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.

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Crack in the Womb

Yams for All

We need to change how we think about childbearing.

Having a child is probably the single most expensive decision someone in the developed world can make.  Once a child is born, one becomes responsible for that child’s food, shelter, emotional support, education, and a thousand and one other needs harder to anticipate and describe, sometimes through socialized systems that ease access to various goods.  The guardians of children become their first and fastest path toward accumulating the possessions that they will then use to gain their first taste of independence.  Parents and other caretakers and among the most important fonts of culture, moral growth, and personal development that any person will ever have.  The enormity of the caretaker’s role is so well understood that it routinely features in sexist writings that insist that women should be content with that specific influence on the future and desire no additional option or greater agency than that.

But there is one situation in which that understanding is ignored: the decision to have a child.

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Yams for All

A Sex Ed Manifesto

We are here to inform you that consent is an ongoing negotiation that can be withdrawn at ANY time and that if you EVER ignore that withdrawal, you are a rapist. We are here to inform you that a rapist is not something you want to be. We are here to inform you that you are never, ever, EVER “entitled” to any kind of sex with ANYONE, no matter what they say or don’t say, do or don’t do, drink or don’t drink, if they do not enthusiastically consent to it. We are here to inform you that, no matter what gender you are or what gender your partner is, YOU have the option to say no, and they have the OBLIGATION to acquiesce to your refusal, and they are bad people if they do not.

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A Sex Ed Manifesto

And now for just $24.99 you too can have your own pet uterus!

If one watches the forced birth / “pro-life” talking heads long enough, one starts to notice something a little strange.

Get them on the subject of women seeking out and receiving medical procedures, and they bray and stamp about “unborn children” and the horror that such sacrosanct beings are being killed for something so prosaic as parasitizing a woman’s body against her will.

Get them on the subject of people of any sex using contraceptives…and they bray and stamp about sluts and their slutty ways, demeaning themselves with sex for pleasure.

Which is kind of odd, since contraceptive availability is the most effective prophylactic against abortions at the societal level.  One would think that the “pro-life” crowd would be the most obsessively enthusiastic promoters of birth control by far, dumping truckloads of condoms and pamphlets about pills and IUDs everywhere they imagine semen might encounter a cervix to make absolutely sure that every zygote that comes to be does so intentionally.

But that’s not what we get.

One would imagine that people who define themselves by wanting to reduce the number of embryos that aren’t brought to term would be passionate opponents of rape, harping on consent and demanding that rapists be prosecuted aggressively in the name of making every fetus wanted.

But that’s not what we get.

One would imagine that people who want to restrict women’s bodily autonomy in the name of protecting children would want to make the world a more welcoming place for children, by advocating for healthcare availability, child-care services, maternity and paternity leave, assistance for low-income households with children, and funding for education at all levels.

We get the exact opposite of that.  We get “pro-life” speakers and politicians who demonize contraception with the same energy that they point at something they wrongly assert is the same as murder.  We get politicians who rail against comprehensive sexual education that would help people avoid making unwanted fetuses.   We get religious leaders who encourage women to marry as young as possible so that their sex can have their god’s imprimatur.  We get people who think that sexually transmitted infections are God’s wrath and vaccines against them are sacrilege.

We get clergy who promote the idea that women who assent to unmarried sex are shameful sluts and harlots who have “defiled” and “disrespected” themselves.  We get loud, politically powerful cults that encourage their daughters to get married as young as possible and sometimes even pick their husbands for them, and tell them that objecting to any of this is a condemnation to eternal torment.  We get schools of law that hold that a marriage contract is a writ of consent to any and every sexual urge a woman’s husband might ever have and that it’s not possible for him to rape her no matter what he does or what she wants or doesn’t want. For she is an unclean, sinful monster if she assents to sex before she’s married or if she is raped (for bringing it on herself, clearly) and no longer has the option to not assent after she is married.

We get a media establishment and legal system that spend exorbitant amounts of time telling men that they can rape whoever they want if they say that the victim inflamed their lust by dressing “provocatively” or wearing makeup or being out at night or drinking or not being a virgin at the time.  We get public figures and online “rights” movements that maintain that most women who report rapes are lying about consensual encounters.  We get military procedures that tell women who are under sexual attack to lie back and take itto avoid injury.  We get cases where a rapist can sue to try to stop his victim from getting an abortion and, failing that, can sue for joint custody of the resulting child.

All by itself, one could almost find something laudable in the “pro-life” stance, framed as trying to protect “children” from harm.

But that’s not what we get.  Instead, a very different picture emerges.  They are not pro-life.  They are pro-forced birth.

The anti-abortion position is part of a spectrum of stances that, all together, point at a movement that could not possibly care less about children.  They don’t care about preventing unwanted pregnancy, or making sure that every fetus is a wanted fetus.  No, they have a different agenda.

The anti-abortion position seeks a world where a uterus-bearer has no say in whether they give birth after they get pregnant, no say in whether they get pregnant after they have sex, and no say in when they have sex.

The anti-abortion fantasy is a world where women have no sexual agency whatsoever, and every part of a woman’s biology is given over to the task of carrying and bearing children.  But not her children—his.  Nothing is hers—not her body, not her mind, not her life.  Nothing but the burden of carrying out the sexual and reproductive will of those who would look upon her with desire.

The anti-abortion vision is a world of men and ambulatory uteruses to be acquired and put to use.

It is in this context, and this context only, that the pro-forced-birth position makes sense.  These are their objectives.  Only when the whole package is viewed at once does the true picture emerge.

It’s not about fetuses, not about babies, not about death or murder or morality.

It’s about destroying the very idea that women have a place in this world that isn’t on the shelf next to the other appliances.

It’s about destroying the idea that women are people.

Never forget that.
And now for just $24.99 you too can have your own pet uterus!

Expendable Zygotes

I earlier explained why the question of fetal personhood is, in the end, a red herring diverting attention from the glaring sexism that underlies opposition to abortion rights.  It comes up at all because a huge fraction of forced-birth advocates devalue women and ignore trans people to the point where one wonders whether they know that uteruses are inside people and not something people keep on their coffee tables.
But red herring or not, the question of fetal personhood has a number of interesting wrinkles that are worth addressing and which can influence how we think about conception and pregnancy.  These wrinkles also highlight the pernicious role that religion plays throughout this topic.

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Expendable Zygotes

Women’s Rights and Personhood: Reframing the Abortion Debate

Social justice issues often suffer from a crisis of framing.  Whether it’s “welfare queens” versus “working poor,” “lazy Injuns” versus “colonialism,” or “special rights” versus “marriage equality,” how an issue is presented has massive effects on the perception of what’s at stake, and what the people on each side are actually trying to achieve.  Perhaps nowhere is this more visible than in the battle over abortion rights.  While advocates for marriage equality have largely succeeded in making sure the public understands that the fight is for marriage equality, and that what’s at stake is increasingly out-of-touch religious groups’ influence on American politics and people’s right to visit their loved ones in hospitals, too many people have seriously borked ideas of what the abortion debate is about.

A lot of people think it’s about babies.
A lot of people think it’s about sex.
A lot of people think it’s about birth control.
A lot of people think it’s about religious freedom.

And it’s about all those things…just not in the way that most of those people think it is.

What it absolutely, utterly, unequivocally, ineffably, undeniably, explicitly, and totally is NOT about is “life.”

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Women’s Rights and Personhood: Reframing the Abortion Debate

In Defiance of Nature

We hear it again and again.
“You shouldn’t take painkillers; they’re not natural.
“You shouldn’t use plastic; it’s not natural.”
“You shouldn’t eat food with preservatives; it’s not natural.”
“We should label genetically modified organisms; they’re not natural.
“People shouldn’t change their sex; it’s not natural.
“You shouldn’t let your daughter get an abortion; it’s not natural.”
We have this idea in our society that some things are natural, and that makes them wholesome and safe and good, and other things are “unnatural,” and that makes them dangerous and suspicious and sometimes even evil.  Particularly after the natural-products boom that coincided with the environmental movement of the 1990s, “unnatural” and “artificial” became the adjectives du jour for the sorts of things that were lauded as “scientifically derived” and “industrially perfected” in earlier decades.  Where items from diet pills to clothing fabric once advertised themselves as the results of years of scientific expertise at work, we now see products advertising raw cotton and açaí extracts, as though being closer to “the source” made things more effective.
At the core of this pervasive dichotomy is an intriguing dualism whose ramifications extend deep into the public discourse.
When a human turns a forest into a clearing and changes the flow of a river, the environment has been rendered “unnatural.”  When a family of beavers does it, nature is hard at work.
When a fungus synthesizes a compound that blocks cell division and treats cancer, a natural wonder is unearthed.  When chemists start making the same compound, it’s a Big Pharma conspiracy.
When a damselfish changes its testes for ovaries, it is population dynamics at work.  When a person has surgery to change their genitalia, it’s an abomination.
When a womb discharges a fertilized egg on its own, it’s a non-event.  When a person chooses for that to happen, it’s a capital crime.
“Unnatural” means when humans do it.
The entire concept of natural versus unnatural in our language hinges on the dualistic notion that humans are a distinct class of being, totally separate from mere animals and plants, our every aspect and action on a higher plane of existence.  Nature is out there, and we are here.  We are not part of nature; we barely even inhabit it.  The things we create are “unnatural”; the things we do are “unnatural”; the places we live are “unnatural”; even the way we select our sex partners is “unnatural.”  And depending on whom one asks, that makes one set of those things unequivocally bad, or the other.
 But we are not so different.
We build, just as beavers and termites and weaverbirdsbuild.  We love, rather as bonobos and jacanas love.  We use pharmaceuticals, just as macaws and chimpanzees use pharmaceuticals.  We bathe, just as macaques and elephantsbathe.  We make, just as crows make.  We bleed, just as everything bleeds.  We create, just as microbes create.
In an unbroken line from us to the very beginnings of life, we are but one twig on boundless fractal complexity, and the branches further removed from us show us nothing if they do not show us this.  We are neither the pinnacle of creation nor some separate, promethean intruder.  We are one among Darwin’s endless forms most beautiful, an expression of nature like any other, unlike any other.  If there is any difference between us and the “natural” creatures of the world, it is a difference of degree, not kind.  It is this distinction that gives creationists nightmares, and which makes them so desperately desirous of their particular delusion being true.
For if humans are not by their nature outside nature, that would make our activities natural.  That would make our creativity natural.  That would make our drive to make things, build things, understand things natural.  That would make our drive to change things…natural.
That would render “natural” the fact that we are no longer required to freeze to death when the ambient temperature is -40 °C.  That would render “natural” the fact that we are no longer doomed to a painful death by asphyxiation when tuberculosis sets upon us.  That would render “natural” that a great deal of carbonaceous algal remnants from the Jurassic period are currently transmogrified into Tupperware containers.  That would render “natural” the capacity to preserve food for weeks or more past its “natural” expiration date.  That would render “natural” the fact that the time required to get from point A to point B now takes into account the energy contained in alkanes.  That would render “natural” the manner in which we have so thoroughly disconnected sex from fertility, and made either possible without the other.  That would render “natural” that people whose genders do not match their anatomy are no longer trapped within that discrepancy, and have recourse to treatments that can remedy it.
That would render “natural” the infinity of ways in which humankind—glorious, metacognitive humankind—has devised so that the fates and facts to which we were once condemned are distant memories.
And if it is “unnatural,” or in any way “wrong,” for us to defy the causality that makes a child the “natural” outcome of sexual intercourse, then it is equally unnatural for us to survive malaria, or have fresh tomatoes in winter, or lift things with levers and pulleys.  And if it is “unnatural,” or in any way “wrong,” for someone whose basic identity is at odds with their biology to bring the latter into accordance with the former, then it is just as unnatural that people can tell us so from the opposite end of the globe in a matter of seconds, and we can hear them.
And it is equally unnatural for us to gain knowledge from anything other than firsthand experience.
That is our nature: invention, ingenuity, and change.
That is our nature, and there is only nature.  There is one world, our world, and the forces that make it work.  We have only spent the last several million years learning to manipulate those forces in ever more sophisticated ways.
That is our nature: technology.
It is our nature to defy nature.
In Defiance of Nature