Here is a link to a wonderful account of the personal politics (politics are always personal) of abortion, by Laura Lannes and Candace Russel. For a very compassionate discussion of the way that women’s reproduction is determined unfairly by racial, economic, and national issues, check out this article, recently posted at Rewire. And here is an excerpt from that essay:
Eleven years ago I joined the fight for abortion access, after a 14-year-old parent, pregnant again by an adult, told me it was cheaper to pay friends $10 each to beat her up and force miscarriage than it was to afford an abortion. She said she would lose her housing if she was pregnant again, and that it would be easier to explain getting beat up to her family than wanting an abortion.
My uncle Lars (not his real name) was troubled for much of his life. He had three daughters by two mothers. Well after his daughters were grown, with children of their own, he impregnated a young Mexican woman–let’s call her Elena–and then had her imprisoned on charges that she was harming “his” fetus with substances. I do not know whether or not Elena used drugs or alcohol while she was pregnant. Uncle Lars alleged that she did, and managed have her locked up in a State prison for the duration of her pregnancy, directly in violation of her constitutional rights.
Here’s a very interesting article in the Guardian about the radical, paradoxical suffragette, stockbroker, clairvoyant, and publisher, who ran for president before women could vote. For a shorter version of her story, read this at History.
Martha Nussbaum, a famous philosopher and a woman who has, you might say, “made it,” in the patriarchal halls of philosophy and academe, has this to say to women who would seek justice when famous and powerful men rape them:
Law cannot fix this problem. Famous men standardly get away with sexual harms, and for the most part will continue to do so. They know they are above the law, and they are therefore undeterrable. What can society do? Don’t give actors and athletes such glamor and reputational power. But that won’t happen in the real world. What can women do? Don’t be fooled by glamor. Do not date such men, unless you know them very, very well. Do not go to their homes. Never be alone in a room with them. And if you ignore my sage advice and encounter trouble, move on. Do not let your life get hijacked by an almost certainly futile effort at justice. Focus on your own welfare, and in this case that means: forget the law.
Source: Martha Nussbaum on sexual assault
Do you agree with Jennysaul, below:
Nussbaum draws on her own experiences to discuss sexual assault by powerful men. Her main argument has a deeply depressing conclusion, consisting of advice to women:
My uncle Lars (not his real name) was troubled for much of his life. He had three daughters by two mothers. Well after all of them had children of their own, he took up with a much younger woman, “Elena”, and got her pregnant with a fetus that turned out to be male. He would have a son and was determined to name him after himself. Now, I do not know whether or not Elena used drugs, but he claimed that she did and managed to have her locked up in a State prison for the duration of her pregnancy. Whether a blood test was administered or not I cannot say. But I do believe that my uncle and the State violated her rights.
Why was he wrong? Because taking a woman’s autonomy away from her on the grounds that she is endangering her fetus treats her as though she herself is nothing more than a vessel, an incubator, a thing, an object to be used and abused. Such action pretends to protect the “unborn child,” the fetus, but actually serves the interests of those who take control of the expectant mother. In this case, my uncle’s interests overwhelmed Elena’s, and the State sanctioned this takeover. The fact that Elena was Mexican and poor, in addition to being female, made it harder for her to resist their assault.
In a well-known essay entitled, “Are Mother’s Persons?” (in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Berkeley, UC Press, 1993) Susan Bordo examines legal precedents and gendered attitudes toward the idea of a person as an embodied subject. She argues that men are allotted constitutional rights to bodily integrity that women are denied in our country.
For example, in the case of McFall v. Shimp (1979), the court protected the bodily integrity of a man who refused to donate his bone marrow to his cousin, who would certainly die of aplastic anemia without it). In fact, his cousin did die. In a similar case, a Seattle woman who pressed the court to force the father of her leukemic child donate his bone marrow was denied. The law sanctions these refusals on the grounds that a person is an embodied subject. Thus, as Bordo explains, the law of the land insists that,
the body can never be regarded merely as a site of quantifiable processes that can be assessed objectively, but must be treated as invested with personal meaning, history, and value that are ultimately determinable only by the subject who lives ‘within’ it. According to the doctrine of informed consent, even when it is ‘for the good’ of the patient, no one else–neither relative nor expert–may determine for the embodied subject what medical risks are worth taking, what procedures are minimally or excessively invasive, what pain is minor.
That is the theory of the embodied subject and informed consent. In practice, this doctrine has not been applied equally. Women, especially non-white, poor, or non-English-speaking women (women like Maribel), have been treated differently. As Bordo puts it, “the pregnant poor woman (especially is she is of non-European descent) comes as close as a human being can get to being regarded, medially and legally, as “mere body.”
Again and again the court has forced women to give birth against their will, or have forced women to have Caesareans in spite of their clearly stated, religious objections to the procedure. Women, particularly women of color, have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent. Consider these cases:
1985: Pamela Rae Stewart was charged with criminal neglect for failing to follow medical advice during her pregnancy.
1989: Jennifer Johnson, 23 years old, is sentenced to 15 years probation upon her conviction of delivering illegal drugs via the umbilical cord to her two babies.
1990 A Wyoming woman was charged by the police with the crime of drinking while pregnancy and prosecuted for felony child abuse.
1992: A 28 year-old homeless, pregnant, Native American woman, Martina Greywind, mother of six and addicted to paint fumes, is jailed for recklessly endangering her fetus by inhaling vapors. She is also sentenced (ironically) to 9 months on a State prison farm. She eventually won her release from jail and had an abortion.
A Massachusetts woman who miscarried after an automobile accident in which she was intoxicated was prosecuted for vehicular homicide of her fetus. (Bordo)
2008: A SC court overturns a conviction of Regina McKnight, who had already served 8 years in prison on the grounds that she had “murdered” her stillborn infant by using cocaine during her pregnancy. Source: Alternet
Does the State go after fathers for their drug habits, smoking, alcoholism, reckless driving, physcial and psychological abuse of pregnant women? No.
A recent study at the University of Bristol concludes that there is no evidence that a woman who drink moderately during their pregnancy endanger their fetuses.
Anti-abortion campaigns routinely ignore the personhood of the mother, arguing increasingly that the fetus, even at the zygote state, has more subjectivity than the woman in whose body it is lodged. In other words, “as the personhood of the pregnant woman has been drained from her and her function as fetal incubator activated, the subjectivity of the fetus has been elevated” (Bordo).
In other words, it is not only women’s reproductive rights that are being challenged, but women’s status as subjects, embodied persons with inherent rights to say what can and cannot be done to them, that are being threatened by the anti-abortion crusaders. These opponents of women’s autonomy have launched an assault against the personal integrity of women, whom they would reduce to fetal containers of beings whose rights exceed their own.
What makes pregnant women different than the kind of individuals that Locke, Hobbes, Descartes and others envisioned, is that women have the capacity to contain within the “other” within them. When we are pregnant we are not singular, and certainly we have a responsibility as ethical human beings to nurture the beings we intend to bring into the world. But we do not lose our bodily integrity and rights to self-determination the moment we become pregnant.
It is wrong to compel women to incubate a zygote or fetus that she does not wish to mother. It is also wrong to force her, with force, imprisonment, or other coercive measures, to behave in a way that others do not consider acceptable during her pregnancy because that denies her right to self-determination.
To finish the story, a few years after the birth of Lars Jr., my uncle committed suicide. No one knows where Elena took her son, who is my first cousin and the brother of my uncle’s three daughters. I don’t know why Lars killed himself, or whether Elena left him before he did so. There is a tragic justice to her disappearance. Why would she want to be associated with the family of a man who turned her into the police and had her jailed until she delivered “his” baby? I hope she returns to us. I would love to know her and welcome my unknown cousin to the fold.
Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.
I HAVE been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.
At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.
The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.
In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.
The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.
It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.
I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.
The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”
We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.
The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.
The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.
Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.
In our masculinist culture men and women, boys and girls, learn three fundamental untruths:
that masculine beings are superior to feminine beings;
that the mind is separate from the body; and
that feminine beings are more like things than beings and that they can in fact be reduced to their bodies because their minds do not really count.
A masculinist culture is one in which the first falsehood–that male beings are superior to feminine beings–is a dominant and central principle of religious, educational, political and family life.
When girls develop in such a culture, they learn to regard their bodies as things that are either
a) polluted, b) dangerous, c) tools with which to manipulate men; or d) all of the above.
This makes most women insane and depressed. From an early age we learn to regard our bodies as filthy yet seductive things that we can use to our advantage in relations with men. This is insane, as in the following definition from Webster’s Dictionary:
insane, adj. in a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction.
Men also learn from an early age that it is okay to use women’s bodies as things and then to throw them away when they are finished using them. This makes men insane and sometimes also slightly ashamed of themselves. Sometimes men feel soiled after using a woman’s body as a tool for their own gratification. Some religions teach men that they touch of a woman who is menstruating pollutes them spiritually as well as biologically. This is, of course, insane, a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, and social interaction.
We women learn to hold our bodies in certain ways, to suck in our stomachs, to teeter on high heels, to elevate our necks, to sway when we walk, to slide our legs deliciously together and apart. We are praised for being “feminine” when we do these things, and condemned and insulted if we can’t manage them.
Unfortunately, even those of us who are pretty good going along with the feminization project also get condemned and insulted. Generally this happens after we have been treated as things by men who are only too happy to blame us for having asked for it. To be embodied as a woman is considered a curse, a disability. Aristotle, who has exerted an enormous influence over western philosophy for the last thousand years, said that women were deformed beings, freaks of nature. Orthodox Jews thank Yahweh in their morning prayers for not having made them female.
Whether we position and drape our bodies in ways that our culture tells us are “feminine” and “attractive” or not, we are still told that our bodies are dirty. We are still called whores, bitches, sluts by people who refuse to believe that we are more than simply body-things.
But the truth is that we are not simply bodies, not simply things to be used, but rather whole, conscious beings whose minds are intricately connected to our bodies in ways that we still don’t fully understand. Emotions register as bodily sensations and bodily sensations–hormonal fluctuations, for example–register as emotions. Emotions trigger thoughts and thoughts trigger emotions. Bodily sensations trigger thoughts and thoughts trigger bodily sensations–adrenaline, the flight or fight response of our sympathetic nervous system. It is impossible to decide where the body begins and the mind ends.
Of course, this is what the masculinists have been telling us for thousands of years–that we as women don’t have transcendent minds, as they do, that we are governed by our emotions, that we either do not have any brains at all or that our brains are vastly inferior to those of men. This, of course, is nonsense, the sort of thing that we should recognize as the product of insanity, not wisdom. Men are no less affected by their hormones, their emotions, their impulses.
We women are embodied and our bodies are utterly mixed up with our minds. Therefore it is very important for us as women to keep track of what we are thinking and feeling about ourselves, and to understand how certain thoughts that we accept as real might only be responses to certain bodily sensations. At the same time, it is important to remember that certain bodily sensations and emotions might only be habitual response to certain thoughts that we have accepted as truths.
How do you feel when you tell yourself that you love your body? How do you feel about your body, and about yourself, when you accept the mass media representation of an ideal woman’s body?
Learn to re-wire your thoughts and emotional responses. Practice telling yourself that you love your body and remember how you feel when you say this. Practice recognizing how often you dismiss your body, or deride your body, or feel disgusted by your body. When do these thoughts arise? What brings them into your mind? When they come, catch yourself and say, “Nonsense! I love my body because I love myself! I am my body and my body is me, and I am a good woman.”
Take care of your body. Don’t eat so much that you feel sick; don’t drink so much that you can’t walk. Get exercise. Drink moderately. Stretch. Stay clean. Put lotion on your body and move your hands sensuously up and down and around your curves. Get enough sleep. Move languidly in your bed and feel how lovely it is to be embodied. Breathe consciously and notice how alive you are in your body; how wonderful it is to be alive, to be embodied, to feel, to see, to hear, to move, to touch, to taste, to speak–if you are lucky enough to be able to do all of these things. If you are not so lucky, then acknowledge what you do have, for you are still embodied, and your body is the not just the temple, but also the very structure, of your consciousness and spirit. You are your body and your body is you, and you are beautiful. You are a good woman.