Liberalism cannot simply be extended to the uterus. Reproductive justice requires a vision of the social body.
July 12, 2021
Jul 12, 2021
32 Min read time
Liberalism cannot simply be extended to the uterus. Reproductive justice requires a vision of the social body.
Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood
Cambridge University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
What God Is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color
Edited by Shannon Gibney & Kao Kalia Yang
University of Minnesota Press, $19.95 (paper)
Jump the Clock: New and Selected Poems
Nightboat Books, $19.95 (paper)
When anti-maskers adopted “my body, my choice” as their rallying cry, miming the language of pro-choice activists, critics on the left were quick to note the nonsensical associations at play: a person making a decision about her own pregnancy is poles apart from someone who risks exposing their community to a disease.
The reproductive rights movement’s most famous phrase, “my body, my choice,” fails to capture a vision of collective bodily freedom.
But the adoption of the phrase by conservative and libertarian protestors reveals deeper issues in the language itself. Indeed, the reproductive rights movement’s most famous phrase has long been criticized for its failure to capture a vision of collective bodily freedom. “Choice,” writes legal scholar Michele Goodwin in her landmark new analysis Policing the Womb, “was not intended for the women thought unworthy of childbearing.” Instead, what leaders of the early twentieth-century birth control movement intended for poor and otherwise unworthy women was sterilization. Choice—or really, a very narrow set of choices—was reserved for married women, white and non-immigrant women, and women with the means to “choose” the kind of family we still recognize as normative.
There is always a strange and terrible paradox at the heart of U.S. individualism—namely, that it’s not for everyone. Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), the activist who popularized the phrase “birth control,” was hardly more interested in the universal application of concepts such as choice, privacy, and rights than anti-maskers are today. The pursuit of freedoms for one class of people has often meant treading heavily upon the freedom of others. This puzzling flaw is perhaps built into the notion of the Western individual himself, that swashbuckling figure critic Karen Weingarten describes as “the autonomous, self-reliant, individual citizen whose singular rights must be protected above all.” To the extent that demands for “choice” bank on the kinds of rights afforded to ostensibly self-reliant citizens, it might not be so nonsensical to hear echoes of strident liberalism in the pro-choice catchphrase.
In truth, catchphrases are rarely capable of addressing such thorny questions as what it means to be an individual while belonging to a social body. The three books considered here provide a kaleidoscopic view of how that question can be answered, flipped, revised, and even fruitfully dismissed. In doing so, they showcase the formidable range of analyses that Black women, Native women, and women of color have brought to bear on questions that are central not only to reproductive and racial politics but to politics at large. From Goodwin’s acute legal scholarship to poet Erica Hunt’s new and selected work, from anthologized essays on pregnancy loss by emerging nonfiction writers such as Jami Nakamura Lin to poems by icons such as Lucille Clifton, these writings signal a profound challenge to the notion of the self-reliant, individual citizen. In its place, they gift us with understandings of self and society that are capacious and complex.
• • •
However not all challenges to the notion of “choice” are terribly complex. Goodwin underscores one of the simplest reasons why choice is inadequate as an orienting principle of reproductive liberty, which is that it has become nearly synonymous with abortion. And while abortion access is key, reproductive equity concerns much more than that. “Imagine,” Goodwin writes, “if civil rights leaders, advocates, and pundits during the racially oppressive Jim Crow era had narrowed their version of civil rights to school integration.”
Though abortion access is key, reproductive equity concerns much more than that. We need to deal with “the vulnerability of women’s personhood.”
Criticisms of abortion’s singular position within the reproductive rights movement began early. By 1994 the most powerful of these critiques had crystallized in the form of the burgeoning reproductive justice movement, initiated by a coalition of twelve Black women—including Loretta J. Ross and Toni M. Bond Leonard—working in reproductive health and social justice advocacy. Together they called for a shift in thinking about reproductive politics. As the reproductive justice framework gained traction, advocates continued to acknowledge the importance of abortion access in Black, Indigenous, and poor women’s lives, but also highlighted that people do not choose in a vacuum; choices are profoundly limited by issues of race, class, ability, and environment. What’s more, the reproductive justice movement’s attention to maternal and infant mortality, HIV/AIDS, intimate partner violence, mass incarceration, affordability of health care, and other issues disproportionately impacting marginalized women brought attention to longstanding gaps in the mainstream reproductive health platform. Abortion didn’t become that platform’s raison d’être simply because the procedure is stigmatized, but because the mainstream movement’s mostly white, middle-class leaders were positioned to see little else.
Goodwin calls on twenty years of research to illuminate and extend many of the reproductive justice movement’s decades-old insights. Just as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow brought public attention to how the prison system reproduces the conditions of racial slavery, Policing the Womb exposes a new era of reproductive policing and harm in the United States that has gone largely unnoticed, even while it repeats histories of eugenics and forced reproduction. Goodwin documents skyrocketing instances of criminal interventions in women’s pregnancies, aided by doctors and nurses, that have resulted in a wide range of extralegal punishments.
The book begins with the story of Marlise Muñoz, a Texan woman who in 2013 suffered brain death and literally rotted while doctors refused her husband’s appeals to remove the machines. “The medical staff know that she is dead,” Goodwin recounts, “but they must follow the Texas law, which ignores death, do-not-resuscitate orders, medical directives, and living wills . . . if the patient is pregnant.”
As conservative legislators bolster fetal protection laws, they give prosecutors the means to criminalize and punish pregnant women.
Policing the Womb goes on to consider a torrent of stories involving forced cesarians and hysterectomies; involuntary bedrest; pregnant women denied chemotherapy and other lifesaving treatments; coerced sterilization in exchange for plea deals; incarcerated women giving birth in chains or unassisted in solitary confinement; fetuses entitled to court-appointed lawyers; newborns taken away from indigent mothers; and pregnant people forced into deadly or dangerous childbirth. The picture that emerges reveals extreme state cruelty and hostility toward the “invisible” women of Goodwin’s subtitle.
Most of these incidents are prompted by unprecedented applications of fetal protection laws, which were originally developed by feminist advocates to protect pregnant women against intimate partner violence. Now, as conservative legislators across the United States reinterpret and bolster such laws, they give prosecutors the means to criminalize and punish pregnant women themselves for behaviors deemed inappropriate during pregnancy, including falling down stairs, refusing cesarian sections, attempting suicide, and suffering drug addiction. In sounding an alarm bell, Goodwin not only draws notice to these profound breaches of poor and Black women’s dignity and constitutional rights, but warns that such breaches are a harbinger of things to come. Reproductive justice trailblazer Loretta J. Ross tells Goodwin that women of color “are the roadkill on the pathway to policing white women’s pregnancies.” Goodwin concludes that we need to deal not simply with the vulnerability of isolated reproductive rights, such as abortion, but “the vulnerability of women’s personhood.”
• • •
“Personhood” is something the legislative authors of fetal protection laws discuss frequently, calling to imbue “the unborn” with it as though the personhood of pregnable people were already self-evident and secured. I imagine Goodwin uses the word strategically; Article I of her proposed Reproductive Justice Bill of Rights asserts, “The personhood of all women shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex; the personhood of a woman shall at all times take priority in all matters, including concerns related to her health and dignity.” As a pregnable person, I feel moved by these words, which remedy some of the sorrow and humiliation I feel in response to declarations about the “personhood” of fertilized ova, embryos, and fetuses, heavy-handed assertions that always make me feel as if I—in all my thinking, learning, loving, and reckoning—have fallen off the face of the Earth.
The congruity between legal personhood and maleness, particularly white maleness, points to one reason why white reproductive rights activists have relied on “choice” for so long.
At the same time, Goodwin recognizes that “law serves a profound role in the making and unmaking of persons.” Who gets to be a person, and who does not? Personhood, like “rights,” is a concept of guarantees that are at once fundamental and precarious; if one’s personhood and the rights which purportedly attend it were assured, there would be no battle to enshrine oneself as a person by law. Weingarten writes:
Life is imbued with meaning when the law surrounds it and anoints it with subjectivity and individuality as a means of dividing those that count from those that do not. However . . . this decision says less about whatever matter is granted the status of legible life and more about those doing the deciding and what that means in terms of how their lives count and have meaning.
Goodwin astutely describes the history of U.S. law not as a slow-but-steady confirmation of God-given rights for all, but as lawmakers’ creation of special, unnatural privileges for themselves. In other words, lawmakers have long been happy to anoint themselves (and those they value) with individuality. Considering the rigged nature of “normative American personhood,” critic and poet Fred Moten concludes in an interview for the Africa World Now Project podcast,
We didn’t just want to be included in this thing as it is already structured, because we knew that the way that this thing was already structured was based upon our exclusion, that that was a logical fallacy that we could ever be citizens of this place. . . . I’ve always been interested in how, . . . for me, black culture is an expression of a desire for something other than that, something more than that.
That many of the most brilliant objections to the veneration of personhood come from thinkers working in reproductive politics and Black Studies (or, as Moten would have it, Black Study) is not surprising. Those whose subjects have been continually overwhelmed by the fanfare around white people’s and men’s individualism are perhaps less enchanted by the possibilities of personhood. Thinkers such as these have been well positioned to ask: What happens when that autonomous, self-reliant individual encounters another individual? And what if that other individual happens to be the very large and inconveniently absolute body in which he gestates?
In holding pregnant people responsible for stillbirths, miscarriages, and low birth weights, prosecutors ignore that detriments to fetal health are frequently out of a pregnant person’s control.
That masculinity is integral to personhood is clear from lawmakers’ language. Goodwin quotes Kansas state representative Dick Jones: “The moment of conception when the finger of life is touched to that fetus, to that egg, it becomes a human being with all the inherent rights.” Certainly one can imagine many metaphors for the passage between being and nonbeing, but Jones’s “finger of life” seems more literal than figurative. The congruity between legal personhood and maleness, particularly white maleness, points to one reason why white reproductive rights activists have relied on “choice” for so long. Because we are adjacent to white men, because we are their daughters and sisters and wives, we have often operated on the assumption that we ourselves are, or are just one step from becoming, autonomous citizens. We have largely been slower than women of color to acknowledge that liberalism’s autonomous individual isn’t, can’t be, and never was intended to be everyone, because he fundamentally requires an “all” above and against which his rights (and property) are protected.
However, the most profound reason why “my body, my choice” doesn’t cut it is simply that pregnant women, as Goodwin makes clear, “do not exclusively control fetal health.” In holding pregnant people responsible for stillbirths, miscarriages, and low birth weights, prosecutors ignore that the most significant detriments to fetal health—poverty, environmental harms, access to prenatal care, paternal age and health, and domestic violence—are frequently out of a pregnant person’s control. Studies Goodwin cites conclude that poverty has a far greater effect in children’s lives than gestational exposure to crack cocaine. This point is important because prosecutors and medical personnel have used fetal protection laws to target users of crystallized cocaine, who are overwhelmingly Black, while they have largely avoided bringing criminal punishment against women who use alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription drugs during pregnancy. Nor have users of assisted reproductive technology been prosecuted for the poor fetal health outcomes associated with those tools. Moreover, there is the simple reality that pregnancies go wrong all of the time with no traceable cause.
Holding some women criminally accountable for their pregnancy outcomes reveals the terroristic nature of the United States’ obsession with individual responsibility. It also reveals individualism as a double-edged sword: at the same time that the state forces indigent pregnant women to assume a kind of hyper-responsibility for harms caused by poverty and environmental degradation (harms which the state itself is indeed responsible for mitigating), it also declares these women “containers” and “maternal environments.”
The state punishes these women for being poor, being Black or brown, being pregnant—which is to say, for being at all.
By what logic do lawmakers reduce pregnant people to repositories, stripping them of all agency, while also regarding them as singularly in control? Moten clarifies: “The genocidal erasure of entanglement and difference is the culmination, and not the refusal, of the metaphysics of individuation.” In other words, what we risk when we put stock in individualism is not only the loss of interconnection. We also risk the obliteration of variety and the glossing over of disparity. There is perhaps no sphere in which the basic inoperability of the metaphysics of individuation—or of the promise to universally extend “singular rights” that are “protected above all”—becomes so clear as it does in pregnancy. Nor can I think of any realm besides pregnancy in which to erase either entanglement or difference is so clearly to erase reality.
• • •
Goodwin is especially sensitive to the ways women of color have been left out of discussions about mass incarceration and the war on drugs, which tend to highlight the harms these systems cause to Black men. And considering how integral reproductive policing is to the work of systemic racism, Policing the Womb makes it difficult to understand why the mainstream reproductive rights movement hasn’t counted such harms as central to reproductive politics. This kind of selective inattention within social movements mirrors and abets the discriminatory attention paid to marginalized pregnant women by the criminal justice system. It’s that selectivity—that the state so clearly targets some women and not others, operating on “the profoundly inaccurate assumption that poor women behave in riskier ways during their pregnancies than their middle-class or wealthy counterparts”—which leads Goodwin to wonder about the intended outcomes of reproductive policing. States may proclaim an interest in fetal and maternal health, but the United States fares poorly in both realms.
So poorly, in fact, that we are actually regressing. The United States now leads the developed world in sexual disease and infection transmission, unintended and unwanted pregnancy, and maternal and infant mortality. We rank behind countries such as Serbia and Bosnia for maternal safety, and behind Libya and Saudi Arabia for maternal mortality. And the statistics are worse for Black women. Not only are Black women four times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts, but they are ten times more likely to be reported to child protection services. They are also more likely to be incarcerated while pregnant, birth and/or parent behind bars, and lose parental rights.
In calling the law to be beholden to itself, Goodwin is straightforward: “as the laws described in this book claim to relate to fetal health,” she writes, “states should be made to demonstrate how such policies actually promote fetal health.” This is so profoundly obvious that it makes clear that cruelty is not an unintended effect of otherwise well-meaning policies, but their orienting principle: “Birthing in a [prison] toilet or on a rodent-infested floor demonstrates cruelty—not dignity, care, and fetal or child interest.”
The United States now leads the developed world in sexual disease and infection transmission, unintended and unwanted pregnancy, and maternal and infant mortality.
Fetal protection laws, Goodwin concludes, are not about promoting fetal health, protecting state property interests in the fetus, or even chipping away at abortion rights. Rather, they express “the extralegal desire to punish and shame vulnerable women.” Pro-life lawmakers and prosecutors do not care about all embryos and fetuses equally, or rather they care about embryos and fetuses only as symbols of morality and purity. Against that symbolism, all pregnant and pregnable people stand at risk. For women already deemed immoral, pregnancy becomes an automatic site of punishment. Their crime is not prenatal conduct; the state punishes these women for being poor, being Black or brown, being pregnant—which is to say, for being at all.
• • •
The degree to which pregnant people disappear from the conversation when some commentators turn their attention to fetuses is telling. As a symbol, the fetus has accrued so many of the trappings of autonomous individualism that his appearance on the rhetorical scene often wipes out anyone else who might happen to be lurking around. If the fetus is created in the image of the white father, “whose singular rights must be protected above all,” what else is there to do with a pregnant person but disappear her?
Such disappearances are rampant across the board. In an essay for the Atlantic last fall, opinion writer Caitlin Flannagan declares herself pro-choice but takes issue with groups such as Shout Your Abortion, which strike her as insufficiently grieved by the procedure. “When women are urged to ‘shout your abortion,’” she complains, “and when abortion becomes the subject of stand-up comedy routines, the attitude toward abortion seems ghoulish.” But people who tell their abortion stories with vigor or humor aren’t shouting at their pregnancies, and Flannagan’s inability to imagine what or who else we might be shouting at is unnerving. In failing to consider a public context for our resistances, Flannagan sets up camp in the realm of the private, a privileged realm in which one is free to choose and act according to unencumbered desires. It is within this fantasy of privacy that the fetus looms as large as the person carrying it, if not larger: Flannagan can hardly consider the realities of actual living pregnant people (in suggesting that aborters aren’t privy to things “all parents know,” she ignores that the majority of people who have abortions are already parents), but she has no problem imagining the fetus as a future pianist.
Abortion is not an act of hostility. Pregnancy is not one self-reliant individual locked in battle with another, although patriarchy has found no way to read it otherwise.
What Flannagan can’t compute, finally, is that abortion is not an act of hostility. Pregnancy is not one self-reliant individual locked in battle with another, although patriarchy has found no way to read it otherwise. “Who could possibly be proud,” Flannagan laments, “that they see no humanity at all in the images that science has made so painfully clear?” Yet boldly telling our abortion stories has little to do with whether or not we see “humanity” in an ultrasound. Like most people on both sides of the so-called “abortion debate,” Flannagan’s argument is stymied by her reliance on concepts such as personhood and privacy, which do little but bring us back to asking, “Is an embryo a person or not?” when the question should really be, “Is abortion OK?” Flannagan seems to think it a big deal to argue for a left-leaning audience that a fetus is a human being, “is so clearly like us, so obviously human and individual.” When you’re pregnant, she writes, “you know he’s real because of the changes in your own body.”
That an embryo or fetus is “real” has never been, in any of the reproductive justice circles I move in, up for debate. We know exactly what a pregnancy is and what it becomes. We know that we are dealing in the realms of life and death. And we still believe that abortion is OK. If we ever do behave as though we “see no humanity at all,” it is because we have been locked into a rhetorical war by misogynists and neoliberals who define the terms. Once they prove that a pregnancy possesses “personhood,” we lose ours. By applying individualist logic to pregnancy, Flannagan reenacts mainstream white feminism’s most egregious error: the belief that liberalism, with its attendant concepts of privacy and choice, can simply be extended from the board room to the picking fields to the uterus.
Policing the Womb concludes, then, with a call not for privacy but for equality. In shifting the focus from our right to make private choices to our need for policies that are applied equally, Goodwin mirrors the move from reproductive rights to reproductive justice. That move asks us to unlearn our preoccupation with individualism and to instead consider the distribution of resources, the social body and its obligations. Can we make that leap? Many thinkers already have, but the unlearning is difficult and deep.
• • •
If it doesn’t pay to be an individual, what else is there to be? We may not be able to answer that question “until we enlist sense to illumination and make room for the blanks.” That line comes from Erica Hunt’s Jump the Clock: New and Selected Poems, a sometimes brutal, always brilliant tour of Western individualism’s social and ecological effects. These poems seem to pick up where Goodwin leaves off, utilizing the intricacy of poetry not only to critique, but to finally soar beyond normative definitions of persons and personhood.
Many of Hunt’s poems blur the lines between bodies. They careen through a globalized, un-demarcated landscape of cities and sensationalist news, spaces in which tourists are charmed by simulacra and factory workers move in shadows, in which geographies and peasant economies are engulfed by capitalist industry. “History not only written by the victors,” Hunt observes:
but revised and trade-
marked by them and their revisions happily bought up by the
conquered as regurgitated shrink wrapped kente cloth toaster
ovens, adhesive backed ikat on temperature control waffle irons.
Poems like this one can feel distant and jaded, sometimes relentlessly so. At times I wondered why the people in them have such little agency, say, to just not buy the toaster oven. But the people who appear in these poems are hard to pin down; pronouns slip and turn out to be interchangeable (“in which her/my/their body becomes”); there are “teams” and “sides” but it’s hard to tell which one you’re on, or whether the “you” is you or whether you’re her: “She is the figure in the vicinity of her experience with its distracting claims on her attention.”
The move from reproductive rights to reproductive justice asks us to unlearn individualism and instead consider the distribution of resources, the social body and its obligations.
In many ways my own education in postmodernism primed me to read this slippage between persons as a kind of liberation from the confines of the self. Yet in Jump the Clock, losing track of oneself isn’t pretty; this book highlights not only the public but the psychological effects of “the genocidal erasure of entanglement and difference,” that double erasure of the self and the collective which Moten avers is “the culmination, and not the refusal,” of individualism. There’s nothing liberating about infinity when we rationalize “our primitive fears of the dark, of strangers without money, . . . since it had happened to someone, an infinite supply of them.” Hunt’s “we,” as literary scholar Kevin Quashie has said of the pronoun, often “flattens as much as it unifies.”
In this sense Hunt’s poetry is a metaphysics of political science. And like Goodwin’s political view, Hunt’s encompasses invisibility, where “invisible hands rice the peas, spice the rice, circle the turns, . . . mask the connections.” But unlike Goodwin, Hunt doesn’t go out of her way to humanize the invisible ones; neither the first-world consumers nor the invisible hands show up here as whole selves. The poems genuinely lament this state of affairs, even as they enact it:
even the stones are tired of war
though neutral on the subject of throw weight and carried malice;
the audience tries to pry themselves out of the script
because they want to belong to themselves, whatever that means,
but now, it’s almost time for the news.
If those weary lines seem to give up on the prospect of disentangling from the maw of the news, the irony, the screens, the broken toasters, others erupt with well-placed blame and rage:
Blistering routine, I muse through events until I’m in deep, so deep,
I no longer notice . . .
who’s behind the barbwire and who’s in front,
within and without, gagged angels of liberalism burying the hatchet
in the social body, leaving it for dead.
Hunt’s poetry sometimes risks alienating readers’ sense of spirit by enacting capitalism’s degradation of spiritedness. Yet neither spirit nor the social body are dead, and as Jump the Clock unfolds, something quieter and more soulful appears. In later sections (these are the newest poems), what emerges is a voice less concerned with the effects of living as a bordered individual than with the possibilities of living as a “one.” Quashie describes the difference between these two terms: “the individual . . . is a modern classification based on the ideals of liberal humanism—for example democracy, mobility within the public sphere, access to property and human rights; as a term ‘individual’ describes a person in relationship to political and social institutions.” On the other hand, “the concept of oneness is the name given to a person’s spirit, the quality of existence which is not constrained by the limits of the social world. . . . [O]neness signifies the human as a creature of appetites and intensity.”
Quashie makes these distinctions in order to push back against “the determination to see blackness only through a social public lens, as if there were no inner life.” Perhaps one way to read Hunt’s book is to say that it earns oneness only after wading through the fires and barbwires of relentless publicness. It earns something like a lyric “I” only after exploring and exploding the damages that “I” can cause.
It is simply more difficult for U.S. women of color than for white women to carry a pregnancy to term and raise a healthy child.
Hunt’s “one,” in the book’s later poems, is often somebody with an explicit racial identity, sexed body, and gender; somebody with particular memories who lives in a world of particulars. This voice engages with the external world but isn’t numbed by its brutalities or anesthetized by the electronics aisle. This is a whole one, one with a mercurial mind and desires who can say without irony: “Would I recognize my name in the voice calling from the burning bush? Would I hold my breath and hope it wasn’t me, and if it isn’t me who else will carry the tune?” At the same time this is one who can look straight at the agents of injustice and say, “they speak in a prose that refuses to be tamed by thought’s inflection . . . and limit equality to a single call, a single meaning, a single tongue, a simple song for how long.”
To be “one” is to be complete—ample, broad—but also fluid, neither bounded nor preoccupied with the fantasy of boundaries. Oneness acknowledges the simultaneity of entanglement and difference, rather than erasing both by pitting them against each other. In approaching emancipatory politics as well as language with a precise and beautiful awareness of that precarious balance, Hunt can assert, finally: “(they are losing) / because my collective noun is untying the knot.”
• • •
The inadequacy of language is Hunt’s constant subject: “Should you find me,” she writes, “would you have a word for me, or do I go forward on faith for a new word, different spelling.” Going forward on faith for a new word might well describe what it’s like to write about pregnancy, an experience that’s often obscured and neutered by the pastel language of polka dots and baby showers. But pregnancy is a complex and often frightening realm, one that’s shot through not only with joy and power but with ambivalence and loss. “My pregnancies—,” writes essayist Jami Nakamura Lin:
the one I lost and the one that is ongoing, the one that is to be determined—I think about in fragments, and thus my retelling is fragmented. Maybe this is a convenient excuse, an easy out to explain away the lack of narrative cohesion, to sidestep that niggling issue that my advisor called the so what of the essay. I lost a baby. So what? As of today, I am having another one. So what?
Lin’s essay is one of several dozen works collected in What God Is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color. The anthology begins with the premise of what’s missing: not only the children who did not become, but the voices of women of color in narratives about pregnancy loss. Editors Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang describe their own disappointment with a literature of loss populated mostly by white women, whose stories rarely highlight intersecting issues of medical racism and sexism. They also cite many of the same troubling statistics Goodwin does, noting high rates of stillbirth, miscarriage, and infant and maternal mortality in the United States. And because the myriad effects of racism make those rates even higher for women of color, Gibney and Yang name the disquieting fact that it is simply more difficult for U.S. women of color than for white women to carry a pregnancy to term and raise a healthy child.
Something else that’s missing, for many of these writers, is smaller than a baby or a story: it’s simply a word. What word do we use to describe not-yet-babies, to name children dreamed of and wished for, felt and fed, but not here? Yang writes:
The doctors told me that if he had been a week older, Baby Jules would have been classified as a stillbirth. They called him a miscarriage. I thought of the medical definition of the word: a spontaneous loss of a fetus before the twentieth week of pregnancy. I kept thinking there was nothing spontaneous about what I had experienced.
Yang and others write precisely because the language we have for reproductive experience is so paltry and imprecise, so loaded with meanings that are often irrelevant to us.
Notably, although a number of these stories involve what are technically abortions (the medical phrase for “miscarriage” is in fact “spontaneous abortion”), the word itself appears only a smattering of times. This lacuna seems a missed opportunity for solidarity, not only because women of color are disproportionately affected by anti-abortion stigma, but because that stigma so profoundly shapes all pregnancy experiences. I especially appreciated the several writers who acknowledge that the procedures often needed to complete a miscarriage or end an unviable pregnancy would be unavailable if not for the work of abortion advocates. At the same time, I understand why many of these writers choose not to use that word to describe D&Cs or fetal injections, considering the host of inaccurate images and associations it has accrued. But a number of these essays are abortion stories nonetheless, and they contribute greatly to the diversification of our sense of what abortions are, who has them, and why.
It is difficult to write about death that is not-quite-death; silence and stigma; medical care that is humiliating or insufficient; the hurtful things people say; and that which is interior or in-between.
As a white woman who has both had an abortion and chosen not to have children, I expected the stories in What God Is Honored Here? to feel far from my own. Yet in the dismissiveness toward losses experienced by Native women and women of color, I recognized the inverse social pressures and obsessive medical attention to my own reproductive capacities. I also identified with the struggle to write about death that is not-quite-death; life that is not-quite-life; silence and stigma; medical care that is humiliating or insufficient; the hurtful things people say; and that which is interior or in-between. Rather than reinforcing the misogynist notion of enmity between people who abort and people who experience other kinds of pregnancy loss (who are, after all, over the course of a lifetime often one and the same), this book suggests we may have more in common with each other than we do with anyone else.
In forging new ways of describing pregnancy loss, this anthology also raises the question of what purposes our existing reproductive lexicon serves. Much of the language we have—baby, embryo, fetus, miscarriage, abortion, life, choice—is weaponized, used mostly to determine what kinds of care we are afforded; to draw imaginary lines between women who wanted their pregnancies enough and those who didn’t; and to tell us how we are supposed to feel. Yang is supposed to feel less grieved by “miscarriage” than by “stillbirth.” “Choice” is supposed to be empowering, yet Seema Reza is not talking about empowerment when she writes, “The uncomfortable truth was that it was ultimately my decision.” Then there is Elsa Valmidiano, reflecting in the midst of a D&C: “There is no reason to defend why I needed to be in [the doctor’s] office. Or why I needed to be in another office twenty years ago. Abortion is abortion. Miscarriage is miscarriage. Should it make any difference what we call it, especially in this moment while I’m lying half-naked on top of a table with knees spread?”
One of this anthology’s great gifts is that it asks us to lay down our language as we might lay down arms. And then, in that quiet space, these writers arrive bearing something new. Rather than struggle with given terminology and its effects, they eschew words like embryo, fetus, and child, instead giving us their own inventions: “my [fallopian] tube . . . as a tiny glass pipette containing outer space”; not “a ‘sleeping’ angel”; and “someone I never knew, but whom I wanted desperately to be a part of my life.” They also challenge me, as an abortion access advocate, not to feel threatened by language that does name embryos and fetuses as babies or children. They remind me that the state’s scrutiny of how much or whether we desire our pregnancies is misplaced. Instead, we would do well to scrutinize how much and in what ways the world desires our children, which is to say how much and in what ways it desires us. Especially in a world that devalues Black, brown, and Native lives, it is vital for many of these writers to say, along with Gibney and Yang, “we are important and our children matter profoundly to us, in the space where they were and where they continue to be.”
Some of these writers grapple with guilt and self-blame. Are we not somehow responsible when we fail to become pregnant, to stay un-pregnant, or to remain pregnant—when the signals get crossed between our uteruses and our desires? Pregnant with a blighted ovum, Valmidiano thinks through this question of agency: “I blight it—My body blights it—It blighted—I—My body—It—Blight—What—Whom—By whom—Am I my body and is this not a part of me?” No lawmaker intent on parsing persons could make sense of these lines. Valmidiano’s reverie reminds us that whether we see an embryo as a clump of cells or as a future pianist, we are inescapably entangled and differentiated and everything in-between. Of the moments after a D&C, Maria Elena Mahler writes: “I was still in and out of the anesthesia. I could feel a deeper level of the duality of this world, this plane, other planes, and how their borders can shape-shift. One can easily get lost in the net of Neptune, unable to distinguish one water from the other, and forget where we are.”
We would do well to scrutinize how much and in what ways the world desires our children, which is to say how much and in what ways it desires us.
Indeed, one can. And although Quashie doesn’t apply the concept of “oneness” to reproductive politics, its usefulness in thinking about pregnancy is clear. Rather than granting fetuses the social and political status of individuals, the concept of the “one” makes us all a little gestational. “She, the ‘one,’” writes Quashie, “is a being but she is also becoming, her existence in flux as much as it is also assured and definite.” In What God Is Honored Here?, there are many “ones” who traverse the spheres, forget where we are, arrange flowers, tend to absence, embody the void, talk to the dead. They need oneness because oneness can encompass both life and death; individualism cannot.
I wept often while reading this anthology, perhaps less from the bitterness of injustice than from the sorrow of mortality, and from the love that sorrow activates. And while injustice and mortality can’t be separated in most of these essays—they trace the bumpy terrain where the inevitabilities of accident are compounded by the traumas of injustice—these writers also remind me that mortality itself is not an injustice. That while injustice often manifests as mortal violence, life and death are not enemies.
It is, finally, our atrophied definitions of life and death that fail us most, vapid definitions shaping the dominant narratives about childbearing with which we are all bludgeoned. These definitions leave no room for the fact that what happens over the course of a pregnable person’s lifetime is, save for the most privileged and lucky, an exquisitely complex mixture of presence and absence, possibility and loss, this and other worlds. That in a world rife with injustice and ruled finally by mortality, it is difficult to say how much “choice” any of us really have. “We make it to the crossroads only to come to a stop,” writes Hunt. “The idea we harbor is subversive. That there may be many moments in which we recognize the sources of our hunger, falling out of the sky, a complete thought sung to our most visible selves.”
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July 12, 2021
32 Min read time