Erased from the dialogue

At Feminist Current, Susan Cox interviews Mary Lou Singleton.

Who gives birth? The answer used to be: females. Today, it’s considered politically incorrect to say that it is women, specifically, who get pregnant and become mothers. Thus, in the name of inclusivity, a number of women’s reproductive health groups are changing their terminology in order to degender the language of birth. Several organizations now refer to “pregnant people,” “pregnant individuals,” and “birthing parents” instead. Feministing writer Jos Truitt recently demanded we “Stop saying and stop thinking that abortion is a women’s issue.”

Well, okay then! Degendering women’s issues — I mean, “people’s issues” — is way progressive. But what are the costs of doing that? What are we losing in erasing women from the language of such a fundamental aspect of female bodily reality?

Mary Lou Singleton, midwife, feminist, and reproductive sovereignty activist recently addressed this question, along with many others, in an open letter to the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA). The letter asks MANA to reconsider the revision of their core competencies to remove all references to women and mothers. I recently spoke with her about these events and her upcoming actions at MANA’s annual conference.

It’s ironic, or something…The problem used to be that all women were assumed to be mommies or wannabe mommies, now the problem is that women are tactfully concealed from the whole child-bearing thing.

Susan: Is there a history of women and women’s anatomy being erased from language and the conceptualization of sexual reproduction?

Mary Lou: Absolutely. I mean we can look at the anti-abortion movement since the 70s — possibly even longer, since the women’s liberation uprising in the late 60s/early 70s that clamored for abortion rights, then with Roe v. Wade saying that abortion was legal and between a woman and her doctor — whenever women won abortion rights, the right wing began a huge campaign to erase women from language and focus on the fetus. They focused, instead, on the fertilized egg, the embryo, and the fetus, which they called the “baby,” when obviously it’s not actually scientifically a baby until it’s born. There’s a great Stop Patriarchy chant: “A baby’s not a baby till it comes out. That’s what birthdays are all about.”

But to the anti-choice crowd a fertilized egg is a baby, an embryo is a baby, a fetus is a baby. All of their literature is about these pictures of fetuses, these pictures of embryos saying, “I have a heartbeat at this many weeks.” “I have fingerprints at this many weeks.” And the woman is completely erased from the dialog. The only time the woman might be mentioned is when they use infantilizing terms like “mommy” — “Mommy don’t kill me!” Or sometimes they will call the pregnant woman a mother, when she’s not yet a mother. She’s a gestating female and she’s in the process of deciding whether or not to stay pregnant and she’s deciding whether or not to become a mother. Yet she’s put into this societal gender role of “mother” and this fetus is a “baby,” and never ever ever is the word “woman” mentioned. So there is an absolute erasure of women in the abortion debate on the right.

It was very much a calculated move on their part to erase women from the language of pregnancy and put their focus on “saving babies”… “Saving babies” by treating women like incubators, that is. “Saving babies” by forcing women to go through all the full physical and emotional risks of term pregnancies against their wills. “Saving babies” by enslaving women is the part of the conversation that’s never mentioned. And even in the liberal press, nobody calls them on that. The question isn’t: When does a fertilized egg become a human being? The question is: When does a woman stop being a human being and become a state-regulated incubator? So even on the left there isn’t a whole lot of advocacy for women as full human beings — full citizens with the right to bodily autonomy.

The whole thing is a tight unbreakable circle. Women are enslaved because they’re the ones who have the babies, and they can be enslaved this way because they are women – second class, subordinate, inferior – lesser, lower, slavish, thing-like, property. That’s why I think it’s a bad mistake to erase women from the politics of abortion and contraception rights: it’s because it’s political, and it’s political as the class of men subordinating the class of women.

Susan: This more current erasure of the role of women in reproduction reminds me of the way it’s been done throughout history, all the way back to antiquity. For example, Aristotle said that men provide the seed for reproduction and women are merely the soil. The idea being that the man’s sperm does everything to create the baby and the woman is merely the space in which it occurs — an incubator.

MaryLou: And isn’t that just what we’re still saying? By saying that life begins at fertilization, we are essentially saying that life begins at ejaculation. That a baby is something a man ejaculates into a woman.

Oh zing – so it is. I hadn’t made that connection before. I knew the Aristotle claim, and have cited it, but I didn’t connect it with the “life begins at conception” mantra.

MaryLou: Yes, they’re saying that it’s not something a woman creates with close to 10 months of physical labour — that’s what a baby is. A baby is a new human being that a woman creates over the course of 10 months of physical work. Life-begins-at-fertilization is saying that a baby is something that a man ejaculates into a woman and that woman is then obligated to bring that baby to term, because it’s a full human being at ejaculation. So… we haven’t progressed since Aristotle! [Laughs]

Susan: It’s as if men want to take credit for birth.

But Singleton goes on to say things I don’t agree with.

MaryLou: Yes, and women’s labour is made invisible all over the world. I mean, the world runs on the uncompensated labour of women. And that’s part of sex-based oppression. We have to be able to discuss that. In midwifery this is so important because midwifery is a place where women have authentic power. This is a woman’s tradition. It’s women’s work to give birth. You can’t think of a more woman-centered profession and reality than the place where we focus on gestation, birth, and early mothering.”

No, I don’t buy that. It’s too “essentialist” for my taste – too close to agreeing with the old idea I just mentioned, that all women are mommies or wannabe mommies, and that if they’re not there’s something wrong with them. It also excludes men, when the healthier approach is surely to involve fathers as much as possible. I think it makes sense to involve men in the birth process, but I think it does not make sense to delete the word “women” from the politics of abortion.

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