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To Be a Mother

On February 24, in a direct attack on Roe v. Wade, the South Dakota House followed the Senate in approving a ban on all abortions except where a woman’s life is at stake. Today, Republican Governor Mike Rounds signed the bill, which is almost identical to the Texas law that Roe overturned in 1973. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, similar antiabortion proposals are in the works in seven other states: Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee.

The justification for this vicious piece of misogyny seems to be based on the following notions: (a) a woman is a mother from the moment a fertilized egg begins to grow in her body; (b) mothers are morally obliged to take care of their children at any personal cost to themselves; and (c) it is the state’s responsibility to force reluctant mothers to meet their moral duties to their children. I won’t waste my breath upbraiding the South Dakota legislators for their apparent indifference to the social context in which women are assigned these duties–a context where there is unrelenting violence against women, much of it perpetrated by husbands or boyfriends; where rape and lesser forms of sexual coercion are widespread; where mothers, not fathers, are almost solely responsible for hands-on childcare; and where social institutions and practices are systemically rigged to favor the interests of men over those of women. These points have been made many times before and I haven’t the heart to repeat them. Instead, I’m going to plead for a revised understanding of what pregnancy is. It’s when we think of pregnancy as something that happens to a woman rather than something she does – when we think of pregnant bodies as flowerpots, ovens, or incubators – that the awfulness of the particular kind of wrong about to be done to South Dakota women escapes our notice.

As I write this, my daughter is thirty-two weeks pregnant with her very much wanted first child. Like any human pregnancy, hers is not simply a biological process but a purposeful activity in which she is creatively engaged. For starters, she’s had to manage some pretty unrelenting nausea by learning, through trial and error, what foods she can tolerate and how often she needs to eat; this requires her to take packets of cheese, crackers, almonds, and so on to work with her so that food will be available right when she needs it. In her twentieth week she developed high blood pressure, so she bought an exercise machine and has been forcing herself to use it regularly. In her twenty-first week, she also developed gestational diabetes, requiring her to revamp her already restricted diet, prick her finger four times a day to check her glucose levels, and give herself a shot of insulin every night before bedtime. She goes to her doctor every two weeks to be monitored for these and other possible complications.

And then there is the ongoing work, which she shares with her husband and intimate others, of calling her fetus into personhood, weaving love and welcome around it, making a place in the social world for it to occupy as soon as it is born. My daughter does not think she was a mother the moment she conceived. She believes she is making herself into a mother as she brings her baby to term, and doesn’t expect to feel completely like a mother until a good month or two after the baby is born. Her view may be wrong, but there are no publicly available means of showing that it is wrong. Certainly, the South Dakota legislature is in no position to prove that it is wrong.

My daughter and her husband wanted this baby and conceived it intentionally. The hard work they are doing to bring their child into the world is a labor of love. But suppose her husband had walked out on her when he learned she was pregnant? Or suppose he was abusive and her contraception failed? Or she had an illness whose treatment involved powerful drugs that would cross the placental barrier and damage the fetus? For that matter, what if the fetus were anencephalic or had some other serious deformity? And what if my daughter had no health insurance, no family or friends to help her, no education to speak of, and no money? It’s pure happenstance that she is glad to be pregnant and is in a position to care for the child when it comes. Yet the State of South Dakota proposes to treat all pregnant women as if they were as lucky as she is. The thought that the state could force my child, irrespective of happenstance, to manage her food intake, exercise daily, self-administer insulin, and take up an attitude of hospitality and love toward her fetus revolts and angers me.

Significantly, what antiabortion legislation requires of women is quite different from what child-support legislation requires of delinquent fathers. To be sure, such fathers must pay child support, but they are never forced to what lawyers call “specific performance.” They aren’t required by law to change diapers, give baths, prepare and serve meals, help with homework, or take their children to soccer practice. All unwilling fathers have to do is pay up every month. Specific performance, in fact, is seen as a form of servitude that may lawfully be required only of conscripts when there is a clear and present danger to the state. It may not be imposed even on convicted felons. If a drunk driver smashes into your house, he might have to go to prison or (under certain victim compensation laws) pay for damages, but he doesn’t have to repair your brickwork or replace your broken door with his own hands. If your architect breaks her contract with you by failing to produce the agreed-upon blueprints, the court can impose a fine, but it can’t make her sit down at her drafting table and do the promised work.

And that, when all is said and done, is the difference the South Dakota legislators want to draw between actual fathers and expectant mothers. They want to hold pregnant women – who are innocent of any wrongdoing – to a punitive standard of specific performance, sentencing them against their will to the many kinds of hard work, physical discomfort, and outright danger that my daughter has undertaken to bring her wanted child into the world. No other class of people is held to this standard in peacetime. No woman should be held to it either.

If the South Dakota legislature is really serious about saving lives, it might consider distributing the gender burden more evenly by enacting a law that forces all able-bodied men to donate a kidney to someone who will die without one. That way they too would have to do something with their bodies to support someone else’s life–something a little like the creative and purposeful work that women do when they sustain a pregnancy. When that law is passed, and when women are no longer abused by social arrangements that favor men, then we can revisit this particular kind of specific performance. Until then, it’s hard to see the proposed bans on abortion as anything other than a gender-biased form of state-imposed slavery.


Readers respond

I really want to agree with what you are saying. And I mostly do. But for the most important part (i.e. the “issue”) I just can’t.

“The justification for this vicious piece of misogyny seems to be based on the following notions: (a) a woman is a mother from the moment a fertilized egg begins to grow in her body; (b) mothers are morally obliged to take care of their children at any personal cost to themselves; and (c) it is the state’s responsibility to force reluctant mothers to meet their moral duties to their children.”

If you substitute (a) with “the moment she has a child,” in the above, we accept it as a matter of course. No?

I agree with the men and “specific performance” part of your post. And I can see that pregnancy (potentially) sucks. But does avoiding this justify taking a life?

It appears that we must come to a resolution (as a society) on when the fertilized egg gets human rights (or in other words, when an abortion ok?). Even if men have no say, that is still the issue. Anyway, I would like a good reason to support a position (even if the position is that I should have no say) – but a position that appears to be (in most cases) abortion any time because pregnancy really, really sucks is tough to get behind.

To me the best reason (and the one that makes me pro-choice) is that an unwanted child is better off not being born. This probably a political loser.

I really want to understand why pregnancy is so horrible. My wife and I are both pro-choice, and we have kids. I have asked her and she says for her abortion wasn’t even a consideration. So I only have one data point. But I find it hard to believe that the reason women want abortions is just because pregnancy really sucks. I tend to believe that there is more to it than this (e.g. finances, life opportunities, freedom, stigma, etc.). If that is true, then maybe it’s these things that we should focus on.

Anyway, don’t hate me. I’m not a misogynist.

– Anonymous


This is thoughtful and kind and I don’t for a minute suppose you are a misogynist. You are right about the importance of the moral status of embryos here – I don’t see any way around that, and I’d argue that the legal debate goes nowhere unless abortions are morally permissible. If embryos really are children, though, we have very inconsistent social practices regarding children. Many embryos are sloughed off without the woman’s even being aware of it, yet we don’t have a custom of heightened awareness and catching each embryo as it leaves the body, funerals for embryos, periods of mourning, etc. And embryos aren’t assigned social security numbers. The inconsistencies aren’t definitive – maybe we should have these customs – but they suggest that we as a society don’t really think embryos are full-fledged persons.

A larger point. Even if embryos were children, there is a good argument for why the state shouldn’t compel anyone to use her or his body to sustain their lives. If a man had a child and she, God forbid, went into renal failure, the state can’t force him to give her one of his kidneys, and I believe none of us would want to live under a government that could compel this sort of thing. He might be despicable for not donating his kidney, but on the other hand he might have perfectly good reasons for not doing so, including reasons of health or the jeopardy to his career as an athlete or some other thing.

And finally, as I see it, the question on the table is precisely whether to bring a child into existence. Doesn’t it beg the question to simply assert that the child already exists?

– Hilde


I’m not a lawyer, just a family doctor. However, doesn’t the use of this doctrine of law involve penalties or the positive forcing of an intentional act that is not being done? The prohibition *against the initiation* of an intentional act of abortion doesn’t seem to quite fit.

– Beverly B. Nuckols


This is a good question as well. I checked with a lawyer who thought the legal argument was sound, though I’m sure there could be other ways of looking at it. The intentional act that is not being done here, as I see it, isn’t the initiation of an abortion; rather, it’s the sustaining of the pregnancy. That’s why I tried so hard to motivate the idea that human pregnancies are purposive activities, not passive states.

– Hilde


Well then, since there “could be other ways to look at it,” why not choose the non-violent, non-destructive and non-interventionist way that will preserve the life of the child as long as that life is not a threat to his or her mother’s life? And since the author has made the accusation of misogyny, I’d like to remind her that there is a 52% chance that the child in each human pregnancy is a female child.

However, the basic argument does not stand. The fact of human biology and developmental embryology in particular is that pregnancy is no more an “intentional act of sustaining” than ovulation or any other physiological phase of the menstrual or life cycle. The medical and surgical technology to prevent conception predate and may require less intervention that the act of abortion. They certainly do not require the level or complexity of intention that a medical or surgical abortion involves. Once fertilization occurs in vivo, no intentional act is necessary on the woman’s part for the pregnancy to continue. On the contrary, the woman must intentionally act if she does not choose to sustain the pregnancy. In the example Lindemann gives of her daughter’s “work” to sustain her pregnancy and to control high blood pressure and gestational diabetes is equally – if not more so – beneficial to the mother as it is to the child.

In the case of elective abortion prohibited by the South Dakota law, the intervention forbidden is the participation of regulated medical professionals, medicines, and instruments with the specific intention to abort the child. As far as the actual procedure required, there would be no difference whether the woman or a third party such as the State chooses that this child is not to be born.

In order to “motivate the idea that human pregnancies are purposive activities and not passive states,” Dr. Lindemann must redefine “mother” as well as “person.” She ignores common terminology used in biology, law and every day life. We are asked to agree that a woman is not a mother until she feels like it and that the embryonic, fetal, and even neonatal human is not a person until he or she is “called into being.” One of the readers at (“j2”) correctly observed after reading Lindemann’s essay that, “A mother in her world must give birth twice: once to herself and once to her perfectible child.”

Indeed, if personhood is determined by arbitrary measures such as each individual’s feelings about an individual human life, there is no security of individual “choice.” If the power to end human life belongs to any one in position to define the personhood of that human, accusations of misogyny or any other sort of discrimination become irrelevant. Of course the idea that Lindemann tries so hard to “motivate” not only requires her great effort to bring us to “a revised understanding of what pregnancy is,” but an esoteric redefinition of “personhood” that is not consistent with the legal precedent she defends – Roe v. Wade – and its benchmark of personhood beginning at birth.

Dr. Lindemann’s “personhood” would vary according to individual feelings without tangible qualifications and criteria, becoming even more arbitrary and transient than variations dependent on politics, religion, and tradition, rather than species. The status of each human life in this scenario is completely severed from common empirical observations and the predictions that we make from those observations in order to participate in science, law and society. We have moved beyond abortion to infanticide to feeling that someone is a person and deserving of protection from . . . whatever.

Dr. Lindemann says this “view may be wrong, but there are no publicly available means of showing that it is wrong.” If Dr. Lindemann is correct, we owe restitution to Andrea Yates and even Ted Bundy, not to mention all the men and women who were able to win others to share their particular feelings about personhood long enough to commit pogroms, racial cleansing, killing fields, purges, genocide and jihads. Or not, depending on how we feel.

– Beverly B. Nuckols


If Dr. Nuckols really does equate a woman who does not want to become a mother with Ted Bundy, the gulf dividing her views from mine is too wide for me to bridge. I don’t believe there’s anything I can add to what I’ve already said that would be useful here.

– Hilde

Published on: March 6, 2006
Published in: Health Care Reform & Policy, Human Reproduction

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