There’s something deliciously transparent about the masculine anxieties guiding William Saletan’s latest two hand-wringing pieces on how yeah, yeah, abortion should be legal, but omigod moral ambiguity. Thus, his tin ear to the notion that women are full human beings with every right to decide whether or not we shall continue to do work when the terms of the contract change is rather astounding. The devaluation of women as laborers is exactly why I say that feminism is an economic issue, and honestly, the attitudes he expresses about women’s right not to form a new human being with our own bodies if we don’t want to explain as much about why there’s a persistent pay gap between men and women as anything else. But less upfront framing, more quoting, right?
Would you abort a fetus just because it wasn’t yours?
I’m sick of supposedly pro-choice people who engage in non-medical language like this—you abort the pregnancy, and the woman (remember her?) is the patient. She has a condition she would like to go away. So you stop, aka, abort the process. But really a minor detail compared the obvious issue with this opening statement: In the view of anti-choicers, all abortions are due to a woman aborting someone else’s fetus. That fetus was made by the father and belongs to god, and a mere woman has no right to touch it. Plus, it’s assumed that no woman really wants to—childbirth is submission to our feminine destinies, and we may resist that up front (because we’re sinners), but if we submit, we’ll be happy we did.
But what Saletan is talking about is an unfortunate situation where a doctor’s office mixed up two embryos, and implanted the wrong one in a woman. This all happened in Japan, a relevant detail because of what happened next, which is that the woman who had the wrong fetus inside her decided to abort at 8 weeks. (Saletan makes this sound like it’s far in a pregnancy, but in fact the Guttmacher uses that as the defining point for really early abortions.) Saletan viciously characterizes the woman who chose abortion as finicky, and even hints that there was a second screw-up, or could have been:
Or, rather, because it may have come from the wrong family. Remember, the first two embryos that went into the woman were hers. For complex reasons, the doctor inferred that the one that had grown was the third one. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, doctors told the woman on Nov. 8 that “it was not possible to confirm the source of the fertilized egg at that time, but they could analyze the mother’s amniotic fluid in six weeks. However, if she waited that long, it would be too late to terminate the pregnancy.” Apparently, the fetus was subsequently discarded, leaving no way to settle the question.
He goes on at length, describing it as aborting a “child” and suggesting that any decent pro-choicer would find the situation agonizing (because of the “child” thing), and he pits the “bad” woman who had the abortion against the “good” woman who may or may not have lost an embryo, and who needs it more because she’s 40. Really, the whole thing is disturbing, because he gets so hung up on these details, he glosses over the fact that the case is fundamentally about a woman who decides that she doesn’t want to give her body over to develop a child that isn’t hers. And that’s her right. As a decent-minded pro-choicer who remembers that women are people, too, I’m appalled at the idea that we would even consider coercing or bullying a woman into bringing a child into the world with her body to make a complete stranger happy. That Saletan expects such an immense sacrifice of self—and of time the woman could spend trying to start another pregnancy that she wants—speaks to a belief that women’s sacrifice is expected and not appreciated, that our labors are simply worth less than those of men. Look, I think the fact that I feed my cat every day and change her box should mean that she’s my cat, and I’m not going to magnanimously hand her off as proof that I’m a good, self-sacrificing woman. I can only imagine how rough that pressure is if you made a child with your own body. In fact, I don’t have to imagine—birth mothers don’t speak out as much (probably because they don’t want to break the taboo that adoption is nothing but rainbows and roses), but when they do speak about the profound loss they’ve suffered, it’s devastating.*
Saletan, I suspect, sympathizes more with the woman who made the embryo than the woman who aborted the pregnancy, because the woman who made the embryo is, to be blunt, in a position that’s closer to what a man could find himself in than a woman. But he’s being myopic beyond just his male-centric worldview—he’s also being American-centric. He’s assuming that people’s views about abortion are universally held, and that the universal tailors close to what he, William Saletan, believes. But while Japan’s take on abortion is probably just as complicated as America’s, it’s complicated in much different ways. Abortion was legalized in Japan in 1948, but the pill was only legalized in 1999. It’s still not popular (condoms are favored), and the Japanese birth rate is really low, so the only conclusion is that they use abortion…..a lot. Some people like to point to the Japanese tradition of offering a small bribe to a temple to keep the ghosts of children not born from haunting you as proof that the Japanese are just as nutty anti-abortion as Americans, but I’m not buying it. Routine religious observations don’t necessarily tell us squat about lived beliefs. None of this is to say that I know exactly what’s going on, but I’m offended at Saletan’s assumption that we can project our attitudes on them.
Essay #2 is along the same lines, only the “women’s labor is less valuable” assumptions underlying the abortion debate are more obvious. A company that arranged surrogacy agreements took money from a bunch of couples and then didn’t pay the surrogates. Color me unsurprised—the baby-getting industry is rife with this sort of sleazy behavior. Which isn’t to slam all of it, of course. There are a number of respectable, progressive agencies working with in fertility treatment, adoption, and surrogacy. But there’s a lot of fertility specialists who fudge their numbers, adoption agencies that are affiliated with misogynist religious organizations, black market baby traders who may even steal babies, and of course, you have major anti-choice activists who’ve been caught trying to buy babies from desperate women.
But what this means is that a group of employees are being asked to work for no pay. If they weren’t women who were already subjected to sexist romanticizing about the sacrificial feminine nature, I doubt that anyone would even be concerned for a moment if they chose to abort, especially since surrogate mothers are subject to all sorts of discrimination. None have chosen to abort, which just makes Saletan’s anxiety even more suspect. Apparently, it’s a problem that women even have the option to refuse to work for no pay. That he technically accepts this right only mediates the offensiveness of his stance—if he really respected women, he wouldn’t even consider such a right to be an excuse to pearl clutch.
Again, I have to point out that the context for this hand-wringing is, as Amy Benfer noted, that this lack of legal control over a woman’s choice to terminate or continue a pregnancy is SOP for men. Now, that’s legal control—socially, many people still operate as if men have the final word over what women do with their bodies, which is why MRAs can generate so much outrage when a man’s wishes for a pregnancy outcome are overruled by the woman who is actually pregnant. That’s why Saletan’s hand-wringing is so damn offensive, because he’s concern trolling the idea that a woman’s right to control her body is for real, and no one should have a trump right over that. Personally, I consider the social beliefs that women don’t have a right to abort (or use contraception) if they damn well please to be nearly as big an issue as legal access, because the authority that parents, boyfriend, churches, husbands, and other people have over a woman’s life can feel and therefore be as real as the government’s authority. If, for instance, you fear violence if you make certain choices, then you aren’t free to choose, are you? But here’s Saletan, feeding into the idea that a woman’s right to her own labor and control over her body is, if not a legal issue, subject to exactly that sort of social pressure that feels as real, and sometimes more real, than legal authority.
*Not that all birth mothers feel this way, of course. But there’s a reason that most women who are “supposed” to give babies up for adoption don’t, and there’s a reason that they had to tie pregnant girls to tables, force them to deliver, and take the baby away before the mother even saw it in the 50s and 60s.