Some thoughts on motherhood, freedom and reproductive rights

Forced motherhood is a kind of slavery, because motherhood and autonomy can never coexist.

Tanya Gold on abortion, Comment is Free

I am a mother. I’m also pro-choice. Much as I appreciated Tanya Gold’s recent piece on the human cost of anti-choice ideologies, the above statement, which appeared in the final paragraph, has got to me – and stuck in my mind ever since. When Gold writes of motherhood and autonomy never coexisting, does she mean all motherhood or just the forced motherhood of her earlier clause? Is this merely a case of over-editing or an actual belief about every experience of being a mother? If it’s the latter, I’m unsettled (and would advise Gold to steer well clear of anything by Rachel Cusk).

Mothers are not a different class of human beings, or rather, if they are, they shouldn’t be. They are people with a wide range of experiences, beliefs and responsibilities. We shouldn’t have to big up the magnitude of motherhood in order to convince ourselves that reproductive rights matter. If we are able to value women regardless of their reproductive status then that should be enough.

I’ve never been a fan of fiddly justifications for abortion. “My body, my choice” irritates some people because it’s so straightforward but surely that’s how it should be. What other reason is there? The consequences of denying women access to safe, legal abortion can be horrific and fatal – as in the cases detailed by Gold — but they can also be less dramatic and hence, in the eyes of some, less worthy of taking into consideration.

Continuing with a pregnancy against your will can be reduced to the status of mere “inconvenience”. Of course, to anyone with an ounce of empathy, that cannot be really the case. Even so, I write as someone who has always enjoyed being pregnant – not the worry nor the sickness, but the sheer excitement of it all. I’d willingly give my body over to that again (if only childcare – and, come to mention it, anything else child-related – wasn’t so bloody expensive). My pregnancies have never been unwanted pregnancies. As a justification for reproductive choice, I think that matters more than whether children are unwanted. We have to locate abortion within the experience of pregnancy and birth – not what comes after – to understand why it’s relevant to the status of all women (regardless of whether or not they themselves wish to and/or could become pregnant).

There is a rhetorical value in focussing on the worst consequences of anti-choice fervour – the death of Savita Halappanavar, the pressures that drove desperate women to Kermit Gosnell – but it risks derailing the pro-choice argument. It talks over the fundamental rightness of any person faced with an unwanted pregnancy being able to make decisions for the sake of their own physical and mental wellbeing, however trivial that appears to anyone else. There are anti-choicers who do not want women to die; they nevertheless think it their right to measure out the appropriate level of suffering before any support is merited. When we talk about rape, we do not – or at least should not – talk about valid and invalid reasons for not consenting to sex. I don’t think pregnancy should be any different (in making a comparison to rape I don’t mean to suggest that the fetus has agency or somehow “deserves” to be destroyed, rather that no one else should decide when an infringement of the boundaries of our own bodies is sufficiently harmful to us. This may be subjective but the difference between pregnancy and termination is clear-cut – as is the fact that no one else can experience these things on your behalf).

Pregnancy, birth and parenthood can be joyful experiences. It frustrates me when anti-choicers think this can be held as some kind of trump card. Look at the fluttering heartbeat on that scan! Look at the lovely babies growing in the headless diagram! As if billions of women haven’t been pregnant and remained pro-choice. As if they haven’t had their own mix of children, miscarriages and abortions over the course of their lifetimes. As if they don’t know that pregnancy is magic – but that it’s a terrible kind of magic if you are unable to consent. When Gold suggests “motherhood and autonomy can never coexist” I think she is wrong – at least, insofar as motherhood merely represents one of the many dependencies and responsibilities we develop in relation to others, all of which limit our independence. But these limitations are not comparable to the way in which a lack of reproductive freedom impinges on bodily autonomy – and on the ways in which all of us can feel that we are, at all times, wholly ourselves.

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on motherhood, freedom and reproductive rights

  1. You raise a very interesting point: we have a very Western discourse about autonomy and the unquestioned supremacy of our individual selves. Some cultures have a more nuanced appreciation of our existence within a web of community ties, both strong and weak.

    Where humanity is at its best, we are interdependent. We contribute taxes for common protection against illness and disability. We may volunteer at our local women’s shelter. We might take food to an elderly neighbour who has returned from hospital.

    In simple autonomy terms, having children means I have direct responsibility for another, who must be considered in my choices. But I may have lots of other relationships and roles that affect my ability to be truly autonomous, too!

    We could re-focus away from simple “autonomy” to looking at how our individual needs and aspirations are possible and achievable within our families and communities, and how our families and communities can support the individuals within to achieve what’s important to them. A kind of “community autonomy”, if you will.

    In terms of reproductive autonomy, it is always the woman’s choice whether to carry a child to term. But this choice is influenced by their community or family: have I already got children (that might suffer if I had more), could I continue to care for my elderly mother if I had another child? Will my partner contribute practically, financially and emotionally to support my choice? What are the financial and career implications of another child?

    Reproductive choice is complex (as we all know) and influenced by our family situation and community support. We should aim to create the communities and families that facilitate women to be autonomous in making these critical choices, and to share responsibility for the outcomes of these choices. I continue to work towards a day when we can collectively support women to make the choices that work for them, for their families, and their communities.

  2. “I’ve never been a fan of fiddly justifications for abortion. “My body, my choice” irritates some people because it’s so straightforward but surely that’s how it should be”

    Personally, that’s not why it irritates. Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler; if this wasn’t overly simplistic, there’d be no need for the rest of the article.

    1. There should not be a need for further explanation (beyond my body, my choice).

      Unfortunately, there still is.

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