Sarah Morice-Brubaker at Religion Dispatches has a fascinating article on the way the anti-choice movement has picked up the rallying cry that “pregnancy isn’t a disease,” and the various historical understandings of the female body that feed this. The rallying cry is in service of depriving women of contraception access, on the grounds that because you can be pregnant until your uterus gives out, you should be pregnant until your uterus gives out. (At what point, they’ll probably say that it’s now diseased and medical science should find a way to restore it so that women never get a break from the threat of pregnancy.) As Sarah points out, the reason they’ve been picking this up is in part because it sounds “feminist-ish,” but it’s also because they want to bait you into debating whether or not pregnancy is a “disease,” which is a distraction from what we should be talking about.
What we need to be talking about is not disease, but health. The statement “pregnancy is not a disease,” when offered to support removing the right to prevent pregnancy, is profoundly misogynist. It’s a minimalist view of what women deserve. It’s based in the belief that as long as the body is still functioning and can make babies, that’s all you need. I would argue instead of a feminist point of view, where it’s not enough to keep women alive and officially disease-free. We don’t want women to be just not-sick. We want them to be healthy. Not just healthy, but thriving.
The “pregnancy is not a disease” mindset supports a gruesome view of women as machines, instead of human beings. Does the car move? Does the refrigerator keep food cold? Does the computer hook you up to the internet? Then all is well! We don’t worry if the refrigerator is happy, or the car has self-determination, or the computer has a chance to fill its life ambitions.
The health-oriented view sees the individual woman as more than a machine that has to be kept working, but requires nothing more. The health-oriented view imagines health as a positive value, more than simply the “absence of sickness,” but a state that can be improved to the benefit of the individual. Therefore health care is about more than disease prevention, but about helping a person get the most value out of their life. It’s about more than simply not-dying, but about actual living.
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I’d argue that most people see “health” in this positive sense, and not just in this “absence of disease” sense. When we describe someone as “healthy,” we’re aren’t imagining someone who is out of shape, lethargic, and feeling down, but falling short of actually ill or depressed. We imagine positive qualities. We imagine a person who is not only disease-free, but also energetic, in good physical shape, and feeling good. When we say that someone has a healthy outlook on life, we don’t mean merely that they aren’t depressed—we’re talking about a positive value, a person who has a good outlook that actively improves life.
So, setting aside the fact that constant pregnancy and fear of pregnancy may not technically be a disease, we can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is not healthy. The person who is suffering from unwanted pregnancy is still not well.
Health care is about more than preventing and curing disease. It’s also about preventing and curing not-wellness. Preventing and curing disease is part of health care, but it’s only a part. Good doctors believe that health care is about making sure people’s bodies are working for them, not just that they’re technically functioning.
For instance, when I was a young girl, I had fairly severe asthma, and it took a lot of work to keep it under control. When I was sitting in the doctor’s office and listening to all the things I needed to do in order to not be sick or die of asthma, did my doctor try to buck me up by saying, “If you do everything right, when you’re an adult you’ll be able to take some medications and go outside?” Did he say, “With all these medications and some time, we can make sure to achieve a minimum of keeping your body alive?” Hell no! That would make him a terrible doctor. He did more than tell me about not-sickness. He sat me down and described a future of having health. He pointed to his medal for finishing a marathon, told me he was also a childhood asthmatic, and told me that if I took my medications and took care of my body, I could do more than not be dead, but that I too could be an athlete. I could be a person whose body did more than achieve the bare minimum of not being sick, but be someone who was healthy, in body and mind.
Women need to be able to prevent pregnancy not because pregnancy is a disease, but because a woman who is gestating against her will isn’t in a healthy place. She’s is a sad place, and her body is out of her control. Sure, she’s achieving the bare minimum of not being broken, but since she’s not a machine but a human being, she has a right to demand more than that. She deserves to have a body that’s in line with her life goals. She deserves to have a mind that is doing more than coping with her sad life, but is engaging in happiness and productiveness. Life is about more than not dying, It’s about living. And access to contraception is something the vast majority of women need to live their lives to their fullest, to have more than being not-broken and not-dead, but to be genuinely healthy.