The Myth of the Femuncula

Listening to MSNBC, Planned Parenthood, and other devout partisans of the new American sacrament of abortion rant about the reignited War on Women (if I have to hear Rachel Maddow repeat, grim frown in place, “THE GOP IS FORCING WOMEN TO BEAR THEIR RAPISTS’ BABIES!!!” one more time . . .), one claim stands out: No man has a right to tell a woman what to do with her body. Funny thing is, it’s a claim with which I agree 100%, even when I’m not crazy about some of the things we women choose to do with our bodies. Wanna get a tattoo, acquire Barbie boobs, paralyze your wrinkles away, have your stomach stapled, wax yourself as smooth as a bowling lane all over, have your fat cells vacuumed out, get more back than you were genetically endowed with, buy a new nose, ditch that old appendix? Go to, ma’am. As long as you’re an informed adult, it’s between you and your doctor / aesthetician / inker / beautician, and maybe your shrink if the problem’s not really physical.

But when it comes to abortion, it’s not only—in fact, not even largely, except in cases of a pregnancy’s causing an imminent threat to your health—your body we’re talking about. It’s the body of a child, a unique human person made up of two people’s DNA, yours and a man’s. That’s the thing nobody will talk about. I’m not even going to get into the whole gestational age thing, or talk about potentiality, or even speak here of my Church’s teaching (and that of basic biology) that a human life begins at conception. I’m not even going to go anywhere near the absolute disconnect in this country that leads us to believe that it’s defunding Planned Parenthood, and not having unprotected sex, that results in “unplanned” pregnancies. The point is, once you are pregnant, it’s not your body alone that’s involved.

That we’ve come to this place in society—the place where there’s a consensus among those who consider themselves educated and unsuperstitious and enlightened and liberated that pregnancy is simply a bodily process that occurs in human females alone and involves their bodies alone, or even more bizarrely, that it is a violation of a woman’s bodily integrity—is a real irony if you know anything about the history of science. Because for good long stretches of human history, the prevailing consensus was that the only way a woman’s body was involved in a pregnancy was as an oven, a crucible. It was thought to be all the man’s doing, and that each sperm was literally a seed containing within itself an entire copy of the man himself, which would express itself as either a male or female child after having been “planted” in the womb and brought to term. The little preformed child, known as a homunculus (Latin for “little man”), might occasionally pick up maternal traits like hair or eye color, but that was by simple environmental transfer in the womb—the way you might pick up a stripe of green across your backside from sitting on a freshly painted bus bench. Now THAT was a man controlling what a woman does with her body, using it as a flowerpot or a slow cooker.

We’ve evolved, of course, to use the President’s favorite word. Science long ago disabused men of the notion that they alone were responsible for shaping a new human life. We’ve lost some other misguided notions along the way, too: that an unborn child does not begin to live until the point of quickening (the first time the mother can feel the child move, usually around 4 months’ gestation), that a woman who looks at something frightening during her pregnancy will bear a monster, that a child born pre-term cannot survive, that genetic defects such as Down syndrome result in subhuman creatures who can never function or thrive, and yes, Mr Akin, even that women’s bodies reject the seed of “real” rapists.

One thing science hasn’t done, though, is validate the notion that an unborn child is part of a woman’s body, with no independent life or genetic profile of its own. As a matter of record, every new discovery takes us as far from that femuncula nonsense as from the homunculus theories of years past. The father’s contribution is not simply a passing irritant like ragweed pollen. A fetus that has implanted itself in the womb (at the very least) is not a piece of stray tissue, a lump of cellulite. Something that is a child when desperately wanted does not become a disposable body part when it is desperately unwanted.

In all the arguing, I’d just like somebody to admit that reality. I am not among those who think it would be right for my Church’s understanding of the beauty and wonder of God’s gift of sexuality to be made the law of the land, with punishments incurred for those that violate it. I would love, as Mitt Romney said (and was immediately branded as an extremist and misogynist for so doing), to have a consensus in this country that abortion was regrettable, and to have in place systems that would assure no woman ever felt she had to kill a child in order to live. That’s a big wish, but I’ll settle for people simply admitting that when we’re talking about terminating a pregnancy, we are talking about ending a unique human life to which both a man and a woman contributed equally. We should be having a conversation (all of us, left and right, Republican and Democrat, men and women, religious and atheist) about when, if ever, that’s the right decision to make—not denying that that’s the decision at all.

I don’t hold a lot of hope for that conversation, not in an election year when men (including the one in the White House) are shamelessly exploiting women’s bodies for votes. Not when the remarks of a man who holds insanely incorrect ideas about reproductive biology (and who—dear God!—serves on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology!) can be used to shut down the truth that a life is a life. Not when I’m having coffee with my best friend, who agrees that abortion is regrettable but thinks that without unlimited access to it women would be back under the thumb of the Big Oppressive Homunculus, forced to breed and go barefoot.

So I vent here. Thanks for listening.

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