There was a lot of wry joking in the feminist blogosphere this week about the fact that the Nebraska legislature passed a law restricting abortion on mental health grounds (based in a complete disregard for science) and another law restricting abortion so that women who need it for mental health reasons can’t have it. This contradiction was rightfully taken as evidence that anti-choicers don’t care about women’s mental health, unless they can use it as a pick to chip away at women’s rights. But I’d like to argue that the two laws do actually show an intellectual consistency in the anti-choice worldview, one that is fundamentally misogynist.
Feminism is often referred to as the belief that women are human beings. What we mean when we say this is that our society centers men as the standard issue human beings, and casts women as something other than that. But what exactly? Does a patriarchal society cast women as animals? Demons? Plants? At various times in history, you’ll get different answers, but I’d say the modern sexist conception of women is as high-functioning robots that dispense sex, housework, ego-soothing, and offspring for men. Sometimes this model gets disturbingly explicit. (Note the emphasis on shutting up any “output” that might come from a woman’s unnecessary intellectual capacities, i.e. opinions formed in her brain and issued from her mouth.) Different kinds of sexists put emphasis on different “functions” of the bots we call women—some are more interested in their sexual functions, some in how efficiently they run a household—but this is the common denominator. Women’s internal lives, hopes, dreams, and well-being are considered secondary to their functions, if relevant at all.
In the anti-choice flavor of sexism, women are cast as baby-making machines. It would be interesting to analyze how anti-choicers see themselves in a pitched battle over possession of female bodies with men who see women as sex dispensers, but that’s a topic for another post. The important thing is that if you see women as baby machines, then protecting a woman’s right not to have a baby makes about as much sense to you as protecting a car’s right not to drive or protecting a refrigerator’s right not to chill your food.
Under this model of understanding, “mental health” is related strictly to how well the operating system in the brain handles the task of keeping the uterine functions working. A brain that says it doesn’t want a baby is broken by definition, and a brain that wants babies is healthy by definition. You don’t worry about whether your car is depressed or suicidal, after all. You just worry about whether or not it drives. Under this model, assuming all women who want abortions are mentally ill (or will be) is perfectly consistent with believing that there’s no reason to allow a woman with mental health issues to have an abortion for her own good.
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In case the misogyny underlying this viewpoint isn’t obvious enough, consider then how suicide fits in to all this. Many women who need abortions for mental health reasons are threatening suicide, which of course is linked in the real world to actually attempting suicide. But the Nebraska law explicitly excludes potential suicide as a reason for an abortion. Under the belief that women are human beings, this seems like a cruel disregard for human life. Under the belief that women are baby machines, though, this makes perfect sense. If your car was threatening to crash itself so that it had to be totaled so that it didn’t have to drive anymore, in your view it’s about the same thing. Either way, car’s not driving, so the car is worthless. I suppose a totaled car can at least be taken to the dump and gotten out of your hair.
Jessica Valenti discovered a great example of this kind of thinking. Jessica earlier blogged about a bit of sign protest against the “Abortion Changes You” ads on subways. The prankster changed an anti-choice sign to read, “Now I can go to college & fulfill my dreams”. Anti-choice blogger Lori Ziganto completely lost it at the suggestion that a woman might have a good reason to go to college and get an education, dropping the sexually charged word “co-ed” and hinting that college was just about having fun. Sexy, sexy fun. Ziganto seems to imagine that there isn’t much to women besides that which happens in or around their uteruses, so if they aren’t baby-making, then they’re sleeping around. Hey, Penthouse portrays “co-eds” as air-headed bimbos with their legs permanently spread, and Penthouse would never lie, would they?
It’s mind-boggling to think of how grim a person you must be to come so unhinged at the idea of college kids having some fun, but more than that, it was startling how naked Ziganto’s contempt for women’s education was. Most anti-choicers know better than to just lay it out there like that. Most of them, you have to judge by their actions. But even by that measure, it’s easy to see this belief that women’s minds and well-being are irrelevant is built in to anti-choice policy ideals. If there’s ever a conflict between the baby-making functions and a woman’s hopes, dreams, responsibilities, or well-being, the former will always win with anti-choicers.
In the feminist worldview, one where women are human beings, it’s appalling to reduce women to their baby-making functions. Pro-choicers believe that having children can be a wonderful, powerful thing when desired, but we would never reduce women to a function, whether it’s reproductive, sexual, or chore-based. We imagine women as full human beings just like men, and that they share the same full rights to self-determination and the pursuit of happiness. Because of this, we think the stuff that happens above the neck is important in and of itself, more important even than what happens in the uterus.