Thursday, October 23, 2008

some undisciplined musings on feminism, abortion, and politics: or, why Obama is not a baby-killer

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.


kel said...

there's another moral/legal conflict that factors into this issue that i think you'd find interesting to consider. like you were saying about trying to draw undrawable lines through the middle of the mystery of life, we also haven't figured out how to draw a line through the parental right to "raise your kid as you see fit." since we're fairly civilized, you'd think we'd draw the line at harming your kid (the concept of your rights extending to the end of your nose). anyone who's encountered our system for protecting kids knows that our line, legally, runs over childrens' well-being in order to give more room to the parents' rights. i think we haven't wanted to face the fact that we value parents' rights over childrens' well-being. i think we're going to have to be honest about that before anything constructive happens.

finally, i think two things. i think people want to protect kids, but laws and resources make it difficult. i think free birth control should be available to all women.

Carolyn said...

I appreciate your thoughts on this issue. It remains one that I am struggling with as I determine how to vote in the upcoming election.

I agree 100% that we must care about the mother if we care about the child, both pre- and post-birth. We must care whether mothers are able to provide essential needs for their children, both while pregnant and afterwards. I am saddened by those who are strongly "pro-life" in their anti-abortion stance, but do not support programs that would provide much-needed assistance to impoverished mothers and their children. There is a clear disconnect in such a position.

However, I think that the discussion about the physical connection and dependent relationship that exists between mother and child unnecessarily confuses and complicates the issue. There should be no doubt that what we are talking about is ending the life of a human being, though the human being is small and does not possess the ability to reason or speak for itself. In my view,such a life is worth protecting based on the fact that it is human, and nothing more. (this related article from the Archbishop of New York, Edward Cardinal Egan, does a good job of making this simple point:

I also agree that most women do not clean out their wombs like one cleans out a closet. But I think we're fooling ourselves if we think that there aren't hundreds of women that choose abortions because they do not want the baby at that time, whether it's because they are not yet married, too young, not yet finished with school, etc. If by stating that you believe such a paradigm is utterly false, you mean to say that you don't believe women ever choose abortion for convenience, I just have to respectfully disagree--based not on just an idea but on actual women I know who have had abortions. Abortions for convenience are a reality. And, from the political standpoint, regardless of whether the Roe v. Wade paradigm is false or not, it represents the stance adopted by the pro-choice movement and supported by Senator Obama. In their view, abortion is practically the birthright of every woman, and there need be no justification or countervailing considerations given as to whether the child should not be killed. (That said, I do not want to disregard the fact that there are women who have aborted children that they truly wanted, for reasons like grave risks to their own health. And it is for reasons like this that I believe abortion should not be banned entirely.)

I strongly (and respectfully) disagree with your argument that taking away the right of a woman to "choose" abortion can somehow be equated with a position that women are not fully human and not capable moral agents. In response, I have to point to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which I submit was necessary legislation to abolish slavery and remove the "choice" of owning slaves from our fellow citizens. The Thirteenth Amendment did not imply that slave owners were not fully human. It just told them that they could no longer impose their will on another human being through slavery. I think that slavery, various instances of genocide, and the holocaust all have at their core the failure to acknowledge the humanity of a certain group of individuals. In my opinion, abortion is no different--despite the fact that the mother and child are physically attached. (As a side note, it's telling that in most jurisdictions, if someone murders a pregnant woman, he/she is charged with two murders, not just one. So recognizing that unborn humans are worthy of legal protection is not a novel concept).

Obama's positions on abortion are very, very troubling to me. I would have an easier time voting for him if he were more moderate on the issue. Despite Obama receiving support from some pro-life voters, his statements and votes on the issue are 100% pro-choice. Not only is he likely to veto any legislation attempting to scale back abortion access, but Obama is ready to sign legislation that eliminates state laws providing "conscience clause" protection for pro-life doctors who decline to provide abortions, and removes federal funding from any pregnancy crisis centers that do not offer abortion as an option. (See the federal Freedom of Choice Act, which Obama has stated is one of the first things he plans to sign as president). So while the statistics cited on the "Pro Life, Pro Obama" cite do give me hope, ultimately I have a lot of trouble supporting Obama based on his staunch and unwavering pro-choice stance. Clinton's position on abortion seems to me more of a "realist" (and moderate) stance than Obama's.

Sorry this comment is so long. I'm still working through this and hope to get some of my thoughts out on my blog (and ideally come to a conclusion on whom to vote for) in the near future. Thanks again for taking the time to discuss this.

JTB said...

Carolyn, I appreciate the long comment and also the thought that goes into it. There's a lot in there and I am going to try to respond with questions/comments as I read through it again. I don't think we're likely to budge each other much but I really love it that (for some reason!) you're so willing to read my blog at all in the first place, and respond and challenge. Oh, if only all blog readers/commenters were like you!!!! Seriously!!!

The disconnect between pro-life without maternal/child support is indeed a troubling one, and in the end, I think, something we ought to be able to get everyone to recognize and work toward eliminating. I think that's the effective argument at Matt 25/Pro-Life, Pro-Obama. That's pragmatic but hopeful.

Working as I do on the topic of the posthuman, Cardinal Egan's position (which I base on your comment since I haven't followed the link yet), on valuing/protecting life on the basis of it being human, is one that I don't find self-evident. What defines "human" in this moral sense? This probably is more evidence of my idiosyncracy on these matters, but I think "human" is no more useful than "person" (though for different reasons).

I would not claim that there are no women who abort for "convenience" (though as a category we would have to define what is and isn't included--it may be that our definitions differ). My contention is that this is not the paradigm--most women, I am sure, do not do this. Interestingly, when I took a philosophy class at Princeton on the topic of "moral status of human beings" I was the only Christian (indeed the only religious person of any kind) in it, my classmates being atheistic secular humanist types. On the topic of abortion, in discussion, they uniformly condemned abortions of convenience as outright immoral--with some variation on what that included (disruption of future plans was in contention). This is relevant only to say that I think there is a broad consensus that such disregard for another's life and well-being is morally blameworthy. Abortions of convenience make a good foil for arguing for legislation--and you might convince me that we should legislate against those (though I think that might be tricky); but I think the majority of abortions are agonizing decisions that fall into the category of perceived tragic necessity rather than convenience.

My point about embodiedness and moral decision making are intertwined. Obviously I don't think that the point about embodiedness unnecessarily complicates the issue--I think it rather necessarily complicates it. I don't think the embodied point obscures the identity of the baby as a human being; the point is that both mother and baby exist in an embodied human state that is singular, unique, and necessary. The fact that this is not our starting point, I think, warps the discussion into a weird space where body only counts as "property" and the question of ownership and property boundary lines is how this question of life or death gets measured out. In that discussion, the baby is bound to lose (I think kel's comment is interesting at this point: kids are bound to lose this argument post-birth as well--their personhood/agency is not robust enough to meet the requirements of our one-size-fits-all human/person/citizen paradigm). I guess what I would really like to see is that we recognize the embodied fact of a pregnant women/baby as one unit. I get your fear that this erases the independent moral status of the baby, and therefore any argument of an independent right to life (which I think misses the fact that the baby in utero is not independent, which is part of the problem). I wouldn't spell things out that way--a pregnant woman as one embodied unit is not the same as a non-pregnant woman as one embodied unit. It is a unique state of existence where boundaries are not drawable between persons in the usual way. And I think this unique state of existence has its own correspondingly unique moral implications--one of those being that these bodies in intimate connection mean that the mother has the ultimate moral responsibility of nurturing this other. This happens in many more ways than making the decision to not abort; it's 40 weeks of constant nurture (or not). This is just what it means to be pregnant. If we attempt legislating what is in reality ultimately a maternal decision, we are saying, in effect, "you are not the capable and relevant moral agent here." This makes pregnant women less than fully human in the sense that they by virtue of this cyborg condition do not have the full human moral agency we automatically grant to the paradigmatic human person. But more importantly I think it is simply legislating in vain, for women retain this agency in the 40 week period of pregnancy in all kinds of ways and decisions that cannot be legislated or enforced.

Out of all this, I think the only answer is to make it preferable to choose nurture than abortion--we have to (to be true to the facts on the ground) recognize that this is something these women morally choose in the ultimate sense. We as a culture need to stop scapegoating women with unwanted pregnancies; assuming that they are deficient moral agents bound to choose the wrong thing is an insult, and does not encourage anyone to choose to nurture the life that has made them a visible scapegoat. We need to honor the moral seriousness of pregnancy by honoring the moral agency of those women who make the ultimate decisions about it. And we need to honor the moral imperative of nurture by restructuring this society in ways that make it possible to choose nurture without sacrificing health, job, education, reputation, future. This means everything from prevention of unwanted pregnancy in the first place to adequate health care, on-site childcare, reliable adoption, paid maternal leave--as well as some kind of overhaul on our societal prejudices about unwed moms and moral character.

I'm pretty sure that we will end up respectfully disagreeing, again!, but the bottom line for me is simply that we need to 1)enact laws that recognize the reality of the ultimate moral choice of the pregnant woman while 2) enacting laws that make is possible to nurture nascent life. I don't think that making abortion available is the same as morally condoning it--pragmatically, we can regulate it or not; that's the choice. Women will continue choosing to nurture life or not, regardless of the legislation on it. And we will, as a society, choose to recognize the moral agency of pregnant women, or not. I think if we did, we would be better able to make a case for choosing to nurture life than destroy it.

In any case, to return to point #1, I don't see any reason why we, respectfully disagreeing about the effectiveness of legislation, could not forge some pragmatic political coalition to address the matters of urgency that we do agree on. This is at the very heart of my support for Obama as a candidate--not simply on this issue but across the board. My trust in him as a candidate is that this is the basic attitude of his potential presidency. I think this holds a promise of more effective action than an attitude that requires not only an alignment of pragmatic goals but an alignment of the reasons for those goals as well.

JTB said...

whoops! I forgot something. Of course.

Your point about the abolishment of slavery is one I didn't mean to overlook because it bears thinking about. My rejoinder is that I think the parallel fails. Slavery was ownership of another independent human being('s body) as property. (This strikes me as another good example of why body-as-property and the legal/moral precedent of drawing proper boundary lines of ownership is particularly bad...) The salient difference being (you guessed it) the embodied oddity of pregnancy, which I do think matters very much.

The baby is not an independent human being "owned" by the mother. (I would grant that this comes close to the current paradigm of thinking--fetal body as extension of maternal body in the paradigm of body-as-property. This is part of why I dislike this so much.) My prescribed solution would be a recognition of biological fact: the baby is not an independent human being in a relationship of ownership, but a dependent human being in a relationship of biological nurture.

Because the moral agency is tied to the embodiment position, the parallel between diminishment of agency in a pregnant women versus the slave owner doesn't hold for me either; I wouldn't say that categorically the making of laws diminishes a citizen's moral agency (i.e., I'm not an anarchist or a libertarian or anything). What I'm arguing is that pregnancy is a special, unique state of existence--which our laws and the anthropology underlying them have not recognized.

JRB said...

It's hard to fit that on a bumper sticker.

JTB said...

how about "cyborg women choosing life"? :)

Justin Burton said...

For the record, and contrary to your self-deprecatory apologies, I found this to be an elegant argument of your position.

I'm wondering about Carolyn's slavery analogy also.

I, too, think it fails at the point of the possession of property. That is, chattel slavery treats people as property, which is exactly what you're arguing against. If we assume bodies can be property, we will make bad decisions; history bears this out.

But I'm curious about the assertion that the pregnant body is uniquely posthuman. I mean, wouldn't a posthuman argument against slavery or for robust social services proceed from the argument that the boundaries between our selves and others is so blurred that we cannot, in fact, clearly distinguish that boundary? In fact, isn't that the lens through which posthumans see the whole world?

In that case, it seems that the pregnant woman isn't so much uniquely posthuman as she is uniquely obviously posthuman. That is, an easy example to explain the concept to someone who doesn't yet buy into posthumanism but not, perhaps, any more hybrid than the rest of us.

I think maybe the rejoinder to me is to point out the difference between corporeal reality (mother and fetus literally share a body) and effective metaphor (the owner and slave don't literally share a body).

Or perhaps the rejoinder is simpler: there are degrees of hybridity. Some are more interconnected and cyborgy than others, and pregnant women, partly because of the obviousness of their posthumanity, count as more interconnected.

But I'm not completely convinced by either one. Posthumanism certainly resorts to metaphor quite often, but it speaks to an underlying reality that our own wellbeing is intricately bound up with the wellbeing of others. Slaves and owners are more metaphorically posthuman in their relationship than mother and fetus, but I think the moral imperative to treat each other fairly is equal (of course, the problem here is that a fetus doesn't seem to possess moral agency, so it's an unequal analogy on that front, as well).

I'm also skeptical about the idea of degrees of posthumanity. Certainly some people are more interconnected - their subjectivity is more diffuse - than others. But does this matter? Once we've passed the threshold of defining ourselves as merely thinking agents and we've accepted that our bodies matter and that, far beyond that, we are never fully defined but emergent as interconnected bodies, does it matter how many "things" we connect with and to what degree?

My assumption is that I'm missing something here.

JTB said...

Justin--I think you're right to call me on this. I have about an hour before I leave to catch a plane so I don't have a lot of time to process it, but my instinct is to say that the post is fudgy on the literal/metaphorical cyborg issue--and that Haraway & co. always do rigorously insist on the metaphor as the important meaning (in contrast to the H+ camp, who insist on the literal). Maybe the answer is to take this obviously cyborg case of intertwined existence as the paradigm for other human relationship, rather than work in reverse (as we typically do) and take the presumed independent, "equal" relationships btw adult human peers as paradigmatic and try to work pregnancy into that somehow. This seems to be what you're suggesting, if I'm reading your critique rightly?

Thanks for the comment.

Justin Burton said...

JTB, yes, that's my suggestion.

I think the value is in the idea of similarity instead of difference. Oddities (especially physical oddities) are easily dehumanized - in this case, deprived of moral agency. When similarity is assumed, ideally not only is humanity more easily accessed, but also we are able to see ourselves as more varied than we perhaps usually imagine.