The feminist equivalent of smashing your head on a brick wall: debating abortion on social media

August 29, 2012 § 3 Comments

I had a painful debate about reproductive rights on social media recently. I have to give a major trigger warning for cisgendered privilege on this post: I attempted to correct myself half way through the debate, but frankly on both sides the gender essentialism is pretty bad. I am sorry about that. I realised after writing this how influenced I am by un-reconstructed feminist thought when it comes to repro rights.

Anyway, it started with this image, which I saw on facebook, ‘liked’ and shared, all in about two seconds flat in a pre-coffee blur last Saturday:

What it lacks in nuance it makes up for with cute.

Or maybe it started long ago, in the fucked up political discourse on women’s bodies and reproduction. Either way, start it sure as hell did.

I received this comment from a cis man of my acquaintance, and it was ‘liked’ by another dude too:

Only animals may have an opinion about animal rights. Only slaves may have an opinion about slavery. Etc, etc.

I responded thus:

Yeah it’s overly simplistic etc. I think the point would be better made: Don’t have a vagina? Don’t have an opinion on women’s reproductive rights that impinges on the physical and political rights of those who do.

But it ain’t quite so catchy.

Shockingly, my hilarity did not deter same acquaintance. He came back with:

Even then I don’t think it stands. They could come back and say ‘not a foetus?, don’t suggest killing foetuses’. The debate is over whether there is another party here that needs to be given rights/consideration as well.

Better just to say that it’s important to take seriously the first person testimony of the people who are affected by your actions.

This from me:

No I disagree. I don’t actually think foetuses are separate to the woman’s body, they can’t survive without her (in the vast majority of cases) and the hypothetical anti-choicer’s point is moot. A foetus obviously can’t have an opinion.

I was countered with a comment to the effect that the real debate was over whether people other than women was “affected” by abortion.

I then said:

Yep, and I am saying, and I think what a lot of the pro-choice movement would say, that the pregnant person is affected physically, with major flow ons economically and socially. The foetus is not a person (this is not the same as saying it’s not the subject of grief, a person in people’s minds etc, but it’s not a physical person capable of surviving without the pregnant person’s body). The other family or the male involved is not affected physically and likely not economically. So I think the point is “get out of the way”. This may have political problems, but I think it reflects the reality for most women affected by unwanted pregnancy. Their lives would be a whole lot easier if anti-choicers would get out of the grill of their physical autonomy, so to speak.

Which was responded to thus:

I’m very sympathetic. Not being able to get an abortion is a serious violation of a woman’s autonomy. But to me, ‘birth’ is as arbitrary a line to draw as ‘conception’. Late in a pregnancy I think there are competing considerations that have to be weighed up.

A friend of mine then came in with this gem:

But some of the worst anti-choicers have vaginas… Melinda Tankard Reist. She should have less right to express her vicious opinion than the pro-choice vaginaless.

To which acquaintance said:

Seems dangerous to give people less right to express their opinion when they disagree with you.

A skeptical feminista entered the fray and wrote:

Doesn’t it USUALLY take two people to reproduce? Surely there is another person’s opinion which can be considered?

Two men saw fit to ‘like’ this.

I responded:

Woman’s body is the one that gets pregnant, sorry darl. While someone else’ opinion might be considered, there’s no point to the pro choice movement if it’s not for total autonomy over our bodies. Again, not saying men don’t have feelings or that we as a society aren’t attached to an idea of a baby as the pregnancy comes to term. It’s to make the point that when a foetus can’t survive without the mother, is PART of the mother, not separate from her, the mother should always have the right to decide. It’s not pretty, it’s not painless, but that’s where it’s at if we want to argue that women are fully human ie fully physically autonomous. And that’s me done on this one, folks.

Please note that close to 1000 words had been spilled by this point. I was very tired.

However, then I saw that little red 1 again, and I read this:

“It’s to make the point that when a foetus can’t survive without the mother, is PART of the mother, not separate from her, the mother should always have the right to decide.”

Would the same be true of an adult? i.e. if by bad luck you got attached to another person and couldn’t survive without their support for 9 months, would it be fine for them to not support you/kill you? I would think the point isn’t the dependence but rather that the foetus isn’t conscious.

While I had sworn to bow out, I was sufficiently incensed to crescendo with:

Was intending to be done with this post but find myself with 5 mins spare, so a few things:

Firstly, I should have said earlier that I reject your initial comparison of women’s and animal rights. I think the concept of rights is tied to human life or it’s potential. Wile there are arguments for non-humans to be treated in ethical ways, I don’t think this is the same as a ‘right’.

Similarly while I think children have rights, I reject the notion that a foetus, while it is part of the mother’s body, has rights. While I agree that towards the end of term it gets tricky I think this is largely because of new technologies around premature children. Babies can potentially survive without the mother much earlier.

Finally I think it’s more about dependence and how the particular type of dependence of the foetus on the pregnant person impinges on hir rights. This is not actually the same as your hypothetical example for several reasons: 1) bodily integrity is totally compromised 2) women’s bodies tend to become public property for political and social reasons when pregnant. Both of the reasons impact directly on the pregnant person’s capacity to have full social and political engagement.

That has to trump any other concerns if we are serious about arguing women are fully respected and participating human beings. And this is what most of feminism’s claims rest on, so I think it’s important to defend it fully.

Also I think what tends to get lost in this is that reproductive rights demands run both ways – forcing anyone to have an abortion, or be sterilised, give a child up etc is an anathema to anyone who is serious about reproductive rights.

But it’s not feminists who do these things, it’s the State, usually, as in cases of forced adoption or forced sterilisation. Examples include the recent exposure of forced adoption practices in Australia and the forced sterilisation of trans people in Sweden and elsewhere.

Still reading? You must have a similar martyr complex to me. Helped me clarify my own position though, so in the end no complaints.

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