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.

Getty
Show Hide image

After a year of chaos, MPs from all parties are trying to stop an extreme Brexit

The Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit.

One year ago today, I stood on Westminster Bridge as the sun rose over a changed country. By a narrow margin, on an unexpectedly high turnout, a majority of people in Britain had chosen to leave the EU. It wasn’t easy for those of us on the losing side – especially after such scaremongering from the leaders of the Leave campaign – but 23 June 2016 showed the power of a voting opportunity where every vote counted.

A year on from the vote, and the process is in chaos. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Leave campaign deliberately never spelled out any detailed plan for Brexit, and senior figures fought internal battles over which model they preferred. One minute Britain would be like Norway, then we’d be like Canada – and then we’d be unique. After the vote Theresa May promised us a "Red, White and Blue Brexit" – and then her ministers kept threatening the EU with walking away with no deal at all which, in fairness, would be unique(ly) reckless. 

We now have our future being negotiated by a government who have just had their majority wiped out. More than half of voters opted for progressive parties at the last election – yet the people representing us in Brussels are the right-wing hardliners David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

Despite widespread opposition, the government has steadfastly refused to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens their rights. This week it has shown its disregard for the environment as it published a Queen’s Speech with no specific plans for environmental protection in the Brexit process either. 

Amid such chaos there is, however, a glimmer of hope. MPs from all parties are working together to stop an extreme Brexit. Labour’s position seems to be softening, and it looks likely that the Scottish Parliament will have a say on the final deal too. The Democratic Unionist Party is regressive in many ways, but there’s a good chance that the government relying on it will soften Brexit for Northern Ireland, at least because of the DUP's insistence on keeping the border with Ireland open. My amendments to the Queen’s speech to give full rights to EU nationals and create an Environmental Protection Act have cross-party support.

With such political instability here at home – and a growing sense among the public that people deserve a final say on any deal - it seems that everything is up for grabs. The government has no mandate for pushing ahead with an extreme Brexit. As the democratic reformers Unlock Democracy said in a recent report “The failure of any party to gain a majority in the recent election has made the need for an inclusive, consensus based working even more imperative.” The referendum should have been the start of a democratic process, not the end of one.

That’s why Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit, in order to ensure that voices from across the political spectrum are heard in the process. And it’s why we continue to push for a ratification referendum on the final deal negotiated by the government - we want the whole country to have the last word on this, not just the 650 MPs elected to the Parliament via an extremely unrepresentative electoral system.

No one predicted what would happen over the last year. From the referendum, to Theresa May’s disastrous leadership and a progressive majority at a general election. And no one knows exactly what will happen next. But what’s clear is that people across this country should be at the centre of the coming debate over our future – it can’t be stitched up behind closed doors by ministers without a mandate.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

0800 7318496