Monday, July 6, 2009

Thanks, Thomas Jefferson!

This weekend we celebrated the anniversary of "our independence," as they say. But they also say that what we are really celebrating is the independence of "rich white slave-owners who didn't want to pay taxes" (well, that's what they say in Dazed and Confused). And in a way, aren't the rest of us still hoping that we can get independent from those guys?

Half of the American population is still in the thrall of their reproductive organs, or more precisely of the significance that sexism places on reproductive capability. Having the right skin color, the right man, the "right" female body, enough money -- these things help, of course. I can't begin (though I feel like trying soon) to list the ways in which race and class and other stratifications interact with gender to make life even more difficult for some of us than others.

But all of us -- even the rich white able-bodied women who could fly away to Sweden if they needed a legal abortion in the 1960s, and could do so again in some grim abortion-outlawed future -- are threatened by an anti-choice society, because it is a society that doesn't believe women deserve bodily autonomy in their own right. It's a society that doesn't believe women are fully human the way men are, that doesn't believe they have a right to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

When I first spoke with "Cheryl," she and her young daughter were living at a friend's house, sharing a couch at night. She didn't have a phone number where I could reliably reach her, because the friend didn't know she was pregnant and she'd had to turn off her cell phone. Why did she have to turn off her cell phone? Because her fiance, who turned abusive during this pregnancy, not only locked her out of their home and moved all the money out of their account, but knew how to use the GPS feature on their phones to find out where she was. He did this the last time she left the house -- that time she went to her mother's, so she knew she couldn't go there again. So she was calling me from her friend's kitchen while her friend was at work, and we spoke about how she might be able to gather the money for the abortion she'd determined was her least-bad option: babysit for all her friend's neighbors, ask for help from her former boss (she'd lost her part-time job when the fiance took her car keys), tell her friend everything and hope for the best, go to her mom and hope the fiance wasn't lurking around?

From Cheryl's perspective, it wasn't supposed to go this way: she was almost-married, middle class, white, in her thirties. She seemed to have a hard time believing that she was in a position to have an abortion, like all the safety nets below her had disappeared. But it turned out she was just at the mercy of some guy, who resented her demands on him, or saw her pregnant body as a soft object to absorb his anger, or in some other way became blind to her independent humanity.

In this case, an abortion enabled Cheryl to stop the rapid downward spiral of her situation, as a first step in trying to get a grip on her life again. I'm not saying that the right to abortion is the solution to all women's problems. But it's both a necessary practical component of their liberty, and a broader indicator of what society thinks of their right to liberty.

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