Commentary Maternity and Birthing

Reproductive Choice Is About More Than Getting ‘Fat’—It’s About Bodily and Economic Autonomy

Natasha Chart

Exactly the sort of person who would say "Just have the baby" read my essay about the end of my pregnancy and my son's first month of life, and her interpretation of my point was "pregnancy makes you fat."

Exactly the sort of person who would say “Just have the baby” read my essay about the end of my pregnancy and my son’s first month of life, and Cassy Fiano’s interpretation of my point was “pregnancy makes you fat“—not “pregnancy is expensive, sometimes incompatible with maintaining a job or a decent income, painful, extremely difficult, possibly life-threatening, or sometimes traumatic,” which are the topics I recall writing about when my son was in the hospital and I was worried he might need surgery. I mentioned the cost of clothes, so I was complaining about getting fat, according to Fiano at Live Action News.

The start of my adult working life involved a series of lousy minimum wage and poorly paid jobs. The best perk I had at any of them was that the restaurant jobs usually involved one free meal a day. As a recent New York Times article about the hardships of low-wage workers pointed out, some people don’t even get that:

Naquasia Legrand, a 22-year-old from Canarsie, Brooklyn, works at two KFCs. She washes dishes at one for $7.75 and mops floors at the other for $8. She says she must work four or five hours each week off the clock. She needed to buy a MetroCard last week so she skipped lunch. She shakes her head. “I think I deserve to eat lunch.”

When I worked at a Subway franchise and did get a half sandwich per shift, I never found more than three pairs of pants that fit, that I could afford, and that were acceptable to wear as part of my uniform, though I was a regular at the thrift stores and yard sales in the area. None of the pants were bought new; new clothes were an unattainable luxury. One pair I had was so tight that they barely fit after a big meal, but they were black and they were long enough not to look ridiculous. Those miserable pants had to last because there were no more where those came from. I washed my clothes a lot and was grateful my apartment came with a washer and dryer.

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Later, I set my sights higher, got some job training, and started doing office temp work. That paid better, but my clothes cost more, because wearing business or business casual attire was mandatory. Office work doesn’t come with free lunches, and the abusive jerk I was married to didn’t let me have enough of my paycheck to eat lunch every day. I was always excited when I’d get placed somewhere with granola bars in the vending machines, because then if I had a few quarters handy, I didn’t have to choose between candy and nothing. I lost a couple placements because I was so hungry I fell asleep at my desk. But my clothes had to fit, they still had to last, and they weren’t what I usually wanted to ask to spend the household food budget on.

When I say that acceptable work clothes are a serious expense for some people, this is the kind of thing I mean. Maybe it’s inherently ridiculous in the misogynist mindset to hear a lady talk about clothes, but clothes cost real money, just like everything else. Money spent on clothes can’t be spent on food, transportation, or medical bills.

So unless a woman has a job where she can show up in a muumuu and Crocs, I call shenanigans on mocking clothing costs as a trivial concern. Women are held to a stricter, more expensive standard of appearance in the majority of living-wage workplaces, and often have to conform to narrow dress codes in workplaces that pay nothing close to a family wage.

Anti-choice activists who advocate forced birth, like Fiano, work to close clinics because they know all too well that the price of a bus ticket to a more distant office can push an abortion out of reach of a low-wage worker or low-income family. And when your clothes become painful to wear—when you’re bursting out of them or flat out can’t get into them—fixing the situation often costs more than a bus ticket.

If the cost of a new pair of pants is a serious issue in a household, a baby is an enormous economic burden. It is, perhaps, the difference between poverty and dire poverty.

When a person already has children—and, as of 2011, 61 percent of all women seeking abortions already had one or more children—the money spent on those new uniform pants isn’t just taking food out of your mouth, it’s taking food out of the mouths of your kids.

If a pregnancy costs a woman her job, how will she feed her family? If she has to go for a job interview, she usually can’t show up in slovenly, ill-fitting clothes and expect a good outcome.

I get the impression that Fiano either doesn’t care about women getting or maintaining employment, or doesn’t know what a typical workplace is like. The bit she writes about getting leave after a birth really drives the impression home:

Chart also mentions time off for recovery, which usually runs about six weeks. Chart seems to think this means that women are completely incapacitated and incapable of doing anything until those six weeks are over, but thankfully, that’s not quite the case.

Again, as I mentioned in the first place, millions of people in this country can’t get a single day off to recover from a cold or flu. Do colds and flus completely incapacitate people? Not generally, especially considering how many people are forced to work right through them. But if the standard for getting time to recover from an illness was complete incapacity, I think most people would regard this as inhumane.

What’s worse is that the jobs least likely to allow a decent span of leave after childbirth are the ones that tend to be more physically demanding. Rather than sitting at a desk all day, they generally require being on your feet much of the time, lifting, carrying, bending, stretching, and moving, moving, moving.

Low-wage workplaces often operate on a principle summed up by the words of my old boss at Subway: “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” Going back to frenetic manual labor before feeling fully healed can extend recovery time from an injury, and let’s be clear that birth for pretty much all people involves at least some amount of injury.

Why do none of the people who say they care so much about theoretical “fetal pain” ever think that demonstrable maternal pain is worth mentioning?

People like Fiano often work to enact waiting periods for abortion, because they know that many people can’t get a day or more off from their job for an extra doctor’s appointment. Yet Fiano feels fine making light of the hassle of constant medical tests, the risk of getting a secondary illness that would require more time off for medical care later, or trying to get anything close to six weeks worth of leave after childbirth.

Fiano’s OK with minimizing these costs though, because a study once showed that some women who were forced by circumstances to have children they didn’t want usually ended up having their initial anxiety levels go back to normal and admitted to few regrets. In other words, they’ll get over it. As with physical pain and injury, Fiano seems to suggest there’s no need for sympathy if a person isn’t completely, perhaps permanently, incapacitated by an adverse event.

She admits that the economic impacts on the women in the study were “significant,” but she brushes past that fact the way people do when they don’t really care about the impacts of poverty on children, adults, and their families. Since 40 percent of births in the United States end up being covered by Medicaid, which only steps in to cover people who are either already quite poor or have spent down their assets on medical expenses to the point that they now qualify as poor, it’s clear that many people are willing to have a child in spite of poverty. Yet that choice should be up to the individual who has to endure the consequences, not a conservative movement that’s worked at every turn to cut nutrition, housing, child care, transportation, and medical assistance for these same low-income families.

Fiano also noted that adoption alleviated many of the economic issues I raised.

Really? For everybody?

Does giving up a baby for adoption erase all the extra personal expenses shelled out over the course of a pregnancy? Does it magically restore any pay or chance at advancement that you might have lost? Does the act of adoption fully return your body to its pre-pregnancy, uninjured state, such that you don’t need time off work to recover afterward? Does it decrease the cost of taking care of pregnancy-induced diabetes or other pregnancy-related conditions that don’t heal up right away?

I don’t think so.

And adoption simply isn’t an option everyone can live with—as if there’s a perfect adoptive family waiting for every child anyway. It’s true that the healthy child of a sober, well-nourished, white college graduate like me has a better chance of finding a good home with a family willing to shell out for the birth mother’s medical expenses than some babies would. But the foster care system is proof positive that there isn’t a loving, financially stable home waiting for every unwanted child.

You bring a child into the world and you are a parent. That means something. It’s not easy for everyone to casually hand that job off to a stranger because, contrary to what forced birth advocates would have you believe, most people have a pretty strong understanding of what pregnancy is and what an incredible responsibility parenthood is from a very young age. Whether your parents did a great, middling, or terrible job, or even if they weren’t there, it’s the rare person who doesn’t get how important that was to the course of their lives. Giving a newborn baby over to strangers is going to be unacceptable to many people.

Lastly, though she mentioned it first, Fiano complained about my lack of discussion of personal responsibility, lamenting sarcastically that “it’s cruel to expect women to abstain from sex if they aren’t ready for a baby.” In a word, yes. That’s cruel.

Sex drive is basic to human nature. We’ve been having sex as a species for a long time—close to 200,000 years by now if you believe in the same science that gives us miracles like advanced antibiotics and level 3 neonatal intensive care units—and many of us are sick of being made to feel guilty about it.

I’m going to take it as a given that Fiano disapproves of sex outside of marriage. And I’m going to guess that when she talks about personal responsibility, it’s code for the people the forced birth movement always acts like they’re talking about exclusively: childless, unmarried teens and early 20-somethings. (Nothing gets their predominately male audience frothing like young girls having unauthorized sex, and Fiano clearly knows her audience.) This creepy voyeurism is stomach turning and is probably at least as much to blame as widespread racism for the conservative movement’s demographic death spiral.

Even as a married woman, I reject the idea that sex should always be about being ready for a baby. No matter how guilty many people feel in public when they’re shamed into mumbling their agreement about the evils of “irresponsible” sex, not all married people are always ready for a baby, even if they already have children.

To be more clear, if Fiano isn’t planning to join the Quiverfull movement, or isn’t one of the less than 20 percent of Catholics who agree with the church hierarchy on contraception, to suggest that women (not men, naturally) should abstain from sex if we don’t want babies is an extreme minority position. If she is planning to do something like that, well, there’s a reason the Duggars have a reality TV show—because most modern U.S. citizens have decided not to live like that.

While views like Fiano’s still have the power to hurt and to publicly shame, I take comfort in the fact that they’re also becoming extinct in practice, rejected privately by one person after another as cruel and pointless. While conservative politicians are taking their gerrymandered statehouse victories and running to turn the clocks back on reproductive rights, I take comfort in the fact that they’re panicking because they can see the inevitability of their slide into irrelevance in people’s lives.

It just makes me sad to think of how many more people are going to be coerced into brutally hard lives in the meantime. All because some cruel social throwbacks value theoretical children over actual women and the families they already have.

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