Well, last week I talked about women's sexuality. The gist of that post is that women's sexuality is not defined by women, but by men, and as such is defined as being in relation to, or largely for the benefit of, men. Women are responsible for male sexual pleasure; we are expected to know what to do and how to do it, with the end goal being male orgasm and ejaculation. This has led to all sorts of problems for women, from sexual harrassment to rape to general misogyny as a result of a culture obsessed with the female body and that commodifies female sexuality for male profit. Feminists have been working against this conception of female sexuality, first and foremost to allow women to define our own sexuality on our own terms, but also to break down the heterosexual ideology about women's sexuality that oppresses lesbian and bisexual women.Along with discussions of sexuality naturally come discussions of reproduction. If women's sexuality has been defined in terms of male pleasure, then reproduction has been defined in terms of continuing the male bloodline, and women are responsible for both producing a (healthy) child and raising that child. To this end, the greatest value a woman has in a patriarchal society is to become a wife and mother. Feminists have long fought for women's reproductive autonomy, in order that women who do not wish to become mothers or cannot become mothers are valued, and in order that women who do wish to become mothers are not tied completely to either the role of mother or the role of belonging to a man.
Pregnancy and Childbirth have long been thought to be "the most natural thing in the world." Not that you'd know it, since both have been so highly medicalized. Pregnant women used to be left alone to gestate, and to take their chances with whatever child results. Today, pregnant women are subjected to a slew of tests and monitering procedures to ensure, primarily, the health of the fetuses they carry (the health of the mother is important, of course, as well, but mostly as a means to the end of a healthy child – or future healthy children). The most common prenatal test is, of course, the ultrasound, a technology orginally intended to track submarines. Ultrasound technology allows the doctor a look inside the mother's womb to see if the fetus is developing properly. If you have ever seen an ultrasound picture of a fetus, it's pretty tough to tell what's what… but now they have advanced technology that gives a 3D image of the fetus in great detail. Ultrasounds are standard procedure for pregnant women. But, did you know that ultrasound was used widely before the long-term effects of such a procedure were known, and that no standardized study of the safety of ultrasound in pregnancy has ever been done? Who knows – maybe ultrasound is the reason for the increase in cervical and uterine cancer in women. We do know that ultrasound has resulted in the abortion of millions of female fetuses. The real prize for a woman is to deliver a healthy baby boy.
Women are routinely encouraged to have more invasive tests, such as amniocentesis and maternal serum testing, to determine the disability status of the fetus. Women over 40 years of age are encouraged to undergo amnio testing, in which a large, long needle is inserted into the womb and some of the amniotic fluid is extracted and then tested. This procedure carries a risk to the fetus of puncture, and is painful for the pregnant woman. Increasingly, women whose fetuses test positive for disability – whether cognitive or physical – are encouraged to abort. this decision is often portrayed as "the right thing to do" because raising a disabled child is "so hard" and disabled people have a lessened "quality of life". Of course, some women refuse to abort for various reasons, but this practice is disturbing for three reasons. First, the woman is being treated as a mere vessel whose purpose is to produce a healthy child; she is first pressured into undergoing the testing, and then to abort unwanted "defective" fetuses – all in relation to propagating the father's seed. All this testing creates an invasion of pregnant women's bodies to "see" inside in order to ensure the successful production of a healthy fetus. Producing a healthy child is extremely valued – and producing an unhealthy or disabled child is then cast in opposition as a failure on the woman's part, since she is responsible for gestation. Second, this practice is deeply offensive to disabled people. Abled people have a deep misconception that life as a disabled person is not worth living. This is, of course, not at all true. Life may be more challenging, but life is more challenging if one is born a woman, or nonwhite, or homosexual. Do not mistake what I am saying: being a woman or nonwhite or homosexual is not a challenge in the same way as not being able to walk is a disability, or being in a constant state of physical pain. What I am saying is that disability is overblown by abled people as being the absolute worst state of being possible, so much so that many believe they would prefer to be dead. The truth about most disability is that disability is not really biological, but is environmental – if every environment were suitable to every person, there would be no such thing as disability. Imagine yourself born with a congential condition that prevents you from being able to walk. Now, imagine you have jsut turned on the TV to the news story that because of selective abortion and prenatal testing, your particular condition has been completely eliminated from the population of newborns – it has been effectively bred out of human genetics. How might you feel? Might you feel that you, and your life, was not valued by society? Third, all these prenatal tests are presented as increasing women's autonomy is terms of choosing what sort of child to have. But in truth, these choices are set up within a framework that is predetermined, primarily by men. Perhaps if mothers of disabled children were better supported by our society and government, more women would see raising a disabled child as a feasible option. It seems to me it is the framework that needs to change, not women.
The medicalization of pregnancy does not end with labour. Epidurals, which freeze the woman from the waist down, carry a risk of paralysis. Episiotomies, which surgically cut the woman's perinium toward the anus to reduce pushing time, have been found to be unnecessary and difficult to heal properly. Heart-rate moniters, which moniter the heart rate of the fetus during delivery, are uncomfortable for the woman and make her labour experience more difficult. Caesarian sections take a long time to heal. Infant newborns are immediately snatched from the mother to be checked by the doctor in order to be deemed healthy, thus validating the woman as a successful gestator. I could go on, but I have more to say on other topics.
Fertility is not something all women posess equally. Some women are not able to produce children. Since a woman's primary value in society is to produce (healthy) children, infertility is a major failure. Luckily, modern medicine has stepped in to find all sorts of ways to increase the chances of a successful impregnation. All of these methods are invasive to the woman – even in cases where the infertility is her partner's – and involve hormone injections (which produce mood swings, hot flashes, and excessive hair growth) in order to create an overproduction of ova. In vitro fertilization (IVF) involves extracting ova with a long needle inserted into the vagina and through the cervical opening, and artificial insemination (AI) involves injecting sperm into the uterus, again with a long needle. With IVF, the ova are fertilized outside the body and re-inserted. In both IVF and AI, since multiple ova are produced thanks to the horomone therapy, the risk of a multiple pregnancy is higher than normal. If this happens, the woman then has to decide whether to carry all the fetuses to term, which carries health risks for the fetuses and for herself, or to abort one or more of her prized fetuses. How sad this decision must be, especially knowing that it is possible the fetus(es) she does decide to carry may miscarry. So what is the responsiblity and contribution of the man in all of this? Ejaculation into a cup.
Again, what is at issue is that these fertility options are presented as ways to increase women's autonomy. However, if the value of women was placed differently, more women would be free to choose NOT to undergo these invasive and expensive treatments. All women would be valued intrinsically, rather than valued only as relational to men and as a means to men's interests.
Abortion is the last topic I will tackle, but briefly, in relation to women's reproductive freedom. I've posted on abortion before, but I'll recap here. In order to truly enjoy sexual freedom, abortion must be an option. It has been deemed a human right of women to determine the number and spacing of their children, by the UN and WHO, no less. Without going into the ins and outs of the debate over when life begins, I will state that my opinion is that it doesn't matter when life begins. The woman's rights, as a fully developed human moral agent capable of reason and emotion and autonomy, are more important than the rights of a fetus, a nonperson, a potential person, or whatever you want to call it. (For a more detailed argument on this line, see Judith Jarvis Thomson's A Defence of Abortion.) If abortion is not an option for women, then the "rights" of an unborn person, a nonperson, are placed higher than the rights of a fully developed person, namely the woman in question. But then, what else is new? The interests of the male power block – in this case, perpetuating the family name and bloodline – outweigh those of women. The main opposers of abortion are, surprise surprise, the big C Church, the original oppressors of women.
Abortion is coming under fire again. In the US, famously now, South Dakota has passed legislation preventing women from accessing abortions – EVEN in cases of rape and incest. In New Brunswick, the only hospital providing abortions has just announced it will no longer provide the service, leaving the provincial government to scramble to find another facility to offer abortions. In Canada, abortion is not prohibited in any way; medical guidelines are the only ones in place to determine when the cut-off for abortions is, and in cases of grave risk to the mother, late term abortions are performed. I have heard rumblings about the new conservative government wanting to challenge abortion law in Canada. I can't tell you how upsetting this is. Abortion is absolutely necessary for reproductive – and sexual – freedom.
In countries where abortion is not legal or accessible, women who are raped are forced to carry the resulting fetuses to term – if they are physically able, or are not beaten or murdered by male relatives trying to preserve the family's honour. This is used to advantage by warlords, who sanction the mass rape of hundreds of thousands of women in order to ethnically cleanse the population of their enemy. How can women in these circumstances ever achieve sexual freedom? They have no control over their own reproduction, their own bodily integrity, their own autonomy to choose with whom to have a family. Abortion is aboslutely necessary in order to preserve women's rights.