Friday, September 7, 2012

The Elephant in the Womb

How did the uterus suddenly become the biggest political battleground in America? Why all the rape quips in the legislature and bills to legislate the female reproductive system, written, discussed, and voted upon almost exclusively by men? To understand this development and avoid the toxic shock from having the prehensile nose of the GOP thrust uninvited into the wombs of America's women, it helps for me to put the issue in a historical perspective and then recognize the power that American women have to overcome this political assault and ensure a safe and wholesome nation for ourselves and our daughters.

The elephant in the room, so to speak, is not the issue of personhood at conception but the issue of women's complete personhood, which is a fairly new concept to be accepted into Western culture. In ancient and medieval times, most Western civilizations operated under the assumption that women, along with their bodies and reproductive capacities, belonged to their fathers and husbands. Most women had about the same rights and agencies as slaves or livestock. Even in ancient Rome, where women enjoyed a greater freedom than in some neighboring cultures such as ancient Greece, women of the nobility would often legally register themselves as prostitutes to escape the shackles of ownership by their fathers and future arranged husbands.

The United States prides itself on having equal rights for women, although it was only men who were thought to be created equal at the beginning. Women have only had the right to vote in our country for 92 years. There are ladies alive today who were born in an America where only men counted as people for voting purposes. Since the struggle for women's suffrage, American feminists have been fighting against the current for women's rights to work for equal pay, make decisions without their husbands, and enjoy all of the freedoms that men have historically monopolized. Meanwhile, women have endured millennia of gendered violence and abuse alongside our political disenfranchisement.

Today, the whole personhood of women is generally accepted--at least on the surface. But members of the de facto ruling patriarchy of white men are, predictably, having trouble letting go of the corset laces. This pattern shows on the frontier of new research by LGBT advocacy groups researching homophobia. Misogyny and homophobia tend to go hand-in-hand, and new data is showing that the only demographic of anti-gay Christians who are, statistically, not at all moved by true stories of parents learning to accept their homosexual children is the demographic of white males. Everyone else--women of all races and men of color--know what it's like to be oppressed and have empathy for other victims. Only white males are unmoved because they are the only ones who feel they have more to lose than gain in the struggle to end discrimination based on sex, gender, and sexual orientation.

Though we have all have agreed, at least on the surface, that women are persons, the patriarchy still isn't going down without a fight. American politicians would not find it easy to run on a platform that denied women's personhood--but they can, and do, run on platforms that trump women's personhood and all its attendant rights with the personhoods of innocent, invisible angel babies.

Or, as some call them, zygotes. Blastocysts. Embryos. Fertilized ova. Fairly won sperm prizes (all's fair in love and non-forcible rape).

The concept of "ensoulment" (similar to what is now labeled "personhood") beginning at conception is an ancient idea bounced around by Aristotle and Epicurus, but it was not accepted by Judeo-Christian religions or really "a thing" in any Western law system until very recently. Personhood at conception is a weird idea upon close inspection, because it is based neither in Scripture nor in science.

From the beginning, the early Church has condemned abortion and contraception as sins. However, throughout most of the two thousand years since Jesus said absolutely nothing on the topic, abortion and contraception were not distinguished from each other in terms of gravity or type of sin. Both sins were simply violations of the rule that nobody should ever have sex without trying to make a wedlocked, legitimate, Christian baby.

That seems fairly gender-neutral as a rule, except that throughout the Church's history, women and girls have not had an equal say, if any say, in when and with whom they had sex. The notions that "no means no" and that coerced sex, even without a brutally violent attack that results in physical injury, is rape are very new ideas in our culture--ideas that certain American politicians and their voting bases have still not come to accept.

Another problem for politicians representing the patriarchy and for religious patriarchal structures such as the Catholic Church is that most Americans--including most Christians and even most Catholics--use contraceptives and aren't lining up for confession because of it. Despite the Catholic Church's vigorous, public condemnation of birth control (vigorous though confusing with its sometimes exceptions made for condoms and the rhythm method), contraception is not a big deal in our culture. (Can I get an amen, hallelujah?)

But baby-killing, now that's a hot button. In the 1990s, the Papacy changed its position and separated abortion from contraception as a much greater sin, one that equates to murder, based on a newly accepted doctrine of ensoulment at conception--the belief that a soul is either generated by the process of conception or that it is injected into the ovum by God along with the sperm's genetic material.

This religious belief in ensoulment at conception is as valid as any religious belief, such as those held by non-Christians about souls existing in trees, animals, rock formations, and holy objects. Curiously, this newly adopted ensoulment at conception notion that has come to the very forefront of modern Christian theology lacks any basis in Scripture or religious tradition. Biblical references to the developmental stage at which ensoulment may take place include quickening (when a woman first feels movement in her womb) and the first intake of breath after birth, but there is no mention of ensoulment at conception in the Bible. And that is why it was never a special issue until now.

So why now? I believe it is because the Catholic Church, an old boys' club that has always excluded females from the clergy, is losing its grip on male dominion. We can see the kicking and screaming that is going on in the Church's war waged upon its own nuns for their reluctance to join full-force in the culture wars on women. Sister Pat Farrell, President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said of the Bishops, "They can crush a few flowers, but they can't hold back the springtime." I believe what she says is true, but that won't stop them from stamping as many as they can on the long, rough road toward obsolescence.

In this war on women, the greatest political weapon against female empowerment is the legal description of personhood at conception. Savvy politicians know that they cannot rely upon flaky religious doctrines alone to make their case, and so they also draw upon the mystery of the depths of the female anatomy and upon our broad cultural values, including care for helpless infants and disgust at "sluts."

We do live in an age of science and well developed medical knowledge, but it is still easy enough to distort facts about biology in a culture that finds emotional exaggerations much more interesting than data. But the truth of the matter is that the idea that "life" begins at conception is scientifically absurd. A sperm cell is alive. An ovum is alive. But very few people are asserting that sperm cells and egg cells are wee little people all by themselves. A fertilized egg is still a single, undivided cell, so what makes it special? Is it the combination of genetic material from the sperm and the egg to make a genetic blueprint for a complete human? If so, many fertilized eggs do not contain that blueprint. Many sperm cells and egg cells contain defects, and the process of zipping together the genetic codes from each cell sometimes has errors. As a result, many fertilized eggs do not, in fact, contain a genetic code for a human being and cannot grow into a baby. These fertilized eggs are routinely shed as soon as the developmental process can go no further, often so early in the pregnancy that the woman does not even know she has miscarried.

Even when a fertilized egg does contain all the right chromosomes to make a baby, it doesn't start growing into anything until it implants in the uterus. And after it implants and starts to grow, it is still not fated to become one singular person until an even later phase of development. One growing embryo can split into two and become identical twins. And two embryos can also be fused together and develop into one baby with two sets of DNA. This is called chimerism, and though rare, it is one of the most common reasons for people who have two differently colored eyes.

Parasitic twins, certain kinds of tumors, and fetuses that develop without brains also result from egg fertilization, but they are not considered people by the medical community. And the fact that we are even arguing about whether the rights of any organisms without brains or nervous systems (or without the thinking, feeling, wrinkly cortexes that develop during the very final stages of a pregnancy) are persons whose rights supersede women's--that just goes to show what anti-abortion advocates think of women as human beings.

Clearly, our political sphere is filled with representatives of the ancient/medieval throwback man, the one who lives comfortably under the assumption that women are not as fully human as men. And one of the slick tricks of this politician is that he fools poor men into thinking he represents them, too, though all people who are not rich, men and women both, would be devastatingly affected by anti-abortion law. These laws don't just affect those women who find themselves in a position to have to make that very personal decision. Can you imagine all of the poor and middle class men filling up our jails when they can't pay child support? Can you imagine millions of children, many with severe disabilities, being born into abject poverty in a nation hostile to the welfare of its poor? Can you imagine intentionally conceiving your next baby with your loving husband, only to find out that you have received a death sentence because your pregnancy is ectopic, and the surgery required to save your life is illegal? Can you imagine an America where no girl or woman without health insurance can stop at a Planned Parenthood for pap smears, cancer screenings, prenatal care, or contraceptives? Can you imagine synthetic estrogen being labeled an "abortaficant" and taken away from girls and women who need it to treat their epilepsy or endometriosis? Votes for women's rights actually benefit all Americans, not just women and not just "unChristian" women.

Before you imagine too much of this dreary womanpocalypse resembling the wastelands of Afghanistan, remember that you DO have the right to vote, that women are actually the majority of voters, that most men in America are fully human modern males with working brains, and that every woman-loving citizen can vote for pro-woman candidates. They are everywhere, perhaps banned from speaking about women's health legislation, but they are not silent or defeated.

The shock and outrage expressed against politicians who have recently made a mockery of rape victims and women as voters is hopeful to me. It tells me that not only are women viewed largely as full humans for the first time in Western history, but we also have higher expectations of men. We expect men, especially in leadership, to be intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate, and respectful of their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. This higher expectation of men to be full partners in equality was born of the feminist movement, which demands higher responsibility for and from people of any sex or gender.

Before you go to the polls this November, check out Emily's List and find out how your candidates feel about the personhood of their female constituents. I will be voting for the America I want my daughter to inherit, an America that is healthy and respectful of all feeling and thinking persons, male or female. I envision a nation greater than any that has ever existed, and I will take great pleasure in doing my small part to build it.

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