Note: I originally posted this piece last week at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like. It’s a rant I wrote that I put up completely unedited. While I tend to polish my pieces after writing them, this one I kept in its natural state.
I am childfree. I don’t particularly like children. The ones I’m related to are pretty tolerable, if not enjoyable, especially because sooner or later they go home. But I don’t want to have any, ever. So why then am I broaching the topic of feminism and childbirth? Well, consider me an outside observer, someone with critical distance. I don’t want to have children, I won’t have children, and so I think I have an interesting perspective when it comes to talking about parenthood. I’ve observed my parents and my relatives who have children; I’ve seen friends and colleagues become parents as well. So while I don’t have any firsthand experience of childbirth and parenthood, it’s all around me and I can’t help but take notice, observe, and think.
As a childfree person, I have become acutely aware of the extent to which choice infuses every aspect of reproduction. We tend to think of the choice debate simply in terms of whether or not to keep an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy. But really, choice is an issue even before conception happens. The one I am most familiar with is the decision whether or not to have children in the first place. And I don’t just mean whether or not to have an abortion when faced with a surprise. I mean the very decision whether or not to have children at all is a choice. The problem is, most people don’t seem to treat any reproductive choices as choices. Forget the debate over the morality of abortion. Some people think it’s wrong, immoral, or selfish to not have any children at all, to practice birth control or abstain from sex altogether in order to avoid pregnancy for the entirety of one’s life. I once knew a guy who didn’t want kids, but decided he was going to have them anyway, because that was what our biologies dictated. But in fact, we have a choice. As humans, we have the reflective consciousness to decide whether we even want children or not, and we have the technology to facilitate those choices. Anyone who believes that people have to reproduce for religious or other cultural reasons is making a choice as well. They are not forced into anything by their belief system; they choose to accept that system and follow it. It’s true that some women are forced into marriage and motherhood, with little or no hope for escape.
And then of course is the question of what do with a pregnancy if and when it happens. Not only do I believe in choice, but I believe in changing one’s mind. Meaning that, even if a person decides they want a child, they might change their mind later in life. They might not change their mind until a pregnancy happens. Or, the pregnancy might come at the wrong time. Even a planned pregnancy carried to term is a choice. Even if you plan the pregnancy, even if it’s wanted, there’s still the passive choice to keep it. Whether the right to choose abortion is protected or not, women still find ways to make their choices.
And I don’t think men really get a choice in this regard. I don’t like it, becuase I want a world where every single thing is equal. Unfortunately, pregnancy is not equal. A woman births the child, and therefore she has the ultimate right to say what she does with each pregnancy. But men can have a choice before pregnancy happens. They can decide whether they want a child or not. They can choose to have vasectomies. And then they can decide who to have sex with. We know that accidents happen even with the best birth control. So he should talk to every partner before they have sex. He should find out whether her childbearing desires match his own. He should trust her that she’s not out to trick him. The best protection a man can offer himself is only choosing partners he trusts and share his views on what to do if a pregnancy happens.
When a woman is pregnant, she has a number of choices as well. It’s not actually illegal to sell alcohol to a pregnant woman. While scientists have shown that drinking can harm a fetus, women still do it. I know one woman who would have a glass of wine with dinner once the first trimester was over, and her baby was born perfectly healthy. Women are not required by law to seek pre-natal care. Of course, some women who want it cannot afford it. But those who can nonetheless have the right to reject it. Women still have agency during pregnancy, and we need to protect that. Yes, at some point, we also need to take into question the health of the fetus. If a woman does not respect her fetus enough, if she puts herself in deliberate danger while pregnant, then she should just have aborted in the first place. Perhaps she is even trying to abort. But even if that’s the case, she’s doing it the wrong way, a way that is harmful to herself. Maybe that’s the approach she’s taking because she has no access to a medical abortion, no access to the knowledge and tools required to safely self-induce. But then it is our responsibility to help her, to loan her money for an abortion, to take her to a clinic. And that assumes that she does not want the baby. If she does want it, and she cannot or will not stop her risky behavior, it is our job to help her then as well. If she’s an addict, help her stop. If for some reason she’s that flat-out ignorant, then teach her, enlighten her. Because she’s not just hurting the fetus, she’s hurting herself. And those hurts are going to continue for the both of them in the long-term. A healthy infant is difficult enough; try one with fetal alcohol syndrome. And that assumes she doesn’t miscarry, or that the child isn’t taken away by Protective Services soon after birth.
Birthing a baby also revolves around a set of choices. Midwife, doula, doctor, home birth, birthing center, combination thereof? How you have your baby is a reproductive choice. Unfortunately, many people don’t see it that way, those people usually being doctors. But women themselves often don’t realize the extent of possibilities before them. American women, who have grown up in a culture which focuses on hospital birth, often do not even consider that they have other options out there. They could spend their labor in a pool rather than a hospital bed. It seems that most women consider their only real birthing choice to be whether they have drugs or not. But the choice of how to give birth extends far beyond that. Of course, there are some times when a high-risk pregnancy reduces or eliminates a woman’s choices. But that does not mean those choices should not exist, or that they should be revoked from all women “just in case.” Most women will have healthy enough pregnancies that will allow them to make each choice each step of the way. They need to arm themselves with research, whether they get it from their high-speed DSL or have to take the bus to the public library. No woman should be exempt from obtaining the information she needs to make a decision about her own body.
If and when a child is born, then parents have a whole new set of choices to make. Yes, parenting is a series of reproductive choices. Why? Because choosing how to raise your child is part of reproduction. You’ve managed to pass your DNA on to the next generation, but parenting doesn’t end there. You’re also imparting your values and beliefs. And so the ways in which you choose to raise your child represents the ultimate choice. Your child is completely dependent on you, and therefore every single choice you make affects the product of your reproduction. Your responsibility to your child is to trust yourself and be confident in your decisions. Your responsibility is to do your own research into childrearing, and trust your intuition. Your responsibility to your child is to not allow yourself to be bullied by someone who thinks they know better than you. Of course, there is always a time and place for listening to others. That can be a valuable form of research. But it is also important for you to make your own decisions. Yes, raising a baby is difficult, and you’re not likely to feel confident, especially the first time around. But fake it till you make it.
Granted, there are some people who are not afforded such choices. Some men are tricked into fatherhood. Heck, some women are tricked into motherhood. Both cases occur when one trusts their partner to be on some sort of birth control, but the partner fails to practice safe sex because they secretly want a baby. And some women don’t even have the luxury of being tricked; they are forced into the marriage and the female role. Not all women can afford prenatal care. Not all women are able to choose the way in which they give birth due to medical reasons. And we need to work to change that, no question. But we also need to work on getting everyone to recognize the massive amount of choice that confronts us each day, with every aspect of our lives. We need to reconceptualize choice so we understand the extent to which choice is involved in every aspect of reproduction, whether we’re conscious of it or not. And in fact I think recognizing the extensive nature of choice will help the other problems, at least a little bit. Because when people start seeing that every single facet of reproduction is a choice, hopefully they will be more tolerant of other people’s decisions. I know that’s not going to happen now, probably not even in my lifetime, possibly never. But I can still fight for it through my refusal to back down on any of my decisions.