In a 2012 interview, Gloria Steinem was asked why she felt that contraception was still an issue for feminism. Her answer was unequivocal:
Because it’s the whole ball game. It’s the whole thing. If our bodies weren’t the means of reproduction, we wouldn’t be in the jam we’re in. That’s the name of patriarchy game: to control reproduction and how many children and who owns them. That is the bottom line.
For someone who came of age in feminism’s third wave, it’s a strange thing to read. My instinct is to think of reproduction not as a something to be fought over, but as a biological millstone around women’s necks. Men do not live with the fear of getting pregnant and, if and when they do have children, they do not have to bear the physical costs. Hence reproductive rights matter because they enable women – some women, at least – to enjoy the same freedoms as men and in doing so become less dependent on the latter for support. Biology will no longer be destiny and all that.
But that’s not quite how things have worked out. Men, it seems, do not want women to make their own decisions regarding conception, pregnancy and birth. Rather than simply delight in their avoidance of Eve’s curse, men have remained very keen to make it known that PREGNANCY INVOLVES US, TOO. Whether a woman gets and/or remains pregnant is not just a matter for her. Abortion is entirely illegal in seven countries, even when a woman’s life is in danger; it is practically inaccessible in many more. Each year an estimated 47,000 women die from the complications of unsafe abortion. Women’s bodies might be metaphorical battlegrounds but the deaths are very real.
This week the journalist Holly Brockwell was the subject of news stories due to online abuse she’d received simply for explaining that she did not ever want to have children. “The fact is,” she had written, quite reasonably, “there’s nothing about creating another human that appeals to me.” Such a benign and entirely personal viewpoint led, nonetheless, to her being sent what she describes as “things that I can’t repeat and I would never say to anyone no matter what they had done”:
Some of the words that were used were very gender specific – words that wouldn’t have been said to a man in the same situation. And I feel like that’s significant because it was nearly all from men – although there were a couple from women – men trying control a woman’s body.
Why do these men care? What is it to them whether or not a woman they don’t know and will probably never meet has children? This cannot be about protecting the rights of a foetus not even conceived. It is misogyny aimed at establishing a principle of control.
The trouble with reproductive choice isn’t that most of us are in mourning over embryos gone to waste. It’s that, if you really believe in it, you have to give people with uteruses the final say in who gets to be born, 100% of the time. That’s quite a big deal; men know it’s a big deal. After all, it means admitting that some people with uteruses can do something that no one with a penis ever can. Patriarchy, in seeking to establish paternity as the central social relationship, cannot allow for this. Instead we are meant to think that babies develop not with the help of the flesh and blood of the person who gestates them, but solely from men’s seed or, in our more progressive age, partly of his seed, partly of hers. As Barbara Katz Rothman points out, in such a system “children […] might as well have grown in the backyard.” So why not treat women as mere potting soil?
As technology develops, you can find ever more sophisticated ways of doing this:
A man can use this woman or that woman to have his children. He can hire this woman or that woman to substitute for one or another aspect (biological, social, or psychological) of the mothering his child needs. From the view of the man, his seed is irreplaceable; the mothering, the nurturance, is substitutable.
Just make sure that you’re not left with too many women who, like Brockwell, seek to opt out entirely.
I think we are entering a particularly dangerous period for reproductive rights. As Katha Pollitt has pointed out, “there’s a reason why gay marriage is winning, and abortion rights are losing”: “Same-sex marriage is something men want. […] Reproductive rights are inescapably about women.” Heterosexual marriage may have been one way of establishing paternity but it needn’t be the only one, not now that we have IVF and the global surrogacy market. If earlier versions of patriarchy harmed men, too, Patriarchy 2.0 can take a more targeted approach. It is no longer necessary to police the gender expression and sexuality of men in order to maintain control over women’s bodies. What’s particularly beautiful and insidious about this is that this same control becomes impossible to name.
I’m writing this in the wake of a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. News reports comment that “abortion is a divisive issue in the politically competitive state.” I’ll bet it is. It’s about who gets to control the narrative of how we come to exist. Some people will kill just to be able to claim that they are the ones who give life.