IN a production-based economy, female fertility is valuable so long as a woman produces in the correct way, the correct context. To borrow Heidegger’s phrase, female fertility is “standing-reserve” – “ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so it may be on call for a further ordering” (The Question Concerning Technology). For a thing defined as standing-reserve to intrude itself where uninvited causes scandal in this technologically ordered society.
In accepted contexts pregnancies have always been celebrated with rituals – religious, political, or domestic. But these rituals have been subsumed by the market, as producers capitalize on the “nesting instinct” and the anxiety of motherhood to creating new desires, subtly transmuting the novel into the necessary. In order to be a good mother one has to purchase the required things, paint the nursery the required color, and conform to the idealized images of pregnancy and motherhood promulgated by the market. Pregnancy as a bourgeois event is celebrated with images of the pregnant body (emphasis on a beautifully rounded belly protruding from a girlish slim form), the joy of nesting (emphasis on large clean airy rooms with hip paintings), wholesome foods (expensive, but worth it!), and even scripted dialogue in which acceptable positive and negative commentaries are predetermined. You can complain, but you have to do so joyously, humorously, and not too much. Pregnancy depression is a myth in this world. The inconvenient pregnancy is never mentioned.
For “family values” groups, pregnancy also becomes both fetish and taboo, but with different emphases. The married pregnant mother is beautiful (and necessary, since her reproduction has become part of a culture war to outbreed the opposition) – whereas the unmarried pregnant woman is offensive (a drain on resources, as well as a violation of the very family values that are supposed to be perpetuated by female fertility).
In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes about how aggressively marketed images of beauty weigh upon women. “We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth.” Wolf touches very little upon the way pregnant or post-partum women are especially vulnerable to this, but it is true. Our swelling bodies, stretched and mottled skin, sagging breasts, waddling gait – even our inability to participate fully in the rituals of both work and play in capitalist culture – contrast sharply with the infinite parade of images of what women are supposed to be. Ironically, attempts to celebrate the “beauty of pregnancy” end up providing yet another array of images to which most of us can’t live up. Underlying this is a bootstrap mentality, unfortunately often promulgated by women themselves, a notion that if we just worked harder, wore the right clothes, adopted the right attitude, we too could be that beautiful glowing slender woman with the adorable belly, nurturing her newborn with her full and glamorous breasts.
I am very much a proponent of absolute acceptance of breastfeeding, as uncovered as you like, in whatever aesthetic suits your fancy – but many of the images glorifying the “beauty of breastfeeding” leave some women self-conscious about not being able to nurse beautifully enough – or worse yet, shaming women who for a variety of reasons aren’t able to nurse their babies.And these images are almost inseperable from money.
When it comes to low-income women who have poor health, or too many children already, or are unmarried, or dependent on social welfare, society does not celebrate pregnancy. It is not beautiful anymore. It has intruded itself where uninvited. It is not useful. It is not productive – of the right product, that is. Poor women are supposed to produce labor. Well-off women are supposed to produce well-off, clean, healthy, beautiful, charming, dutiful citizen babies.
That the Left’s answer to this is often “abortion” shows just how capitalist it is, and just how little capitalist systems value persons.
Abortion has become a necessity for this system. The value of the individual in this system is relative to utility / productivity, so women who have gotten pregnant in the unaccepted context are devalued, and gotten rid of. A deferral than occurs – the unborn child is devalued, and gotten rid of. But the decision to devalue was not, initially, that of the woman. It is already the attitude of her society.
To those employers who value employees based on what, when, and how much they produce (a woman was not hired to produce a baby!), abortion is a necessity. This includes employers who profess to be pro-life. Our entire utilitarian system buzzes along as it does because of our unmentioned methods of disposing of those who are not useful to us.
We elevate female fertility in accepted contexts (whether in secular ads depicting idealized bourgeois home life, or pop theology delectating over the beauty of motherhood) but push it aside when inconvenient. We push out of sight the offensive pregnancies, placing the burden of care for the child on a marginalized woman. While pro-choice advocates offer her abortion as the only obvious alternative, it doesn’t seem much of a choice if there’s no other option. Meanwhile, the Right demands that she not make this choice – but offers her no viable alternative.
In order to minimize the demand for abortion, we need reframe our view of pregnancy, beyond the system of capitalist production.
If we see a fragile life in peril, and there is something we can do to protect it, and we opt not to because it “isn’t our responsibility” or it’s “inconvenient”, can we call ourselves pro-life?
I need to ask myself this question, seriously. Insofar as I buy into a production-based value system, insofar as I exclude those who are inconvenient or embarrassing, can I call myself pro-life?
Of course, it is not necessarily easy to eschew a dominant narrative which tells us repeatedly to relativize human value, that encourages us to bracket out and ignore any obstacles to our own personal material success. It might entail making sacrifices, daily. It might mean paying workers more, and taking home less. It might mean paying into collective efforts to help the poor.
But please consider this: if an employer says it’s “impossible” to pay for a temporarily non-productive employee – if an earner says it’s “impossible” to give up more in taxes, to help those in need – then how much more impossible must it be for an impoverished working mother of three to support another child?
Our mask of virtue depends on our scapegoating of the pregnant woman – and thus her unborn child. It’s a cheap mask, since all we need to do to claim it is sport the right bumper stickers on our vehicles, or occasionally go to a march or rally.
Let’s make being pro-life more difficult – for ourselves.