Caitlin Flanagan just wrote at truly excellent piece on abortion for the Atlantic, sensitively looking at the different sides of the argument for women’s access to abortion. Her opening examination of Lysol-induced abortions chilled me to the bone. Infuriating, truly, that women would both feel such dire responsibility for the child that their husband’s sexual needs brought into the world, could be preyed upon by a greedy consumer industry and doctors, and could pay for it with their lives. When Flanagan describes dying women denying to reveal the names of their abortionists, I felt the gall in my throats rise.
Perhaps, some would say, these women were protecting the names of these male doctors so that other young women can continue to access abortions. Perhaps this is what the women themselves would have said. But, others would say (to my mind, more convincingly), that these women became human shields for men profiting off of the crippling fear and lack of agency of the 1950’s housewife. And, in fact, one cannot help but notice the disgusting pattern of men demanding from women and women submitting to the immense social pressure to acquiesce and obey. The Good Woman is the obedient woman: she follows Lysol’s demands to douche her vagina with lysol after intercourse; she is always available for her husband, and keeps the cost of this sex down by ensuring that no child will appear afterwards, and she keeps her promise to some shady gynecologist who inserted Lysol into her womb—to protect the identity of her murderer.
Flanagan’s next pivot is to fetal 3D ultrasounds, and how, they compellingly depict an actual human person. The reality of the child being destroyed in an abortion is inescapable:
The argument for abortion, if made honestly, requires many words: It must evoke the recent past, the dire consequences to women of making a very simple medical procedure illegal. The argument against it doesn’t take even a single word. The argument against it is a picture.
Flanagan’s piece (and argument) end in a stalemate: what is a woman to do? Women will continue to get abortions, as they have throughout history, and certainly we can’t let them get illegal abortions, they are astronomically dangerous, so we must legalize an abortion, but the cost of this abortion is a unique human being who deserves its own right to life? What is one to do with equal, contending claims to life?
I am surprised that more progressives do not notice in abortion a classic trope of oppression. If there are two classes who, in their overwhelming numbers, could overthrow the current hegemonic power, then, by all means, the reigning power ought to divide the two oppressed classes. It is in the powerful’s best interests to keep the people who are stronger in numbers weaker in social or material capital. Women and children are these two disenfranchised populations that abortion seeks to pit against each other in a battle for limited well-being.
Women and children, as highly visible tokens of vulnerability, soft portals between life and death, have historically claimed the biggest piece of the oppression piece. It’s a rare society that decides not to stomp on the human flourishing of those who can’t put up a fight. Women and children represent that which Simone Weil says the men of valor seek to forget: their own weakness. Their own fate, the common fate of all human beings: to suffer.
What better way to forget your own impending mortality which, far beyond your control, hems you in on every side, than by exerting your will over another creature? Controlling someone weaker than yourself is tantalizingly close to being able to control your own fate. But other people tend to be marginally more submissive and controllable, than one’s own vulnerability.
When I read articles like Flanagan’s, I cannot help feeling like I am watching the patriarchy at its most pernicious work. There are surely religious and spiritual concerns present in the questions of abortion. I do believe that the consistent blindness of a society to recognize the humanity of one of its members has a name in the judeo-Christian tradition: sin. But failure to recognize the humanity of another is generally a product of a sociological geneology.
Flanagan ends her article applauding the husband of one of the four Lysol-abortion victims for walking with his wife through a difficult encounter. She ends the article imagining that man’s pain. Not the pain of the fetuses lost, the living children with question’s about their mother, or the mothers themselves, suffering unbearable pain. I’m not trying to negate any courageous act of accompaniment done in the name of love. So perhaps I am simply younger and angrier than Flanagan, but I am not disposed to be so kind in the hypothetical motivations I ascribe to this character in the story.
What sort of pressures did this wife face from her husband or lack of support would make her feel that parenting another child was something she “just couldn’t take anymore.” Why do contemporary American ideas of masculinity either sneer at the idea of men rearing children or completely obviate or sideline the nurturing facets of male identity? Why doe we not imagine parenting and care taking as basic to male identity as to female? What sort of economic, social, material world has been created for us by men and who is benefiting from it? Whose body and desires are listened to in a sexual relationship? How much space and freedom are women given to communicate their needs and desires? These are the questions this women’s story prompt in my mind. The husband’s presence at her side is an ambiguous presence—both a presence of love and of the darker needs, assumptions, and demands that dictate his partner’s life.
The shrugging, hand-writing argument of faux-compassion in the abortion debate seems to me to reveal nothing more than the Stockholm Syndrome of its perpetrators. A truly progressive society advocates for all marginalized members and comes to the defense of the weak, no matter where those weak are located. It is not difficult to see that, in contemporary abortion debates, neither the women or child wins—but rather an unimaginative, oppressive status quo benefiting no one. The fetus’ life is scarified in the name of a patriarchal social structure that prizes power over social belonging, and women’s narratives continue to be restricted by male needs, because no one has allowed them to ask for anything better.