We compartmentalize. All the time. We divide things up so they don’t inhibit our ability to act, to judge, to feel. We don’t even seem to have to learn how, it just develops as life unfolds. The walls, though, are porous, and occasionally they collapse altogether. But they re-establish given opportunity.
But sometimes the divide between one part of ourselves and another can become toxically entangled. It can cause a lot of pain, confusion. When challenged, there’s a kind of panic that attends to our desperate attempt to put those walls back up, to find a way back to the comforting areas where one thing did not conflict—violently at times—with another.
The old jokes about never discussing religion or politics at dinner or with strangers indicates an awareness of this phenomena that goes way back. Because established beliefs can run afoul of new evidence or personal feelings or even with other established beliefs. They exist in balance, precariously at times, and we have rules of engagement to prevent the explosion that may occur when one is shoved against the other. Why we don’t do something about the contradictions is one of the great conundrums of life, but most of us discard old ideas with difficulty. As I say, they are comfortable. We’ve been living with them a long time.
But sometimes resolving the conflict is vital. Life or death.
“My body, my choice.”
On the surface, not a difficult concept, and likely for most people in most circumstances, an automatic “of course.”
Until it comes to sex. (I will stipulate here some muddle when it comes to drugs and such, but we do not so much dictate what can be done with someone’s body but only what may be legally possessed. Drugs are not, generally speaking, Of The Body; they are foreign substances. Even so, regulations regulate possession—we tend not to criminalize using drugs, but having them. Sex, by comparison, is Of The Body.) Then we encounter all the rooms into which people have shoved conflicts, embarrassments, unresolved questions, religion, desire, fantasy, ambition, guilt…a stew of unexamined reactions and complications that remain so because so many of us just don’t want to think about them. Because the vagaries of the act and the desire conflict with social issues and other beliefs which we may not have examined, at least not deeply enough to find the fulcrum of our dis-ease.
And then there’s the fact that so much of what we feel about it changes over time. It is intrinsically part of our body—all the unmitigated hormonal things we seem mostly unable to control, that once we survive puberty we wish to be done with—and it is often in conflict with the dogmas of our upbringing. No wonder people want to put it in a cage and ignore it.
Until we can’t.
Now, many people figure all this out well enough to avoid lifelong neuroses, therapy, or self-loathing and live lives wherein sex is an organic part of who they are. Most of them do this well enough that quite often the struggles and conflicts may be forgotten. So much so that when they pop up in others and lead to erratic or irrational behavior, we’re surprised and unsure how to deal with the results. And if these conflicts erupt into the public forum, we find ourselves in the awkward position of defending positions with which we are only tenuously familiar.
But suddenly we find our lives being intruded upon and our own sense of what we presume to be our rights challenged in ways that catch us off-balance. Because—compartmentalization being what it is—the challenges do not always come at us straightforward. They are often couched in terms designed to mask deeper issues.
“My body, my choice.” We have, at least in this country, and more generally in the religious traditions to which we are heir, treated sex like a thing apart, a separate something that is not to be admitted as part of who we are. In popular culture it is often portrayed as a sort of prize, to be won, a reward in certain circumstances, but in too many instances as property, a commodity, a thing that can be owned. It is a thing that happens to us, a thing that takes control of the aspect of ourselves we do consider as who we are. We make excuses for it, treat it like a lapse, a mistake, we hide it, we use it to extort, intimidate, smear, manipulate, like it’s a drug or a demon or anything other than an intrinsic part of our own identity.
You can trace this all in the hypocrisies on exhibit. People who believe contraception is “wrong” and yet, after fifteen years of marriage have only one or two children; those who publicly decry infidelity, yet carry on affairs which they pretend don’t happen; women who picket clinics and then avail themselves of those very services when they are “caught.”
“Caught.” An archaic but telling euphemism describing an unwanted pregnancy. It encapsulates the issue nicely. Unpacking it reveals all the incommensurable elements, the contradictions, false assumptions, and judgements that permeate this matter. She did something she should not have and got “caught.” Meaning becoming pregnant. Which of course makes pregnancy a punishment. Combined with the attitude expressed by many who condemn abortion—or birth control of any kind—that such things are “letting them get away with it.” Get away with what? Having sex? Being sexual? Why should that be something about which anyone other than the consenting participants have any say?
A man I worked with when I was 20 took pains once to describe to me how at one time he suspected his wife of cheating on him. It was a fraught period in his marriage but he found out his suspicions were groundless. “I didn’t have to kill her,” he concluded. A few months later he had to go on a business trip with the company owner and he gleefully looked forward to it, that he would have the opportunity to “grab a piece of ass” while he was away. I looked at him in some dismay. I reminded him of what he had said about his wife’s fidelity. He dismissed it by claiming this was different. When I asked how, all I got was a puzzled stare, like I should just know.
“Grab a piece of ass” is another one those euphemisms that explains so much when you unpack it. Firstly, it reduces an essential element of another person to an object. It abstracts out the “thing” from the person who has it. It turns that thing into an object that the woman only seems to carry around. He wasn’t going to find a person to make love with, he was going to make use of her genitals, which are somehow Not Her, or perhaps simply not hers. There are many of these turns of phrase, which do the work of rendering the components of sex isolated from the person who has them. Some of this attaches to the male sexual apparatus (“my dick has a will of its own”), but not nearly as much and not to the degree that women’s sex organs are so rendered.
By so doing, though, possession is established as the essential element in what amounts to a kind of third party transaction. To underscore what I’m suggesting, the history of prostitution, especially in the modern era, reinforces the assertion that women have only provisional ownership of their genitalia.
Which does make the whole thing a kind of property rights issue, based on an inability to see ourselves as whole beings that are, as part of that wholeness, sexual.
Why is this important in the current climate?
Because it also, by extension, sets pregnancy apart from the woman, defines it as a thing separate from her Self, that once that condition is established she no longer is meaningfully in possession of either her body or her pregnancy.
There is a pathology to this which seems pernicious. It is bound up with a resistance in our culture to not “own” our sexuality. Since the Sixties and the so-called Sexual Revolution, there has been a reaction to perceived obscenity, lewdness, promiscuity, and permissiveness that saturates the Culture Wars. This is where it manifests. It reduces sex to the social equivalent of taking drugs, making it a separate practice from what is “normal.” When the practical distribution of contraception for women became common, the discussion came closer to what was really at issue. The insistence by social conservatives that contraception be banned, returning sex to something fraught with the risk of “getting caught” tells us what is really going on. Sex must not be normalized as something innate to what it means to be human.
(But marriage! Well, yes, but that’s an arrangement. Sex is implicitly offered as both reward and excuse for getting married.)
The fact that the anti-choice movements feel they have a moral right to impose their objections on everyone undercuts any legitimate moral rationale. This is not about morality but about ownership.
The fact that many anti-choice advocates are willing to make exceptions in the case of rape or incest underscores this even further. Sex, in this formulation, is something that “happens to” a woman. Therefore the unwanted product of it can be seen as a separate, utterly alien manifestation ruled by “special conditions.” The idea that sex is an organic expression of a woman’s sense of self is, in this formulation, incommensurable with the “happens to” concept. (In rape trials, the fact that a woman’s manner, history, apparel, so forth are used as defense of the rape underlines this attitude. In order to be found “innocent” she must be seen as without her own sexual identity.)
Bringing this to the whole abortion issue, wherein a fetus is argued to be fully human, we can see how it plays out. In this, the woman does not—cannot—be entirely self-possessed. If she is, then the pregnancy is inseparable from her. It is something of herself. It is her body, producing a condition. It is, in a way, Her. Which gives her agency over it.
It is not a separate thing which can be granted agency by social decree. Which is what the anti-choice crowd would assert, going directly back to the initial assumption that her sexuality is not intrinsic to her identity—it is this Other Thing which by custom, tradition, and even legal precedent is given special acknowledgement defining it as an object that can be owned.
And traditionally, owned by someone other than herself, either her father, her husband, or in the current assertion Society. Anyone but herself. This can only be asserted by denying that it is an inextricable part of her.
If pregnancy is an emergent condition, with a potential if carried through, but primarily an expression of a woman’s Self, then there is no moral or ethical basis for denying her the choice to either proceed or terminate. It is as much Her as her lungs, stomach, heart, bones, and we grant her agency over those by implication in the instances of organ donation or elective surgery or DNR mandates.
If pregnancy is a separate object, something other than and outside her, then she does not “own” it and can claim no agency over it.*
But we can only assert that if we strip away her right to Self entirely, effectively reducing her to slavery, indeed all way to machine-hood.
If we agree a Woman is an individual with rights to self-determination and agency, then it is impossible to morally assert the kind of authority over her that would deny her the right to her sexuality and all that attaches to it.
Which means that this issue is not wholly, possibly not even initially, about the so-called unborn.
Which of course is now being demonstrated in the raft of anti-choice laws being touted to constrain us on several fronts directly to do with personhood and matters of self-determination emergent from an acknowledgment that sexuality is an irreducible aspect of identity. Of Selfhood.
What this comes down to is a recognition that the separation of primary aspects of ourselves is a form of distancing that allows for the intrusion of third-party control, which cannot remain isolated to only that aspect but eventually expands to become control over the whole Self. That in this instance, the feelings, desires, thoughts, and apparatus of a woman’s sexuality must be seen to belong entirely and only to her, as essential elements of her sense of agency; that all of this cannot be possessed and therefore controlled by third-party forces. And if that is the case, the use and condition of those components cannot be selectively determined by anyone else because to do so necessarily leads to such intrusive determination of her entire Self. That such autonomy being necessary as both precondition and purpose of free will within any legal context seeking to hold as a necessary part of democracy, with personal liberty as its intent and justification, then it cannot be tolerated that such autonomy and agency be selectively restricted by common law, regardless of the condition or use to which the individual defines as personal prerogative.
We may not therefore seek to dictate personal choice in matters of sexuality or its concomitant aspects by selective legislation beyond the commonly understood social limits regarding assault if we wish to maintain the image of a free society with guarantees of individual liberty.
The current threat to outlaw abortion and the associated attempts at controlling and/or outlawing contraception and all other movements to bar a host of sexual/gender freedoms (trans rights, same sex marriage, etc) are fundamentally anti-democratic, authoritarian, and unsupportable by any legitimate theory of liberty.
Finally, to put this in an even larger context, we must look at the broad goal of the entirety of the Civil Rights movements of the last…well, for the sake of definitional efficiency, since the end of WWII. What all such movements share in common is an assumption of the freedom of association. The self-evident freedom to associate with whom and how we choose. That segregation, either by race, class, or sex, are anti-democratic and a denial of any concept of individual liberty. The upheavals of the last 70 years all come down to this fundamental freedom, and the current struggle over individual autonomy and the self-definition of the individual and the agency accorded to each of us, here exemplified by the anti-choice movement, is axiomatically autocratic and authoritarian and cannot be isolated in its effect to a narrow aspect of our individual Self.+
Lastly, it is evident from the wider context that all of these limiting attempts are being done in bad faith. Laws are being advocated on the basis of a single thing that have as their ultimate goal several other consequences having little to do with the primary justification. The “innocent” are not being protected by any of this. “Innocence” in this case refers only to a condition wherein all other aspects of individual autonomy and agency are absent. It is, rather, an idealized concept that is being imposed exclusively for the purposes of control. Clearly, based on the general lack of advocacy and support for most childcare proposals, “innocence” here refers to that which does not have a presence in the world. In other words, that which is not an individual. Bad faith. **
*Of course, if that is the case, that we are defining the pregnancy as a separate thing, like an infection or a disease or a surgical implant, then bodily autonomy enters into the discussion from a different direction, namely that no one has the right to “implant” a foreign object into anyone without permission. And then we are right back to realizing that this is in no way about protecting the unborn but about denying women autonomy and agency—because we would have to make a special case for this particular “foreign object” to override her ability to say what can be done with and in her body.
+ In the attempt to define a fetus as a separate individual for the purpose of legislating restrictions on the autonomy of a woman, the argument fails on its face, firstly because it is not a separate individual but until born it is an expression of her body and her self, but secondly because in order to assert such restrictions you must first strip her of autonomy—her freedom—by limiting the definitional parameters of liberty for her and removing agency from her as an individual. It is functionally illogical to base presumed liberties on the constraint of liberty of someone else. And by liberty I refer to matters of self identity and freedom of association. There may well be attempts to example other forms of action which can be construed as expressions of autonomy—for instance, theft, assault, murder—and therefore be protected as such, but this fails by the simple metric that these actions and expressions also require the stripping of someone else’s liberties in order to occur and by definition cannot be confused with legitimate and moral expressions of individual agency within a free society.
**A clearer statement on this could not have been made than that by the Alabama state senator Clyde Chambliss who said at a hearing “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” His concern is not for “life”—in this case fertilized eggs in vitro—but for pregnant women. He expressed no concern here for the loss of “innocent life” but for the idea that a woman might do something about her pregnancy. Which is pretty much tacit admission that the fetus and the woman are not independent entities, but a holistic organic system. Which means that the only rights at issue are the woman’s and in this formulation they are being specifically targeted. Senator Chambliss exhibits no deep philosophical position in this statement but a naked rejection of individual—female—agency.