Battleground State

By the logic of 2012’s “Personhood” rhetoric, I am currently keeping five of my son’s siblings in a freezer along 7th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. We don’t visit them often.

This is, of course, a deliberately absurd example. It’s meant to press upon a spot where the increasingly extreme antiabortion rhetoric issuing from nationally-elected representatives typically doesn’t go: rich(ish) white mothers like me. The Paul Ryan-sponsored “Sanctity of Human Life Act” notwithstanding, I happen to believe that IVF will never get the kind of scrutiny that Planned Parenthood does.[1] Planned Parenthood is out there saving lives, under threat of closure, while Mitt Romney’s day one plan leaves my son’s frozen siblings alone. A lot of money changes hands in fertility clinics, and no matter their ethical positions, the Right usually protects money and privilege. That this is the case suggests to me that prochoice rhetoric needs to expand. It should more forcefully include the entirety of reproductive health and choice, to move the conversation from Planned Parenthood and rape “exceptions” to the fertility clinic, the OB-GYN office, the high-risk pregnancy practice, the midwife’s exam room.

I’ve recently begun cataloging, for myself, the sheer variety of pregnancy-related medical procedures and complications that friends and acquaintances of mine have recently had, wondering why words such as preeclampsia, placenta previa, hemorrhage, transvaginal ultrasound, ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, chromosomal abnormality inconsistent with life, fetal death, D&C, D&E, and so on, are so often absent from the national conversation about reproductive choice. One could protest that most of the situations those words are used to limn are not “really” related to the conversation about abortion and reproductive choice. But such an argument is exactly the problem. The lack of visibility of this complicated experiential language signifies an important fact: reproductive choice has become the most simultaneously visceral and abstracted political question of our age–and the abstractions allow politicians to spew dogma, while women’s lived reality goes willfully ignored.

white people making babies

So to that end, some non-abstract questions: If an embryo or fetus dies inside a woman, is that woman allowed to undergo a medical procedure to remove that dead tissue? Most people, even antiabortion folks, would likely say yes. But, if a fetus is, according to all current and researched medical knowledge, sure to die inside a woman or shortly after being delivered by that woman, is that woman allowed to undergo a medical procedure to remove that dying tissue? If not, let’s think on this some more: how long might it take before the fetus finishes its process of dying? One week? Two weeks? Four months? How many mornings would a woman wake up, understanding that she is carrying something dead inside of her? What if the death doesn’t come quickly, and an infection sets in? Does the cruelty lie in our treatment of the dying tissue? Or does the cruelty lie elsewhere?

I have a lot of personal experience with the medicalization of conception and pregnancy. Because I am privileged, my reproductive choices have generally been respected, whether that meant opting for D&C procedures rather than waiting for the (God-intended?) miscarriages that nearly broke my heart or deliberately stimulating an unnatural number of eggs, having those eggs harvested, fertilized, cultivated, and then selectively put back into my body with the express purpose that one should live and another should die.

“The experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.”

The realization that one is protected in ways that have never before been visible—this is the potentially radicalizing moment. The open secret about antiabortion rhetoric is that it isn’t about “the babies” at all, it is about punishing women for having sex and/or not wanting to continue a pregnancy, or for daring to be poor or mentally ill or young, or for having a preference about or vision for their lives. We can see this more clearly when we acknowledge that all the privileged women doing unnatural un-God’s-will stuff in laboratories and clinics should be, but are not, quite, part of the conversation about choice.

In an ideal world, every woman who has ever experienced even the briefest or most minor reproductive health complication (and this must be 98% of women, right?) would see that she has made choices, even if she hasn’t quite realized it. If you had a 20-week fetal scan (sometimes called an Anomaly Scan) while pregnant, you have not only made choices but you overtly value the concept of choice. Though the scan has recently become yet another opportunity to participate in what I think of as the tradition of Fetus Fetish, where you may be given the option to pay $$$ to get a 3-d sonogram image to take home and play “baby” with, the scan is medically meant to check the development of the fetus for anomalies, to check a woman’s uterus for anomalies, to identify problems before they become life-threatening, for the fetus and for the woman, to identify problems with which someone who perhaps very much wants children might feel unequipped to deal, to identify problems so that one can choose what to do. This scan can be heartmaking (it really is amazing to see what a woman’s body can do) and it can be heartbreaking. What it cannot be is disconnected from reproductive choice.

And so, as much as I want to full-throatedly defend the right of teenagers and the poor to get the safe abortions they desire and/or need, I also want to shift the spotlight from them a bit, to take on a bit of the burden by arguing from the most privileged of positions that antiabortion’s lack of interest in my reproductive choices is a straight shot into the heart of that rhetoric’s fundamental cruelty. When I miscarried at 10 weeks a very wanted pregnancy, I awoke from the anesthesia after a D&C and caught a glimpse of the tissue that my doctor had removed from my body. The only thought that crossed my riven mind was that I couldn’t believe that there are politicians who think they could enter into that space—that space—in which almost anything can happen, in which lives get made and unmade, in which limits do not hold, a space in which my body does the work and pays the freaking bill.

Sarah BlackwoodTeam Bella


[1] Many might disagree with me here. See Soraya Chemaly’s recent piece on how “Personhood” rhetoric has the potential to criminalize pregnancy more widely.