The news spread quickly around my hometown Chapel Hill and the country last week that members of the Westboro Baptist Church intended to protest the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards, who passed away last week after a long battle with cancer. The extremist church has long sought attention by protesting at the funerals of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now it was targeting a woman who, frankly, went through quite enough in her adult life. The group set its sites on Edwards’ funeral because, they say, she “thought she could control God” by seeking fertility treatments in order to have two more children in her mid-forties.
The logical thing to do, of course, in this and other instances would be to ignore them. Don’t give them airtime in the media. Join the line of counter-protestors who would stand between the protestors and the mourners at Edwards’ public funeral. And for the most part I think that is absolutely the right thing to do – Fred Phelps and his cohort hold these protests in order to use a family’s private pain to gain attention for their extremist theology. When we put them on CNN we only justify their actions by giving them a wider audience.
But I also think it’s worth acknowledging that what Phelps does is just an extreme example of what society does to women on a daily basis. Any woman who shows independent agency in her childbearing decisions is open to questions and even vilification. It would be tempting to place the blame at the feet of conservative religious forces — the Catholic Church certainly makes no apologies for its position opposing both birth control and assisted reproductive technologies. And at a recent conference to find common ground on abortion, conservative members of the audience openly worried about the fate of women who turned against their “feminine natures” by deciding not to have children. Even the pro-life academics and speakers at that conference found it challenging to acknowledge women’s moral agency in their reproductive decisions, though they would argue firmly for the moral value of the fetus.
Public critique and examination of women’s decisions cuts across race, class, and geography. In 2006, when the media was becoming more aware of the willingness of doctors and pharmacists to refuse to prescribe or dispense birth control, a woman named Dana, a married mother of two, described her frustrated efforts to get Plan B when she needed it. Her story was moving and frustrating — a suburban, professional mother of two, with good health insurance, forced to go to an inner city Planned Parenthood clinic because her doctor wouldn’t give her emergency contraception! — but it also engendered vicious comments about why she would be so careless to have risked pregnancy to begin with, or so callous as to turn her back on any pregnancy that might have resulted.
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Nor should we think that tendency is limited to conservative religious forces. Even among pro-choice women we question each other — “Why would a woman fail to use birth control properly?” “Why is she drinking coffee when she’s pregnant?” “Women should only be allowed to have one abortion; once is a mistake, but you must learn.”
Even the Supreme Court has gone so far as to question a woman’s capacity to make decisions about her pregnancy in the decision to uphold a ban on an abortion procedure used late in pregnancy. In the majority decision for Gonzales v. Carhart, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:
While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained. [Emphasis mine.]
Apparently the woman who decides to end a dangerous pregnancy late in gestation is either misguided or insane, and needs the guidance to ensure she makes the “right” decision. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent:
…the Court deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety.
For whatever reason, society is willing to treat women like children when it comes to making childbearing decisions – children who are able to drive, vote, hold jobs, pay mortgages and raise families. Women lead complex lives, and they make decisions about whether and when to have children within a complex framework of circumstances and relationships. If women are not capable of making the most fundamental decisions about childbearing, how can we be trusted to navigate the whole complex landscapes of our lives? (Or, to quote the pro-choice chestnut, “If you can’t trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?”)
As I mourn Elizabeth Edwards, I will remember her as a fearless advocate and mother who led a complicated life in a bright public spotlight. Whether having children late in life, deciding to stay with (and ultimately separating from) a husband who betrayed her, the public and pundits wasted no time in picking her apart. But I was inspired by the way she acknowledged the complications and did not apologize for how she ploughed ahead in her life and continued speaking out for issues she believed in. As she herself said in an interview:
You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.
It’s a ripe metaphor for what women might face in a new conservative House of Representatives (and in the state legislature in my home state of North Carolina), whose leaders have already announced their intentions to impose new restrictions on women’s right to make childbearing decisions. I will honor Edwards’ memory not by yelling at the Phelps’ of the world, or giving him a platform or space on the evening news. I will honor her by working for policies that support women and families, at home and around the world, so that they have the respect and resources they need to make their own decisions, free of punishment and condemnation.