So, is he or isn’t he? Cristiano Ronaldo, 31, chose to keep mum while training for Real Madrid last week. The Portuguese heart-throb has been coy about rumours abounding ever since he was spotted flaunting a football-sized bump in a recent match against Celta Vigo. The unlucky-in-love national captain has been brazen about his desire to embrace single parenthood for a second time. Is he set to exchange 4-4-2 to become a 2-by-2? Will the broody forward, who’s spoken of his desire to have five or six little Cristianos, become international football’s answer to Natasha Hamilton and Ulrika Jonsson? Watch this space!
Wrote no one, ever (apart from me, just now).
We don’t write about one half of the population having babies in the same way we write about the other half. This is because babies are gestated by people who have wombs, not people who have penises. An obvious point to make, perhaps, but an increasingly necessary one. No matter how much the world changes, the fact remains that not everyone has the innate potential to carry a child to term. A person with a womb probably does; a person with a penis definitely doesn’t. This matters.
It matters not just for the nine months during which a woman is pregnant. It matters because for millennia, people with penises have subjugated people with uteruses, regardless of whether or not the latter have borne children. It matters because people with penises have sought and indeed managed to control the reproductive choices and experiences of people with uteruses. It matters because the vast majority of the world’s material resources have been appropriated by people with penises. Sorry, do I sound a bit obsessed with genitalia? But that’s the way things are. Genitals might look silly, but they’re a relatively reliable indicator of one’s potential as a reproductive resource. So far, for uterus owners, this has not worked out for the best.
Over the course of the last half century, reproductive technology has swooped in to save the day. Indeed, it has been argued by some that the contraceptive pill has done more to liberate women than feminism itself. Because, it is implied, the problem was always female biology, not men’s exploitation thereof. Yet as maternal feminists have pointed out, women are not necessarily held back by what they can’t do, but what they can. As Susan Maushart puts it, “it is nature that has given women a ‘golden touch’; culture that has rendered the blessing an infirmity.” Patriarchy is not the dominance of those unimpeded by gestation; it is the backlash of those denied its power over life and death (if this sounds extreme, ask yourself why abortion remains such a significant feminist issue. If a zygote is already a person, then we don’t have to acknowledge just how god-like female bodies are – or, more pertinently, just how female-like gods are).
This is why, whenever I see a news report vaunting some new development in reproductive technology, I find myself thinking “what’s in it for women? A new way to live? Or a new route to being reduced to a gestational vessel?” This past week, for instance, Stanford Professor Henry Greenly has declared that scientific progress could see us witnessing the end of reproductive sex: “In 20 to 40 years, when a couple wants a baby, he’ll provide sperm and she’ll provide a punch of skin.” Yay! An end to the utter grimness that is shagging to a menstrual timetable because you want a baby! And hopefully an end to couples having to take a risk with avoidable, life-destroying conditions affecting their future children. All of which sounds good. But in the same week Dr Jim Beyleu, an obstetrician speaking in support of a proposed Alabama constitutional amendment to define a foetus as a person, has claimed that a foetus is “totally separate” from the gravida: “The mother only contributes the egg and the incubator.” Because sperm is, like, magic. Just as a Walls’ Feast is a veritable banquet on a stick, a male orgasm is a veritable community of humans in search of a home. It’s not as though pregnant women actually do anything. They just have to be there. And if they don’t want to be there, we can force them to by making abortion illegal.
It’s not just me, is it? I’m hoping all of us can see how incoherent this is, and how dangerous it is for women. Until we – as feminists, as the left, just as people who care – establish that female bodies are essential for the creation of life in a way that male bodies are not, we are playing into the hands of those who really do want to treat women as walking uteruses. It never ceases to amaze me how much people will celebrate making changes to how we create a zygote, while utterly ignoring the fact that the same class of people as always will do the hard labour of gestation. So you can have a baby that’s healthy and genetically yours? Good for you! So the actual work of making the raw materials into a person is being done by someone else? Oh well. Let’s just pretend they’re nothing more than an incubator, just like the Republicans do,
It seems to me imperative that reproductive justice is as great a priority as technological developments in reproduction. Reproductive technology cannot, in and of itself, liberate women. Unless we tackle men’s exploitation of women at its very root, finding new ways to create foetuses merely creates new ways for men to exploit the women who carry them. This exploitation is then further exacerbated by class and racial inequalities. It is ridiculous, for instance, to celebrate global surrogacy as a route to creating alternative families without considering how and why women of colour end up bearing white children for other people.
Before we start rubbing our hands with glee about our brave new reproductive world, we need to fight for full reproductive justice. By which I don’t just mean abortion on demand – although this is hugely important – but the rights of all women, regardless of class, race or sexuality, to decide whether or not to carry a child to term, and to know that should they bear a child, they will be supported as mothers, raising their offspring within the cultural context of their choosing, without coercion or exploitation at the hands of others. This requires enormous social change, given the way the world is right now. It’s far easier to say that sexism stems from a series of vague, inexact phobias, easily counteracted by education, than by the material exploitation of flesh and blood. It’s especially easy to say this when it’s neither your flesh nor your blood that’s on the line. Nonetheless, at some point all of us have to acknowledge that the very flesh that makes us was formed within a body that is female.
Cristiano Ronaldo can take his football baby out from under his shirt and carry on playing. The same isn’t true of the pregnant rape survivors of Boko Haram, or the Northern Irish women denied the same reproductive choices as other women in the UK. Nor was it true of whoever carried Ronaldo’s first son to term. And while I hope he is a good father, with happy children, it strikes me that the reproductive realities for an extremely wealthy man like him constitute an ultimate victory for male supremacy.
Whether it is intentional or not, Ronaldo has his women neatly compartmentalised into three different female functions: there are the visible women, the models, whom you date; the invisible women who bear your children; the women past childbearing/ sexual objectification age who care for and raise your children while you kick balls and pose for pictures with the first group. Women exist, not as human beings in their own right, but to play their role in supporting a man’s personal vision of self-fulfilment. It’s as though women don’t have any personal subjectivity at all.
I think women are human, too. I think our experience of reproduction, loving and caring matters, too. To have a world in which this was taken into account – well, that would be progress indeed.