Ick and Superego

Dear Will,

If the word “hate” keeps coming up in my posts it’s not because I think you feel hate—you seem like a delightful person. It’s because hate is what I believe is the sentiment large sections of our society feel toward women who are sexual outside marriage. I mean, how many rappers have gotten immensely rich off the words “bitch” and “ho”? Or if the word hate is too strong, try disapprove, disdain, disesteem, or diss! If a woman gets pregnant out of wedlock, she is seen as careless, improvident, lazy, stupid—even if, like half such women, she was using birth control; even if there was an element of sexual pressure, if not coercion or rape; even if, like most of us, she and her partner had played odds that usually work out (it’s not her fertile time, he pulls out before ejaculation, etc.). So, now she is pregnant. What to do? Having an abortion makes her, in the eyes of many, including sometimes herself, frivolous and selfish and unmaternal.

But the way we treat unmarried mothers and their children shows we don’t respect keeping the pregnancy, either. Katherine Boo talks about how a low-income rural Cajun girl is praised and petted for giving birth—that’s her one moment in the sun. The minute she gives birth, she goes right back to being seen, and seeing herself, as a slut, a dropout, a failure.

So, about unplanned pregnancy: Besides all the practical obstacles to staying pregnancy-free that we both agree about—and getting rid of them would take a lot more even than the things we’ve mentioned; it would probably require national health care and a European-style welfare state—we need to change our views about women and sex. We need to say it’s OK to be sexual; it’s even OK to be sexual in ways that might be a stretch for you and me (as a psychologist friend of mine said recently, 14 is the new 17); and that the important thing is to be conscious of your sexual choices and prepare for them and own them. As long as we rabbit on about abstinence and good girls and bad girls and players—while, of course, hypersexualizing everything from cars to small children—we will have a lot of unintended pregnancy (and a lot of sexually transmitted diseases and sexual violence), because in this way of thinking about sex, foresight and intention make you bad. Being carried away (which can include being drunk or high) makes you good. Well, less bad. Having a baby then becomes the way to atone for your badness, and abortion becomes the way to confirm your badness by evading just punishment.

When I take issue with what seems to me a strain in your posts of fed-upness and exasperation with women who have unplanned pregnancies, it’s because I think you are drawing on this cultural mind-set, and that mind-set seems to me the root of the problem. I think it explains, too, something interesting about the polls you keep citing. Right now, most parents tell pollsters they want their kids to have realistic sex education. Yet the much smaller group of people who want their kids to pledge their virginity to Christ are winning the sex-ed battle. Why? Well, the latter group has a whole theo-political wind machine behind it, sure, and hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars. But it also has a single-minded, passionate vision with roots deep in our culture: Sex! Teens! Unmarried! NO! The pro-sex-ed people, by contrast, have a divided heart. They talk about teen sex as deplorable but inevitable, and birth control as damage control—the seatbelt on the speeding car—not as what makes safe a normal part of development. They agree with the abstinence crowd on principles—sex is bad—and disagree about the solution. This is not the sort of view that makes social change: It won’t get people out of their armchairs.

Adding “sex ed and birth control prevent abortion” is a shrewd move in that it steals the anti-choicers’ thunder. But to put abortion-prevention in the starring role, as you propose, is admitting something like this: We don’t care enough about girls and women to mobilize to make contraception and sex education truly available to all and to keep them safe from sexual coercion; we don’t care enough about poor mothers and their children to give them a decent future, with health care and decent employment and housing. All around us we see the damage done by unwanted childbearing, and we shrug our shoulders, because basically we disapprove of women having sex for pleasure: If they didn’t want to take the consequences, they should have kept their clothes on. But wow, now you are talking about the unborn! Embryos and fetuses! Abortion, which we find deeply upsetting! Now you have our full attention!

More likely, the sexual squeamishness and Puritan values that have disabled your pro-contraception troops so far would undermine this new campaign as well. The parents who want comprehensive sex ed would be no more politically active than before. Well-off voters would continue to care more about low taxes than about family planning—or any other service—for the poor. Catholics and evangelicals who tell pollsters yes, birth control is the way to fight abortion, would continue to support churches that use their considerable power to cut contraceptive services and ban abortion and emergency contraception. In fact, the more pro-choicers mobilized anti-abortion sentiment, the more it would empower the people who want to make abortion—and birth control and sex education and all the rest of it—harder to obtain. This is a campaign that will turn around and bite us.

Back to the issue of abortion. On one blog, our exchange is labeled: Is Abortion Icky? I think that expresses rather well how lots of people feel about abortion: They may not find it immoral or want to see it made illegal, but it disturbs them. It just seems like a bad thing. (“Icky” is an interesting word choice too—that messy female body!). In my last post, I tried to get at the difference between emotion and morality—and no, I don’t think it is a moral reflection if you feel sad because, say, you have all the children you want or can handle, but having an abortion makes you realize you are closing a door. Another woman, in exactly the same circumstances might feel quite differently: She might feel, “Oh Heck, just when I was getting my life back on track!” Similarly, feeling that you’ve “messed up” is not about morality, either. It’s about feeling you haven’t taken good care of yourself, that you were careless or reckless. You, Will, seem to be saying that a woman owes something to the potential person—not enough to force her to keep the pregnancy, but something. If she feels bad, it’s because she recognizes that she is defaulting on an obligation. I don’t think that obligation exists. Because there is no person there for her to have an obligation to. There is the seed of a person, and maybe the idea in her mind of a person. But right now, when she misses her period and takes the home pregnancy test, she is the only person at stake. And the moral thing is for her choose what’s best for that person, herself.

Nobody else seems to talk this way, so let me be the one to say it: Legal abortion is a good thing, and not just because it prevents illegal operations. Without abortion, women would be less healthy, less educated, less able to realize their gifts and talents, less able to choose their mates; children would be cared for worse and provided for less well; sex would be blighted by fear of pregnancy, as it used to be back in the good old days; families would be even more screwed up than they already are; there would be more single mothers who can’t cope, more divorce, more poverty, and more unhappy people feeling sandbagged by circumstance. We hear a lot now about regret and sorrow, and I know some women who have abortions feel that way, but we don’t hear about the regrets and sorrow women feel who went ahead and had the baby, and we don’t hear much from women who are just completely relieved and thankful that the clinic was there for them and they can get on with their lives—lives that are good and moral.