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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.