrasing of that bumper sticker correct. The painful irony of it is not lost on me.

    Funny, I actually was thinking particularly of this post when I commented that on your blog last night. I had just finished it and felt unsure if I had expressed what seemed to be in me coherently. Thank you so much.

    Thank you for coming by and commenting twice!

  7. Emerald says:

    Hi Alana. Thank you very much. I appreciate your reading and coming by (and commenting).

    And indeed, it is an excellent question.

    Also, I’m glad you’re here because it happens I just read “Rock Stars in Particular Order” last night and am happy to have the opportunity to tell you I found it moving and poignantly beautiful. Thank you.

  8. Heidi says:

    Emerald, thank you for a wonderful and thought-provoking post. I was reminded again how much our society gets this stuff mixed up so people can’t see straight. It is so good to have your insights on the subject.

    Thanks again for a great dinner. Can’t wait to do it again in August.

  9. Alana says:

    Erobintica, I’d really like to know what you have to say . . .

    Emerald, thank you for reading “Rock Stars in Particular Order,” and thank you for your words about it. Really. :-)


  10. Emerald, I take my hat off to you for a profound and thought-provoking post. My brain is sort of scrambled (it’s 5.30 am – the blasted sparrows woke me up an hour ago) but I’m in awe of your ability to grapple with the subject. Love the comparison with un-nuanced laws about murder.

    Reproductive rights (specifically, the right not to bear children) are absolutely fundamental to women. There was a discussion of voluntary childnessness on a primetime national UK radio show a few months back. I went onto the website in order to make my contribution and found it full of letters from women proclaiming their choice and reasons for not having children – a huge wave of those who had previously kept silent, who had felt it was just the sort of thing that one didn’t talk about. Not a single vitriolic or negative comment, to my surprise. Heartening.

  11. Emerald says:

    Thank you Heidi, very much.

    It was indeed a delight to see you guys and I much look forward to seeing you again in August too.

  12. Emerald says:

    Thank you so much Janine. I feel so complimented by what you said.

    And heartening indeed — thank you for sharing that. Thank you so much for stopping by and reading and commenting.

    (And heh, doesn’t it seem amazing how loud birds can be sometimes?)

  13. I’ve been trying to get my thoughts on this to come together so I could post since I first read your post, Emerald, and have had little luck.

    My views boil down very simply. Your rights end where mine begin. That means I have no right to tell you, or anyone else, what to do with your body. I think this country has lost sight of that in a startling way. If we could get back to that type of viewpoint, things would be alot clearer.

    But, to touch on the point more. For me, personally, I couldn’t fathom abortion. It seems wrong on so many levels. But I’ve no right to impose my viewpoint on anyone else. I respect women who realize that the don’t want to be mothers, or don’t feel they are capable of being good mothers and take the necessary steps to prevent pregnancy. I rant, often, about women who don’t take those measures, and go about populating the world with children who end up in government systems.

    It’s a very difficult topic, and one that politicians and religion leaders use often to fragment people into small manageable groups. By working them up into a frenzy, it’s easier to direct their ire where they wish. Personally(obviously), I think that alot of these debates are fanned merely for political gain.

    There’s more rattling around in my brain, and I’ll get back to it eventually. But my thoughts are just all over the place lately.

    One thing I do believe is that the decision should not be one made by legislatures. Whether to condone abortion should be handled by the smaller groups of our society. A person’s religious community, moral community, family, and so forth.

  14. Emerald says:

    Thank you for reading and for commenting, Scarlett. Indeed, it was a lot presented and has not tended to be a light topic; I understand your wanting/needing to take your time and also feeling like there may be much you wanted to say and not feeling sure how to say it. (I felt that way when I was writing it!)

    Thank you for sharing.

  15. Nikki says:

    Oh, I just caught this so late! Thanks for a very considered and interesting post, Emerald. It’s so hard to manage a topic like this with sensitivity and without knee-jerk reactions – what a relief to read something that is honest but cool-headed.

  16. Emerald says:

    Thank you so very much, Nikki, and thank you for coming by and reading.

  17. Very eloquently constructed and deconstructed Emerald. So many “moral stands” taken by people that are not involved in a pregnancy are philosophical debates removed from any personal consequence. When faced with the decision each woman must be afforded the opportunity to determine her own path free of condemnation or pressure because try as we might to imagine the consequences of either decision we who are not pregnant are bystanders. Do we just stand by and let her determine her future, control her own fate?
    If we live in a free society we have to accept as a natural consequence of freedom that we will be offended, insulted and assailed with opinions that are different than our own. Another natural consequence of freedom is that people will self determine their own paths.

  18. Emerald says:

    Chris, I’m so honored that you stopped by, and thank you so much for your comment. I find “If we live in a free society we have to accept as a natural consequence of freedom that we will be offended, insulted and assailed with opinions that are different than our own” a fascinating point. That single sentence seems so useful to me as an offering to all that is absent of malice, aggressiveness, or antagonizing. Beautiful.

    Thank you so much.

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