Is motherhood a kind of slavery?

Tanya Gold writes that "motherhood and autonomy can never coexist" - but how does that affect the debate over abortion?

Forced motherhood is a kind of slavery, because motherhood and autonomy can never coexist.

Tanya Gold on abortion, Comment is Free

I am a mother. I’m also pro-choice. Much as I appreciated Tanya Gold’s recent piece on the human cost of anti-choice ideologies, the above statement, which appeared in the final paragraph, has got to me – and stuck in my mind ever since.

When Gold writes of motherhood and autonomy never co-existing, does she mean all motherhood or just the forced motherhood of her earlier clause? Is this merely a case of over-editing or an actual belief about every experience of being a mother? If it’s the latter, I’m unsettled (and would advise Gold to steer well clear of anything by Rachel Cusk).

Mothers are not a different class of human beings, or rather, if they are, they shouldn’t be. They are people with a wide range of experiences, beliefs and responsibilities. We shouldn’t have to big up the magnitude of motherhood in order to convince ourselves that reproductive rights matter. If we are able to value women regardless of their reproductive status then that should be enough.

I’ve never been a fan of fiddly justifications for abortion. “My body, my choice” irritates some people because it’s so straightforward - but surely that’s how it should be. What other reason is there? The consequences of denying women access to safe, legal abortion can be horrific and fatal – as in the cases detailed by Gold — but they can also be less dramatic and hence, in the eyes of some, less worthy of taking into consideration.

Continuing with a pregnancy against your will can be reduced to the status of mere “inconvenience”. Of course, to anyone with an ounce of empathy, that cannot be really the case. Even so, I write as someone who has always enjoyed being pregnant – not the worry nor the sickness, but the sheer excitement of it all. I’d willingly give my body over to that again (if only childcare – and, come to mention it, anything else child-related – wasn’t so bloody expensive). My pregnancies have never been unwanted pregnancies. As a justification for reproductive choice, I think that matters more than whether children are unwanted. We have to locate abortion within the experience of pregnancy and birth – not what comes after – to understand why it’s relevant to the status of all women (regardless of whether or not they themselves wish to and/or could become pregnant).

There is a rhetorical value in focussing on the worst consequences of anti-choice fervour – the death of Savita Halappanavar, the pressures that drove desperate women to Kermit Gosnell – but it risks derailing the pro-choice argument. It talks over the fundamental rightness of any person faced with an unwanted pregnancy being able to make decisions for the sake of their own physical and mental wellbeing, however trivial that appears to anyone else. There are anti-choicers who do not want women to die; they nevertheless think it their right to measure out the appropriate level of suffering before any support is merited. When we talk about rape, we do not – or at least should not – talk about valid and invalid reasons for not consenting to sex. I don’t think pregnancy should be any different (in making a comparison to rape I don’t mean to suggest that the fetus has agency or somehow “deserves” to be destroyed, rather that no one else should decide when an infringement of the boundaries of our own bodies is sufficiently harmful to us. This may be subjective but the difference between pregnancy and termination is clear-cut – as is the fact that no one else can experience these things on your behalf).

Pregnancy, birth and parenthood can be joyful experiences. It frustrates me when anti-choicers think this can be held as some kind of trump card. Look at the fluttering heartbeat on that scan! Look at the lovely babies growing in the headless diagram! As if billions of women haven’t been pregnant and remained pro-choice. As if they haven’t had their own mix of children, miscarriages and abortions over the course of their lifetimes. As if they don’t know that pregnancy is magic – but that it’s a terrible kind of magic if you are unable to consent.

When Gold suggests “motherhood and autonomy can never coexist” I think she is wrong – at least, insofar as motherhood merely represents one of the many dependencies and responsibilities we develop in relation to others, all of which limit our independence. But these limitations are not comparable to the way in which a lack of reproductive freedom impinges on bodily autonomy – and on the ways in which all of us can feel that we are, at all times, wholly ourselves.

A baby holds its mother's hand. Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.