“It’s an admission that invites suspicion and pity. To be a thirtysomething woman in 2009 and not want a child so desperately that you think you might die is simply not allowed,” writes Polly Vernon in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free. After admitting in a February Guardian essay that she never intended to procreate, Vernon received a cascade of reader correspondence “condemning me, expressing disgust. I was denounced as bitter, selfish, un-sisterly, unnatural, evil.” She notes that Cameron Diaz recently told Cosmo, “I think women are afraid to say that they don’t want children because they’re going to get shunned,” and replies, “yes, Cameron Diaz, I can tell you from experience that you are right. Admit that you don’t ache for children with every fibre of your being and you will be shunned. Shunning’s the tip of the iceberg. I wish I’d been shunned. Shunning would have been blissful, relatively.”
Granted, Western society’s reaction to child-free women is no worse, necessarily, than its reaction to mothers. As Jezebel’s Hortense wrote yesterday (in a post aptly titled “You Are Never Going to Make Everyone Happy With Your Womb, Ever”), “Women having many children are criticized for being selfish, stupid, neglectful, a burden on the system, etc. Women who have the ‘ideal’ number of children are criticized for deciding to go to work, deciding to stay home, deciding to have children before a certain age, deciding to have children after a certain age, etc. This is nothing new and nothing surprising, and though I understand Vernon’s frustration, I also think that even if Polly or I chose to have children, we’d still be faced with a truckload of judgmental bullshit from people who have no business interfering in our choices.” Too right — you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and damned if you can’t decide.
But after writing a lot about the abortion debate in the last couple of weeks, I’m struck by the similarities between the vitriol Vernon reports and typical anti-choice rhetoric. She receives “terrifying” letters and e-mails calling her “selfish … unnatural, evil.” She is “now routinely referred to as ‘baby-hating journalist Polly Vernon.’” Ring any bells? How about this — men more than women, Vernon says, often respond by becoming “aggressive, sneering … Perhaps the idea that there are women at large who are not actively pursuing their sperm is an out-and-out affront to a certain kind of man. The same men who have spent years believing that all women secretly want to trap them into commitment and fatherhood, probably.”
This is what we need to remember when men like William Saletan, Ross Douthat, and even our president go on about finding “common ground” between pro-choicers and anti-choicers. It’s a lovely idea, and if I believed for a second that the organized “pro-life” movement would actually get behind improving access to birth control and emergency contraception, not to mention teaching honest and comprehensive sex ed in schools — measures that would actually, you know, reduce the number of unintended pregnancies — I’d be thrilled to sit down and chat. But the controversy is not just over when life begins or whether a fetus has human rights. The controversy is over women controlling their own fertility. It’s about whether we have the right to decide for ourselves if and when to have children, whether we’re autonomous human beings with full rights or if our primary purpose on earth is to birth and nurture the next generation. When you’re talking about abortion, specifically, you can muddle that basic issue with questions about fetuses’ rights. But it becomes crystal clear when you take the fetus out of it: A woman says she doesn’t plan to have children and is thus taking measures to prevent unintended pregnancy indefinitely, and she gets the very same load of crap: She’s unnatural, evil, mentally ill. She obviously can’t grasp the gravity of the situation. If she follows through with her plan, she’ll inevitably regret it and perhaps even suffer from depression for the rest of her life. It’s our duty as a society to convince her she’s wrong.
Take the case of Tarrah Seymour, who was in the news last week because she can’t find a doctor willing to perform a tubal ligation on her. Seymour’s a married recent college graduate with a toddler and a baby on the way. She and her husband have decided that they want no more than two children, and their plans for the future — she’ll begin her career while her husband stays home with the kids, and when they go to school, he’ll reenter the workforce — would be seriously derailed by a surprise baby. But the problem is, they’re young. Seymour is only 21, and doctors routinely refuse to perform voluntary sterilizations on younger women, citing statistics that say there’s some chance the women will live to regret it. Instead, women who feel certain they do not want children are expected to use imperfect birth control for 30-odd years and face an incredibly difficult decision if it fails. “I don’t believe in abortion, I never have,” says Seymour. “If something were to happen, I’d be forced to do something I don’t believe in. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Could it be any clearer than that? Your own choices about your fertility don’t count, even when you are trying to take responsibility for it in part to avoid the possibility of needing an abortion. Says Seymour’s husband, “I don’t really understand. I thought it would be our decision to make, not somebody else’s, about what we can and cannot do.” You would think that, wouldn’t you? And yet.
This is the real controversy at the heart of the “culture war” on which women’s bodies are the battlefield. Although mothers are subjected to their own “truckload of judgmental bullshit from people who have no business interfering,” as Hortense put it, women who choose not to have children, before or after becoming pregnant, are still believed to be immature, naive, misguided, mentally ill, untrustworthy, and/or downright evil. There is relentless pressure from society, the media, and healthcare professionals — not to mention religious fundamentalists and the anti-choice movement — to keep women from making an informed, rational decision not to devote our bodies and futures to childbirth and child rearing. As Vernon says, “Childlessness is going to be a feature in many of our lives; we need to start seeing it as a choice, a valid option, rather than a failing. We certainly need it not to be taboo.” But as long as we don’t, as long as we keep pretending that the debate is only about “killing babies” and not about whether women should have the basic right to control our own fertility, that common ground will remain elusive.