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Opinion: Motherhood, Assumed to Be Always Good, Sometimes Is Not 

Poli Psy

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Mom and apple pie: Contrary to popular emotion, these are not universal goods. Some people would prefer another kind of pie, or no pie at all. Some are severely allergic to wheat. For a few, apple pie might be fatal. The same goes for motherhood.

This was one of the truly subversive revelations of early feminism, back when women were trying to smash the link between biology and destiny. In The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer described the family as a sick organism and the mother as its “dead heart.” Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex declared pregnancy “barbaric.” Even an early (1969) edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was agnostic on the whole birth-and-babies thing, offering pregnancy the left-handed compliment of calling it “a life crisis with tremendous potential,” and noting that postpartum physical changes, though “considered ‘natural’ … closely resemble pathology.”

This demonic anti-maternal moment fled quickly. Soon, another kind of feminism floated onto the scene in a long skirt, nipples dripping milk. And that was the last time we heard a discouraging word about motherhood.

In today’s Mommy Wars, both sides — those who say women can have it all (such as Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg) and those who say women can’t have it all (Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton University professor of politics and international affairs and contributor to the Atlantic magazine) — define “all” the same way. All is career and motherhood.

“All” does not include any of the satisfactions and social contributions that conflict, or are even incompatible, with motherhood: say, full-time art making, traveling the world for social justice or spending your life in pursuit of sexual ecstasy. My nephew and his wife — respectively, a highly sought-after computer programmer and a surgeon who wants to devote herself to public health in the poorest parts of the world — asked my partner and me how we’d dealt with the social pressure to have kids. I said that my generation hadn’t applied that pressure. But now, it seems, a childless life isn’t worth living.

I mention feminists above only because they are the ones who might have the radical wherewithal to stand up against motherhood from time to time. But in all politics these days, motherhood always beats the alternatives. This is not because it is always better than the alternatives; it’s because no one will suggest that the alternative might be superior — particularly if the alternative is the unspeakable, abortion.

Two instances, flanking Mother’s Day:

On May 13, the Obama administration appealed a federal district court judge’s ruling, made in early April, to release the morning-after pill for over-the-counter sale to women and girls of any age.

It was the latest chapter of a long and depressing story. In 2011, after reviewing a decade of data showing the drug to be safe and effective, the Food and Drug Administration recommended the unrestricted sale of Plan B. In an unprecedented move, Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius countermanded the FDA decision, citing concerns about the health of younger teens. Sebelius is not a doctor. Before going to HHS, she was a governor and an insurance commissioner. Obama supported Sebelius’ decision, “as a father of two daughters.”

Not incidentally, he was in the thick of a presidential campaign against a Mormon.

Women’s health advocates were infuriated. The Bush administration had delayed the release of emergency contraception for years (Dr. Susan Wood, FDA assistant commissioner, resigned in 2005 over her boss’ flagrant disregard for science). But Obama? Denouncements flew. Days later, the administration unveiled a “compromise”: Plan B One-Step would be available to women 15 and older with photo ID proving age — something not all 15-year-olds possess. Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Plan B’s manufacturer, was peeved. The Center for Reproductive Rights sued to overturn Sebelius’ decision.

Still, everyone figured the whole thing was just pre election politicking, that the court would rule for the plaintiffs, and that Obama, if elected, would defer to the court because that’s what he had wanted to do all along.

That didn’t happen. Last month Judge Edward R. Korman of the Eastern District of New York did rule to reinstate the FDA’s recommendation. He called the administration’s policy “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable” and a danger to the credibility of the government’s scientific agency. The administration asked the judge to stay his order while the Justice Department decided whether to appeal. No fucking way, said Korman, in language only marginally more polite. Then, at the last minute, the appeal was filed. It puts everything on hold until May 20.

What does all this tell us? The White House and the departments of Justice and Health & Human Services think it is better for 15-year-olds to have babies than for them to get contraception, possibly without telling their parents. Without contraception or abortion, though, for most sexually active heterosexual young women, motherhood is unavoidable.

I don’t believe Obama would let that happen to either of his two daughters. But he couldn’t say that.

What he did say, wittingly or not: It is safer for 15-year-olds to be mothers than for the president to face the wrath of the right-to-lifers.

If the president was meeting moralistic politics with moralistic politics, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty is fighting depravity with depravity. Just before Mother’s Day he announced that, in addition to charging Cleveland abductor and torturer Ariel Castro with the kidnapping and rape of the three girls he imprisoned for 10 years, the state will attempt to prosecute him for “each act of aggravated murder he committed by terminating pregnancies that the offender perpetuated [sic] against the hostages.”

McGinty would invoke an Ohio law that prohibits the termination of another person’s pregnancy “with prior calculation and design.” The penalty can be death. One of the girls, Michelle Knight, said that Castro impregnated her five times and starved her and punched her in the belly to cause her to miscarry.

Undergoing such treatment must certainly have been hell for Michelle. Even in more “benign” circumstances, forced abortion, like forced sterilization, is a brutal violation of a woman’s human right to bodily integrity.

But let me be clear: The legal victim of murder here is not the pregnant woman. It is the fetus. What is being defended is motherhood in the abstract, not a real child whose father was her mother’s tormenter, or a real woman who will have to devote body and heart to nurturing the living reminder of that torment.

Children conceived in sexual assault in other horrific situations, such as during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, have remained outcasts in their villages and families. In Rwanda they are called the “children of bad memories,” the “devil’s children” or — even by their own mothers — “little killers.” Dare we consider that Knight’s five fetuses were better off unborn?

One of the other women, Amanda Berry, had Castro’s baby; Jocelyn is now 6. We do not know how Amanda felt when she found out she was pregnant, gave birth, cared for the little girl. We have no way of knowing what Jocelyn’s life was like; it was normal for her. Amanda appears to love her child; it has been six years, after all, and her culture is not that of rural Rwanda. But might we abandon the fiction that learning to cherish her rapist’s spawn was easy, or “natural”?

There is no law against forcing another person to carry a pregnancy to term or making her mother a baby born of violence. That is because motherhood is assumed always to be good — never an afflicter, always a redeemer.

Sometimes it is neither. Sometimes a pregnancy is simply unintended and its resultant parenthood unwanted. Then it is a positive good to relieve the woman of that state, as early and as safely as possible.

Poli Psy is a monthly column by Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact levine@sevendaysvt.com.

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Judith Levine

Judith Levine

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Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. Her column, "Poli Psy," appears biweekly in Seven Days.

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