Before we talk about what it means to end a pregnancy, let's talk about what it is to be pregnant. I'm writing from the first person, as always, on this blog--well, as always, anywhere, really, since how else would a person write? But for a long time now I have been a part of that big academic collective hallucination that subjectivity can be somehow dampened if you just try hard enough, so a reminder is always good. But I bring it up now to signal that I am going to be deliberately and directly drawing on my experience of pregnancy with Clare.
Nowadays I like to own the f-word, feminist, in contrast to my early post-Harding days when I still found that word too divisive and scary to use. What I discovered, once I began actually reading some feminists, is that feminism isn't what I had been trained to think it was. But what I stumbled into, with my late entry into the game, is what I've since learned to label "third-wave feminism." To grossly oversimplify, think of first-wave feminists as proclaiming the message "hey dudes, we have brains too--that makes us real people with real rights, so give us the damn vote already and quit staring at our boobs." Second-wave feminists realized, after awhile, that making personhood all-head and no-body was defaulting to the male anthropological paradigm and said, "Look, we don't want your penes. Boobs and wombs are great. We can do and see and know things you poor slobs never will. We are earthy and natural and love it--you want to live in your head, fine; we're happy with our bodies. Long live the goddess!" Third-wave feminism comes along and says, "Um, girls? Look around a sec and notice that we're not identical--not all of us are privileged white chicks who have the luxury of making an epistemological privilege out of having wombs. Yeah, our bodies are different from males and that difference is awesome--but we're also all different from each other, and that's important too."
How does this relate to the topic at hand? I think that the assumptions built into the current, tired abortion discourse are first-wave assumptions: talk of the body as property, talk of the right to privacy to that 'property.' I think that's rubbish philosophically, no matter what kind of traction it gets legally. As I understand it, and actual lawyers who might happen to read this post can elaborate or correct if necessary, the basic legal underpinning to Roe v. Wade: an (at least) implicit right to privacy in the Constitution, applied to one's body parts. The problem for me is simply that I think it's wrongheaded to think of one's body as property--an anthropological assumption built into the legal argument. It's an inherited anthropology that assumes that Mind/Soul is the "I" and body is just the thing the "I" uses to get around in, everyone has one and everyone is entitled to do with it and treat it as he sees fit. In the R v. W. application, the important point is that as long as the fetus is attached to the mother's body, the fetal body is an extension of the maternal body and therefore the "property" of the mother in the same sense her own body originally is and always was. But if our bodies are ourselves (second wave talk, there), dualistic anthropology and body-as-property are rejected.
But what would it mean to be pregnant, if bodies are not property and fetal bodies are not the extension of maternal body-as-property? It's an interesting question and one that preoccupied me quite a bit during my own pregnancy. Not conceiving my own body as my ontological and legal property, I did not conceive Clare's developing body as my property. But was that developing body an extension of my own, or was that body always Clare? Or when and where does the transformation from part-of-me to being-her take place? Notice these are the same questions that always get asked--but asked from a slightly different perspective, the perspective of embodied but bound together creatures, whose ontological boundaries are permeable, blurred and confusing. Yes: are you hearing it? That's cyborg talk. Yes: I am claiming pregnant women are cyborgs.
But what's the point? Well, for one thing, if we could admit that pregnancy is an ontologically confusing category, and stop trying to draw undrawable boundaries about when/how a baby becomes its own person (=when a baby has enough of a brain to justify postulating its own consciousness/self-awareness/personhood???), we might be able to stop wasting time and energy and breath about something that we'll never figure out because we set the terms wrong to begin with. Everyone who wants to draw that line is ignoring the obvious fact that--whether you put it at conception on the basis of potential consciousness/self-awareness/personhood, or at some late stage of fetal development on the basis of postulated consciousness/self-awareness/personhood--that the bodies in question remain bound together and this is important. Not secondary. Not a question of correctly drawing property lines. A matter of survival.
Secondly, I think we could benefit from being forced to admit that if we care about the baby, we also care about the mother, because they are embodied together. Everyone knows that what the mom does, eats, drinks affects the developing body bound to her own in utero. In my experience, this embodied-togetherness lasted quite awhile after Clare's birth as well: we were synched bodily for a year, most obviously through breastfeeding though I suspect there were other manifestations as well.
So hear me on this: I don't think abortions are the kind of decision one makes when deciding how to dispose of personal property. You don't clean out your womb like you clean out your closet. That's not the moral prescription it sounds like in the second person--let me try again. No one cleans out her womb like she cleans out a closet. It's not the same. It's not even a good parallel. The fact that it's the paradigm enshrined in our legal precedent is, IMO, harmful to the discourse. It does not reflect reality. It is not cognizant of what it means to be a human being, of the embodied reality of being human. It is not cognizant of what it means to be a pregnant woman, a special case of bound-together human embodiments.
One way in which direct harm is done to our discourse in in the different paradigms of the woman who chooses abortion at work on each side of the debate. Pro-lifers tend to view the paradigmatic woman as one who chooses abortion for the sake of convenience: my closet is full, I don't like this dress, I'll get rid of it. The language of Roe v. Wade, with its view of human bodies as property, aids the contruction of this rhetorically effective, distorted paradigm. I have written before that I think this is utterly false.
If I am right--and I am at least being true to my own experience--and pregnancy is best considered a bound-together embodied cyborg existence, then the choice to abort is a choice that is best spelled out in double terms: choosing to terminate self and other, because in this strange cyborg existence they are not truly separable. To call this tragedy is to light-heartedly understate the case. I hope this gives some sense of how serious I am when I insist that I do not consider this moral decision-making a matter of abstract "choice" and "rights." It don't even think it's an issue of "equality." It's a matter of living and dying.
But more than being a false construct, a straw (wo)man, I think this paradigm of the convenient abortion is hurtful in that it gives people permission to consider woman as less than reliable moral agents in this situation. This is the basis, I think, of the impulse to legislate--take away this choice because these woman are going to choose wrong and "we" (=the capable moral agents) can't allow that. If we make abortion illegal (and presumably therefore unavailable), then we don't have to just trust and pray that these untrustworthy moral agents will somehow make the right decision. We can coerce the moral decision by making a law about it.
Again, hear me on this: I am not offering a version of right-to-choose based on right-to-privacy. But beyond the question of whether morality can be coerced, and beyond the pragmatic point, often made, that making abortion illegal will not magically make it unavailable but simply more dangerous and unregulated, what's wrong with this position is that it demeans women. It refuses to recognize the embodied fact of the bound-together state of pregnancy, and the undeniable consequence that the mother is the moral decision maker who matters in this strange bound-together cyborg existence of pregnancy. We can recognize this and honor it, or we can deny it, and with our denial, tell women that the cyborg existence of pregnancy makes them temporarily not fully human and therefore not capable moral agents like everyone else. (And ignore the fact that she has 9 months in which to continue, daily, making the moral decisions that are a part of the cyborg fact of pregnancy. Each one is its own affirmation or denial of the other within.)
This is what I hear Obama saying--though of course, without the cyborg rhetoric. Still, what I heard at the Saddleback Forum was a recognition that a pregnant woman is a human being in an extraordinary, singular, ontologically confusing state of human existence ("above his pay grade" to suss out when a baby becomes a distinct person). She is herself, she is another; another is within, another is part, another is her. Our laws can recognize that no one but the cyborg mother is in a position to make the decision about how to respond to this other, or our laws can deny it. But legally denying reality does not change this moral reality. Stephen Colbert can choose to reside in Fantasyland for ideological reasons; the rest of us don't have the luxury.
The articles which raise alarms about Obama as on record as extremist pro-choice miss this basic fact just as surely as Roe v. Wade does. We can legislate "no" till we're blue in the face; it doesn't change the fact that it is a woman who lives in the constant, strange cyborg existence of pregnancy, and who faces a million daily decisions about her cyborg body(ies) as a result. Supporting laws which recognize this de facto reality get him labeled extremist. I think a better label would be realist. A woman determined to terminate a pregnancy can do so with an abortion--or she can go through 9 months of legally coerced pregnant cyborg existence, undermining the developing other within, consciously or unconsciously, through the millions of daily decisions that can never be coerced no matter how many laws are passed, because truly nurturing this other requires pro-active, affirming behaviors that one can only assume a woman wanting an abortion is unwilling/unable to provide. And that's just during pregnancy; who knows--and who cares???--what happens to this vulnerable human other after the formal but incomplete separation of childbirth.
And here, despite all the critique he gets as some kind of 'naive idealist,' is where Obama's pragmatism comes into play. We need a law that recognizes the incontrovertible moral agency of women in this situation. And if we're truly interested in promoting an outcome of life for these cyborg humans known as pregnant woman/fetuses, then we need to make it possible, desirable, and beneficial for these cyborgs to choose it--to celebrate their cyborg existence. This is the argument you'll find on the Pro-Life, Pro-Obama site of the Matthew 25 Network.
My apologies for the unruly aspects of this post. I know my prose is unpolished and my argument a little unorganized and I truly wish that I could do more justice to a topic that I've put off for so long precisely because it is so important. But this is here and now, and this is the best I can do for today.
Please be kind.