by Joshua Piercey
The debate around abortion is rarely out of the public eye, but a specific facet has been raised within the last fortnight – that of punishment. Donald Trump addressed it as he does every issue – bombastic blunder from one side to another, then desperate retreat – stating that woman should be punished for procuring abortions if new legislature rendered them illegal, then “clarifying” to suggest that only doctors performing those abortions should be punished. In Ireland, a 21-year old woman was prosecuted – after she turned herself in – for self-inducing abortion.
The debate about punishment, specifically the moral and legal inconsistency it engenders, has been discussed elsewhere, far better than I could. The New York Times article on it is so blunt as to be almost contentious, and I strongly suggest reading it. In short it points out that, if abortion is murder as its opponents so vehemently state, then we are morally impelled to punish women who choose to abort.
If that gives you pause, it should. The point of the article is essentially that the anti-abortion movement’s rhetoric is deliberately inflammatory and inconsistent to the point of hypocrisy. If abortion is made illegal in the US, just as in Ireland, punishment for women will inevitably follow. As a supporter of any woman’s right to choose, this is a terrifying thought on its own. But one part of the article stood out for me in particular:
“Abortion opponents know full well that the public would not abide putting women in prison en masse. Politically, it’s more palatable to portray them as irrational, ignorant and childlike, perhaps even temporarily insane. They are, in any case, incompetent to make their own decisions. If a woman thinks having a baby as a college freshman or a mother of five is a terrible idea, if she has health problems or is trying to escape a bad relationship or feels unready for motherhood, well, she just doesn’t know what’s good for her.” Katha Pollitt, New York Times
Deliberately robbing women of intellectual agency is a tactic used by the anti-abortion movement as a way to call abortion murder but avoid the overtly misogynistic (and probably un-electable) policy of punishing women for making choices about their own reproduction. It’s a specific answer to a specific issue but it goes largely unchallenged because it’s part of a larger and common narrative: women cannot always be trusted to act rationally when making serious decisions about their own bodies.
This belittling of intelligence is widespread, from the classroom to the office to the halls of government. Shoddy science is referenced, busted myths and sagging straw men are carted sadly around. The most common method is to shift the focus from nurture to nature. When a woman makes a decision that is potentially contentious, it’s her biology, not psychology, that drives it.
Such nonsense affects birth, too. It is misconceived theory that a “sudden” desire to have children is not down to suitable personal circumstances, or the change in priorities that comes with aging, or the transformative occurrence when a life partner is found. Instead it is down to the drive of a woman’s “biological clock”, a clock that she has been told is ticking – and running out – her whole life. If an article in the Daily Mail repeatedly mentions in scaremongering tones that a woman’s fertility is decreasing – right now, this second, as you read this very word, then is her decision to have a child a unconscious choice driven by hormones or a knee-jerk reaction spurned from the fear instilled by the article in the first place?
Men rarely have such life choices blamed on their biology. The stereotypical male midlife crisis, for example, is seen as a purely psychological event. Uncertainty about the future, personal failings, the bittersweet pull of nostalgia, all of these contribute to abnormal or contentious behaviours – not hormones. A female midlife crisis is likely to be partially blamed on its perceived biological equivalent, the menopause.
It doesn’t happen in every case. If individual blame can be apportioned to a contentious act, women are likely to have their reasoning challenged but still acknowledged. But if their reasoning is clearly sound, but the act still contentious (and blame inappropriate)… then sometimes it’s easier to say they couldn’t possibly be thinking at all.