800 maternal deaths a day is not gender neutral

Last week I wrote an article on the discrimination suffered by pregnant women and new mothers. In doing so I wished to stress that such discrimination is rooted not in the nature of pregnancy itself, but in the low status accorded to women as a class. If the rules changed overnight and people of higher status – men – got pregnant, we would treat the whole process very differently. Instead, we live in a world where 800 women die every single day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. This isn’t because pregnancy happens; it’s because it only happens to people who don’t matter. These people we call “women.”

Yesterday I received some feedback on the piece, which I’ve edited below:

Your article rests on two pillars, that A) men cannot breastfeed and B) men cannot give birth. […]. Many trans men choose to retain their breasts and/or genitals and can happily do both of the above.

Now obviously I was expecting this kind of thing, but it is still immensely frustrating. I wonder if anyone would ever dream of writing to someone who’d produced an article on any other form of class discrimination only to say “yeah, but you forgot to validate all the people who don’t believe that such a class hierarchy exists in any meaningful sense.” I am not prepared to compromise on what gender is and how it relates to the exploitation of female bodies if what I’m writing about is pregnancy discrimination (if what I was writing about was favourite sandwich fillings I might take a different approach). I’m well aware that it’s considered polite (at least if you’re a woman) to add some little qualification that undermines one’s whole argument by prioritising gender as brainsex over gender as a murderous hierarchy, but if we’re talking about actual death tolls, I’m not doing it. So that’s it. Much as I’d love to join in which the superficial halo polishing I’m out.

I’m as attracted to the pseudo-intellectualism, cookie-grabbing and downright cruelty of queer theory as much as the next person. A bit of Butler makes you feel clever and informed with minimum effort and thought, and a call-out is a total kick, yet it’s still not okay to indulge. Why not? Because if you actually care about an issue, you might consider the use of clear terms more important than obfuscating things by using two different meanings for the same word. It might make you look good but that’s all it does.

Let’s look at abortion, for instance. Worldwide 21.6 million women experience unsafe abortions each year. Of these, 47,000 die. In the US the closure of abortion clinics has rendered the procedure inaccessible for many women in states such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Mississippi and Wyoming. In Ireland the death of Savita Halappanavar has done little to change anti-choice hearts and minds (should anti-choicers have either). In Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Malta, abortion is completely illegal, even when a woman’s life is at risk (can you imagine the phrase “even when a man’s life is at risk” ever being used in a similar context?). The situation is obscene and yet the response of western liberals – self-styled guardians of human rights – has been decidedly muted. It has been left to feminist organisations and women’s groups to raise their voices on behalf of all people discriminated against for being women (the social definition), regardless of how such women identify (the internal one). Anti-choice barbarism is tolerated time and again, and only because of women’s subordinate position in relation to men. It is NOTHING to do with pregnancy or one’s internal sense of self at all.

“Pregnant woman” is not an identity. It is a social reality. A pregnant woman’s ever-contracting rights – whether she can choose to end this pregnancy, whether she will risk imprisonment for drinking too much, whether she will lose her job, whether she will be murdered by her partner – can only be seen through the filter of her inferior social status: that of woman. She neither chooses nor identifies with this status and it matters that the restrictions it places on her and others be fully acknowledged. Hundreds of women died today because of the way in which pregnancy intersects with their political and social status as women. The term “pregnant people” denies them the specificity of their deaths and masks the cause.

What gender-neutral pregnancy campaigning has achieved is wholly negative, making it impossible to articulate why there exists a class of people who are not granted full sovereignty over what lies beneath their own skin.  It has located the abortion debate (which should not be a debate at all) back where conservatives want it: on the status of the foetus, not that of the gravida. It has allowed the misogynist left to consolidate their definition of woman as “passive fantasy girl with tits” as opposed to “person with independent physical functions, emotions and needs.” Above all, it has created the illusion of an opt-out to being placed in the inferior sex class. Well, there isn’t, at least not until you can be bothered to challenge the fundamental idea that half the human race is inferior (oh, but that’s so much harder than messing about with words!).

So, no. Whatever it is I’m meant to write, I’m not writing it. It’s not for me to deny the very thing causing the mutilation, suffering and death of millions. Funnily enough, I’m not okay with that. No one ought to be.