If you look at my links, you’ll see I’ve included a “political” section and if you check out this week’s “Top 10 Conservative Idiots” you’ll see that a congressman in Tennessee has proposed requiring death certificates to be issued for aborted fetuses. The author of Top 10, Earl G, makes enough of the ridiculousness of this proposal that I don’t really need to do more. But my non-sophisticated un-philosophical response is that it’s mean-spirited. I am quickly learning about fear and guilt associated with fertility and childbearing and it seems the Tennessee measure’s intent is to shame women. Unable to successfully criminalize them, this legislator wants to create a public record of women who have abortions.
It caused me to reflect on my treatment at the hospital. Overall, the nurses and doctors were profoundly kind and compassionate. Thankfully they don’t see a situation like ours every day, but even still, they do see tragedy often and still they were sincere in their empathy and grief. During my week in the hospital, I went through every possible emotion. I felt guilt, like I must have done something wrong despite having spent months preparing my body for pregnancy and then following every guideline for making it a healthy one. In weak moments I felt ashamed at my apparent inability to easily accomplish such a “natural” task. (So much for the Fit Pregnancy magazine and Bradley Method to Natural Childbirth book I happily purchased in November. My subsequent pregnancies will involve bed rest, a throng of medical professionals, and probably a C-section.) I was so upset with myself at times that I was shocked by the medical staff’s concern for me, as well as our baby. Over and over they expressed that my life was their first priority, and reassured me that I was a good mother. Even as we all confronted the death of Natan, as the passing of a real person, I was struck by the care and compassion they expressed for me.
With the miscarriage, however, it was different. None of the medical personnel mourned the baby as a real person with a soul and an identity, and neither actually did I. I thought I did at the time, and I would never reduce the experience of miscarriage to simply a loss of tissue. As I waited for the fetus to pass, having chosen not to get a D&C if it wasn’t absolutely necessary, I spoke to it, telling it I would always love it, but that it was time to move on. I was distraught over losing the pregnancy, but I didn’t know that fetus like I knew Natan. I passed an 8.5-week fetus, and honestly I couldn’t discern much of a human form. The idea of a death certificate would be bizarre – we wouldn’t even know the sex and as we know the law doesn’t accept intersex as a category.
But let’s not get into that debate. Ultimately I am trying to discern why the Tennessee proposal angers me as a mother and why I relate it to my feelings of inadequacy and guilt over Natan’s death. Some of it, I think, is appropriate. I was his mother and I loved him. I wanted him in this world, even more than I wanted myself. Of course I’m heartbroken over losing him, and of course I think about the events leading up to labor. Of course I wish something could have been done to save his life, and will always have some “what ifs” in mind.
The shame, however, I think is reflected in much of the way women, fertility, pregnancy, and babies are presented in media and conversation. Why did I see so many pictures of Reese Witherspoon’s daughter, Kate Hudson’s son, and other celebrity kids in the US magazine I paged through this morning at the gym? Why can I not turn on television news programs without hearing about missing children, pregnancy fads, or pedophilia? We are baby obsessed in popular culture (academics please forgive me for not footnoting that phrase) and I think it has very little to do with true compassion for children. It’s narcissism. I love Natan infinitely, but it wasn’t only my love for him that made me excited when people out in public could tell I was pregnant. I liked the attention. But not in a healthy way. In the same way pride in my athletic body in high school turned into an unhealthy obsession when that became difficult to maintain in college, I realized I was putting too much value on a popularly represented body image. And that body image was of a baby-making machine. I am certainly not saying that a pregnant body isn’t beautiful and that the sight of a pregnant woman shouldn’t make us happy or that we should not be concerned about the welfare of babies and children. But when we portray motherhood as the be all and end all of a woman’s life, we ultimately devalue life. We cheapen the experience of pregnancy by making it a universal commodity, something we all must do and have. And we say that if a woman cannot achieve it or does not want it, she has failed.
When we obsess over childhood and children, we create impossible norms. If you care about your children’s well being, do you subject them to constant scrutiny? Do you comment on everything they do, say, and wear? Do you make them play out their personal pain in front of everyone you know? If every moment of your every day is spent chronicling every detail of your children’s lives, are you really thinking first about them, or about yourself?
The Tennessee proposal reflects this shame. Death certificates for fetuses have nothing to do with individual children, with increasing their real chances for life or for improving its quality. It doesn’t even have anything to do with reducing the incidence of abortion. It has everything to do with portraying motherhood as the norm, and with ignoring diverse experience that complicates it.