Crack in the Womb

[Spoilers for the Season 1 finale of Steven Universe follow.]

The moment that sealed Steven Universe into richly-deserved fame and a place in future discussions of the evolution of pop culture was the 52nd episode, ”Jail Break.”  In addition to pointedly and thoroughly burnishing the show’s credentials as queer-inclusive and emotionally complex, it provided viewers with a beautifully-composed song-and-fight sequence, from the only one of the four main characters to have avoided a musical number until then:

The words of “Stronger Than You” are poetic and poignant, particularly these:

I am a conversation.

I am made


Lo-o-o-o-ove o-o-o-o-of

And it’s stronger than you.

Garnet means this to remind her antagonist that Garnet’s existence as the fusion of two weaker gems so in love that they cannot bear to be apart makes her who she is, but there is another truth here, one that applies to all of us as well.

We are all conversations.

None of us emerged fully-formed into this world.  From our earliest beginnings, however defined, the people we became were pushed and built and influenced and coalesced from churning possibility by the interplay of what was there before and what was around it.  Sperm and egg are useless “on their own,” sputtering to nothing without the complex entanglement of the placenta and the uterus that enable them to not only survive and grow, but to permanently alter their owner’s cellular composition.  Children raised without other humans are feral and often lose the ability to speak.  Concepts like education, nationalism, and criminal rehabilitation only make sense in a world that understands and accepts that people do not simply exist, but become.

The particular zygote (or zygotes) that became part of me is an accident.  Many gametes competed for that role, and any of them would have led to a me being here.  The other ten million versions are all slightly different, but the other formative events of my past aren’t necessarily dependent on which zygote, or which gametes, contributed my starting materials.  Perhaps, if one of the multiverse models is true, there are alternate worlds where all of the others get to live out their versions of my life.  I hope the ones that don’t have to take testosterone blockers are having a good time.

The other zygotes in this universe are leftover materials and literal abortive starts—mere possibilities that never came to be.

There’s a measure of privilege in being able to claim that the results are all “slightly” different.  After all, it’s a slight difference—one nucleotide base, the slightest a genetic difference can be—that distinguishes people with sickle-cell anemia from their healthy but malaria-vulnerable counterparts.  A legion of other genetic differences hinge on which gametes make the zygotes that become each of us.

I once wrote, “We have the power to make unwanted offspring and cruel genetic diseases a distant memory of a more savage time.  We have an imperative to make that happen.”  I stand by those words.  There is no reason why another child needs to spend a too-brief lifetime losing control of their nerves and muscles until their last days contain nothing but seizures, paralysis, and fear.  There is no reason why another child needs to have their skeleton freeze solid by age 10 and live imprisoned in their own body until it crumbles under the strain.  There is no reason why another child needs to have cracked, bleeding skin that keeps them from thermoregulating, blinking, or breathing.  These are nightmarish, painful afflictions that amount to utterly unnecessary suffering for children given no choice in the matter, whether for a lethally abbreviated lifetime or for the gaps between symptom onset, diagnosis, and treatment.  It is a boon for the people of the future when they are prevented from coalescing around zygotes that will inflict such excruciation upon them.  This truth is understood in many quarters, and genetic testing and abortion are both common in some communities frequently visited by such genetic horror, specifically to prevent children from suffering.

Not all suffering is so clear-cut.  These conditions all cause life-threatening complications that usually lead to an early demise, directly induce enormous pain, and are difficult or impossible to treat.  But what of Down syndrome?  Blindness?  Turner syndrome?  Deafness?  Transgenderism?  Homosexuality?  Left-handedness?  Autism?  Blackness?

All of these and more have been the targets of a movement premised on the idea that he human race can be perfected by preventing “undesirables” from breeding and/or reaching adulthood.  All of these are things that parents were encouraged, coerced, and forced, to expel from the next generation in the name of progress.  Claims were and are made that all of these people are better off unborn or dead than enduring the world we currently have.  The fact that abortion is (theoretically) accessible has made it fashionable to decry accessibility for blind people, autistic people, and others ill-served by the existing social order as a waste or even as a bad thing, stealing resources and social momentum away from the quest to make such people not exist at all.

No one who desires to terminate a pregnancy of theirs should be required to so much as have a reason for this desire before being allowed to do so safely.  This much is sacrosanct, and legal personhood is contingent on having this much control over one’s body.  There are, however, reasons for desiring an abortion that deserve critical interrogation because of what they mean to other people who are already here, and what those reasons say about their perceived value as people.

The suffering of transvestic fetishists and people with ADHD is not built into their condition.  Autism is not a disease that causes physiological pain.  Even with conditions that are indeed real impairments at least some of the time, the top of every list of annoyances their bearers would gladly do without is always, always other people treating them badly.  It’s always, society could easily accommodate my uniqueness, but it doesn’t.  It’s always, people treat me like shit and then act like the fact that I noticed is proof that my condition makes me suffer.  It’s always, I’m different, and people think I shouldn’t be, and that hurts.  It turns out, what deviations from the norm we regard as pathological and worth expunging often has very little to do with preventing suffering, and everything to do with not wanting to build a more equitable and inclusive society that better serves an ever-greater number of us.  Disability is not misery—but marginalization is, and it is made worse, not better, when people take their efforts to eradicate its victims from the world to the womb.

Incidentally, treatments for some of those horrific diseases, in particular harlequin ichthyosis, are rapidly improving.


Crack in the Womb

3 thoughts on “Crack in the Womb

  1. 3

    I don’t think we can really judge whether a condition makes life worth living unless we have lived with that condition. I know of a disability rights blogger who, among other issues, suffers from three different chronic pain conditions, and is essentially in constant severe pain. She has said unequivocally that she wants to live and values her life. While I have little doubt that she’d be glad to not be in pain, assuming no serious side effects, that doesn’t mean that she isn’t happy to be alive. And based on her statement, I’d seriously hesitate to assume that my hypothetical prospective child with a serious painful condition wouldn’t possibly feel the same way.

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