To Be a Mother

On February 24, in a direct attack on Roe v. Wade, the South Dakota House followed the Senate in approving a ban on all abortions except where a woman’s life is at stake. Today, Republican Governor Mike Rounds signed the bill, which is almost identical to the Texas law that Roe overturned in 1973. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, similar antiabortion proposals are in the works in seven other states: Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee.

The justification for this vicious piece of misogyny seems to be based on the following notions: (a) a woman is a mother from the moment a fertilized egg begins to grow in her body; (b) mothers are morally obliged to take care of their children at any personal cost to themselves; and (c) it is the state’s responsibility to force reluctant mothers to meet their moral duties to their children. I won’t waste my breath upbraiding the South Dakota legislators for their apparent indifference to the social context in which women are assigned these duties--a context where there is unrelenting violence against women, much of it perpetrated by husbands or boyfriends; where rape and lesser forms of sexual coercion are widespread; where mothers, not fathers, are almost solely responsible for hands-on childcare; and where social institutions and practices are systemically rigged to favor the interests of men over those of women. These points have been made many times before and I haven’t the heart to repeat them. Instead, I’m going to plead for a revised understanding of what pregnancy is. It’s when we think of pregnancy as something that happens to a woman rather than something she does – when we think of pregnant bodies as flowerpots, ovens, or incubators – that the awfulness of the particular kind of wrong about to be done to South Dakota women escapes our notice.

As I write this, my daughter is thirty-two weeks pregnant with her very much wanted first child. Like any human pregnancy, hers is not simply a biological process but a purposeful activity in which she is creatively engaged. For starters, she’s had to manage some pretty unrelenting nausea by learning, through trial and error, what foods she can tolerate and how often she needs to eat; this requires her to take packets of cheese, crackers, almonds, and so on to work with her so that food will be available right when she needs it. In her twentieth week she developed high blood pressure, so she bought an exercise machine and has been forcing herself to use it regularly. In her twenty-first week, she also developed gestational diabetes, requiring her to revamp her already restricted diet, prick her finger four times a day to check her glucose levels, and give herself a shot of insulin every night before bedtime. She goes to her doctor every two weeks to be monitored for these and other possible complications.

And then there is the ongoing work, which she shares with her husband and intimate others, of calling her fetus into personhood, weaving love and welcome around it, making a place in the social world for it to occupy as soon as it is born. My daughter does not think she was a mother the moment she conceived. She believes she is making herself into a mother as she brings her baby to term, and doesn’t expect to feel completely like a mother until a good month or two after the baby is born. Her view may be wrong, but there are no publicly available means of showing that it is wrong. Certainly, the South Dakota legislature is in no position to prove that it is wrong.

My daughter and her husband wanted this baby and conceived it intentionally. The hard work they are doing to bring their child into the world is a labor of love. But suppose her husband had walked out on her when he learned she was pregnant? Or suppose he was abusive and her contraception failed? Or she had an illness whose treatment involved powerful drugs that would cross the placental barrier and damage the fetus? For that matter, what if the fetus were anencephalic or had some other serious deformity? And what if my daughter had no health insurance, no family or friends to help her, no education to speak of, and no money? It’s pure happenstance that she is glad to be pregnant and is in a position to care for the child when it comes. Yet the State of South Dakota proposes to treat all pregnant women as if they were as lucky as she is. The thought that the state could force my child, irrespective of happenstance, to manage her food intake, exercise daily, self-administer insulin, and take up an attitude of hospitality and love toward her fetus revolts and angers me.

Significantly, what antiabortion legislation requires of women is quite different from what child-support legislation requires of delinquent fathers. To be sure, such fathers must pay child support, but they are never forced to what lawyers call “specific performance.” They aren’t required by law to change diapers, give baths, prepare and serve meals, help with homework, or take their children to soccer practice. All unwilling fathers have to do is pay up every month. Specific performance, in fact, is seen as a form of servitude that may lawfully be required only of conscripts when there is a clear and present danger to the state. It may not be imposed even on convicted felons. If a drunk driver smashes into your house, he might have to go to prison or (under certain victim compensation laws) pay for damages, but he doesn’t have to repair your brickwork or replace your broken door with his own hands. If your architect breaks her contract with you by failing to produce the agreed-upon blueprints, the court can impose a fine, but it can’t make her sit down at her drafting table and do the promised work.

And that, when all is said and done, is the difference the South Dakota legislators want to draw between actual fathers and expectant mothers. They want to hold pregnant women – who are innocent of any wrongdoing – to a punitive standard of specific performance, sentencing them against their will to the many kinds of hard work, physical discomfort, and outright danger that my daughter has undertaken to bring her wanted child into the world. No other class of people is held to this standard in peacetime. No woman should be held to it either.

If the South Dakota legislature is really serious about saving lives, it might consider distributing the gender burden more evenly by enacting a law that forces all able-bodied men to donate a kidney to someone who will die without one. That way they too would have to do something with their bodies to support someone else’s life--something a little like the creative and purposeful work that women do when they sustain a pregnancy. When that law is passed, and when women are no longer abused by social arrangements that favor men, then we can revisit this particular kind of specific performance. Until then, it’s hard to see the proposed bans on abortion as anything other than a gender-biased form of state-imposed slavery.

Cross-posted from

(Guest poster Mamasquab is otherwise known as Hilde Lindemann, an associate professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Philosophy and contributor to the Bioethics Forum. She’s also a loyal lurker at Shakespeare’s Sister.)

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