If you accept that the most important thing we do, in coldly biological terms, is to reproduce and pass on our genes, the abortion debate, it seems to me, is not only about a woman’s right to choose or a baby’s right to life.
It is also about which sex gets to control reproduction.
Knowing they have succeeded in passing on their DNA is most problematic for males. Not just human males, either. Throughout the animal kingdom males fight, sometimes to the death, for the right to mate and pass on their genes.
In primates, if a previously dominant male is defeated and chased off, the young of the group, his genetic offspring, are at great risk from the new leader. Indeed, a recent report links the size of a primate’s testicles to the relative promiscuity of the female of the species.
Male chimpanzees have huge testicles and female chimpanzees are very free with their favours. Gorillas have tiny testicles and tightly controlled harems. Human testicles are somewhere in between. The size of testicles and the amount of sperm produced is nature’s way of giving the male his best chance of passing on his genes.
This problem simply does not exist for female animals. A woman who gives birth knows she has succeeded in bequeathing 50 per cent of her genetic material to the future. She has fulfilled her biological task, so to speak. A man, on the other hand, cannot be so sure.
DNA testing has, in fact, confirmed what many suspected; that some men have been unwittingly putting their energy and resources into children who are not their own.
The amount of energy and resources now required to raise a human child has increased exponentially, the number of marriages that break down has also exploded, and men are warier than ever before of accepting both the responsibility and the insecurity that inevitably accompanies fatherhood.
An insecurity that is not new, however.
Over the millennia, it has led to all sorts of attempts to control and curtail women’s sexuality and fertility. From the double standards all societies have about women who have sex and men who have sex, and the old traditions of displaying bloodied bed sheets after the consummation of a marriage, to female circumcision, foot binding, burkhas, chastity belts, eunuchs guarding harems, honour killings and one thousand and one other devices designed to keep a woman from conceiving another man’s child.
Almost all religions have more rules and taboos about women, their sexuality and roles, than they do about men.
Looked at from a purely biological perspective, it is no wonder society agrees with nature. Men who spread their seed far and wide are, if not celebrated, at least tolerated, because it maximises their chance of passing on their genes. A woman who is promiscuous, however, is terrifying. Who knows which man’s child she could end up foisting on her partner?
Society attempts to control such women using overt disapproval, insults, and, of course, law.
It is not co-incidental that western women, at least, only began to exercise real control over their lives, their earnings and their sexuality, since the invention of the contraceptive pill, back in the 1960s. Nor is it co-incidental that this has led to a much-heightened level of anxiety about the roles, rights and duties of women than ever before.
Instead of being controlled, women are now able to control themselves. Our response to this alarming turn of events has been schizophrenic. In the context of the abortion debate, for instance, it is surprising that one of the most universally despised and criticised groups in our society remains the single mother.
We are also deeply ambivalent about working mothers. Working women are fine, it is only when they become mothers that our primal, biological fear of women’s independence is triggered.
Society and, it must be said, the church have made no secret of their discomfort about women’s increasing control over reproduction. The churches, in particular, have fought this control every step of the way. It is less than 200 years since women not only had no right to their own earnings, but no legal right to their children. If a woman left her marriage in the nineteenth century, she could not take her children with her.
Part of this urge to control was also punitive. When chloroform first began to be used to relieve the pain of childbirth, many church leaders vigorously opposed it. They argued it was ordained by God that women suffer while giving birth as punishment for Eve’s original sin. Fortunately for labouring women, the then head of the Church of England was often one herself. Queen Victoria, who eventually gave birth nine times, grabbed chloroform, so to speak, with both hands, and made it acceptable. Who knows what might have happened had she been a King.
Women have had to fight every inch of the way to gain information about their own bodies, what to expect on their wedding night, even how babies are conceived. Dr Marie Stopes, one of the first women to fully qualify as a medical doctor in Britain, spent years in an unconsummated marriage wondering why she could not get pregnant. When someone finally told her the reason, she was so alarmed about her ignorance, not just as a woman, but as a doctor, she began a life-long campaign to ensure women got both sex education and, particularly, contraceptive information.
In my own youth, in the 1970s, it was still possible to have a girl sent to an institution by calling her uncontrollable, and many an exasperated parent threatened to do just that. Uncontrollable didn’t just mean bolshie and rude, it also meant sexually active. Unmarried mothers have always been punished for their transgression, for daring to reproduce without being under the care and protection (read control) of a bloke. If they went ahead with their pregnancy, they were sent away from home, lies were told about illness or holidays, and their baby was whisked away from them as soon as it was born. Awful stories routinely appear in the press about the coercion exercised by doctors and nurses to get girls to give up their children.
A relationship counsellor friend of mine tells me that over a ten year career, she has spent many hours working through the grief of women who gave up their children for adoption and the grief of children who were adopted out, but not one similar hour dealing with the emotional fall out from abortion. Not because she wasn’t interested, but because her female clients who have had an abortion, mention it in passing, and do not see it as a traumatic event.
No-one wants to have an abortion but, thanks to greater access to professional medical care, it is most often the unwanted pregnancy, not the ending of it, that is devastating.
Like all adult human beings, women want to feel in control of their own fate and, like all human beings, they do not enjoy being controlled. It is a consequence of their biology that to control their own lives, women must also be trusted to control reproduction. The two, it seems to me, are inextricably linked.
The abortion debate, like all the other similar debates that have preceded it, is really another aspect of this age-old struggle for power and control.
Biologically, men have less control over reproducing themselves than women do, but the price they have exacted from women in response to this, has been high indeed.
The usual to-and-fro arguments about when life begins, or the relative moral value of what some call a woman’s ‘lifestyle’ as opposed to the rights of a foetus, or whether there are too many abortions (just how many are okay, I sometimes wonder), or whether late term abortions are more reprehensible than those performed earlier in a pregnancy, are not, in my view, the only points at issue.
However we dress it up, the question is basically about who decides whether a baby, once it is conceived, gets to be born or not. Should it be the woman who carries it, or society at large?
Abortion in the suburbs, a memoir by Joanna Mendelssohn in New Matilda: Issue 24 here
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