Suara GEA 1988 – 1992 (7)
From: Suara GEA, April 1990 edition
GEA English Corner
Men’s Law, Women’s Bodies
Based on reproductive rights, we will find two different groups of women in the States now. The one is called Pro-Choice while the other is called Pro-Life. I like to write about it because it is still an up-to-date issue. It can make mother and daughter stand together to speak up about their reproductive rights even though they are not in the same feminism groups.
Webster versus Reproductive Health Services is acting as a political catalyst in 1989, just as Roe versus Wade changed the dynamics of the period following 1973. Roe v. Wade was an important but limited victory. It was narrowly based on constitutional right to privacy, not on women or human rights. The character of the abortion struggle for feminists since Roe v. Wade has been defensive, and fighting from a defensive stance tends to be wearying and demoralizing. The onslaught of the anti-abortion movement since 1973 has taken a heavy toll. Withdrawal of public funding for abortion was a significant step in the dismantling of the welfare state.
We have seen the objectification of women as incubators and the ascendancy of the fetus in the arena of human rights. Pseudo-scientific debates rage about the timing of ‘viability’. These attacks have been reflected in the retreat of pro-abortion forces into the seemingly neutral language of ‘choice’ and the insistence that abortion is a ‘last resort’. The confession of moral qualms has become an obligation, replacing earlier certainty.
Yes, life after Webster is full of challenges and opportunities for the reproductive rights movement. The Webster decision can be read as a warning against a politics of defensiveness, and it signifies the need to locate abortion and other reproductive rights within a broader vision of social change. Though ‘a chill wind blows’ the countervailing trend is a groundswell of outrage and popular protest. The post-Webster era has begun with an emphatic reassertion that the majority of the electorate wants some form of protection for abortion rights. Politicians of many stripes who previously played an ant-abortion card are cutting their losses and scrambling to reassess their constituencies on the issue.
Feminist legal theorists generally agree that gender refers not to biological difference but rather to a system of power relations in which the male is the norm and the female differs from the norm. In this system, the standard of equal treatment before the law is implicitly male-defined. Whether they adopt the ‘sameness’ approach or the ‘difference’ approach to the struggle for equal treatment – that is, whether they argue that women should be treated as men are or that they should be treated differently – feminists are implicitly accepting the patriarchal standard of equality.
In analyzing how the US legal system treats women, I take the representation of the female body as my point of departure, focusing in particular on pregnancy as the exemplary problem for the liberal ideal of equality. Whether pregnancy is treated as a specific case (requiring preferential treatment of women in the work-place, for example) or whether it is excluded from such treatment, the law ends up reinforcing the inequitable power relations between the sexes.
I can argue that the abstract equality of individuals really presupposes a definition of the individual as male: since men cannot become pregnant, pregnancy must be an abnormal condition. Its uniqueness is interpreted as a handicap. Legislation that recognizes pregnancy as different is termed ‘special’ or ‘protective’. It is precisely this language of ‘protection’ that betrays the liberal assumption that equality already exists in practice. The promise of protection is part of good cop or bad cop dialectic of male dominance: protection is inseparable from (real or supposed) weakness and from the implied threat of harm should the ‘weaker’ party do not accept the offer.
I also do not agree with the ‘alternative’ legal view of pregnancy, which proposes to treat it as non-sex-specific. In short, I would like to say that ‘pregnancy is not a category of sex because non pregnant persons are both men and women. Yes, women and men are equally capable of not being pregnant! So, women have rights to speak up and tell what the law should work for their own bodies.
The US is a multiethnic, multiracial, and multicultural country. Some say it as the melting pot, while I prefer to call it ‘flavor of the world’. They are proud of their multiethnic, multiracial, and multicultural state, but sometimes they miss the real issue that is related with that and which tends to accumulate everyday. Come and see! America isn’t the one you look from the bright-colored magazine that makes you dram of how lovely the life can be! Most of women are still living below the poverty line. They are Native Americans, Hispanics, South Americans, Blacks, single mothers, disabled women, etc. It is the country of diverse population, a country of predominantly urban and increasingly heterogeneous nation.
Faye D. Ginsburg raises the basic feminist questions: What is the role of subjective experience in defining women’s true interests? Is there an objective and universal standard for those interests, measurable by the impact of policies on all women? The Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA), founded in New York in 1977, made an effort to expand Pro-Choice politics by incorporating class and race analysis of reproductive issues. CARASA’s goal was to defend all women’s rights to bear children under optimal conditions as well as to limit their fertility. In 1979 the committee published an outreach pamphlet ‘to assert a feminist analysis of abortion in the context of the broader definition of reproductive freedom’.
A recent revision of that pamphlet, Women Under Attack: Victories, Backlash and Fight for Reproductive Freedom, is a useful and timely organizing tool that addresses many issues missing from Contested Lives. Clearly partisan and dedicated to a vision of fundamental social change, the new publication defends abortion as one of many elements necessary for reproductive freedom. The guiding principle of CARASA’s analysis is that women of all classes, races, and ages, regardless of disability or sexual identity, must be guaranteed the full range of social, economic, and political conditions and choices so that every women can make and act in informed decisions about her sexuality, her reproductive capacity, and every other aspect of her life.
The problem of the special treatment or equal treatment approaches to equality before the law is still with us. Feminists need to develop new methods and new strategies for criticizing the legal system and for realizing the pluralist society like I have mentioned above. But pluralism is the last step, not the first. First we need to analyze gender difference as the consequence rather than the cause of unequal relations of power between men and women. Pluralism can only be a liberating vision if it is built on an analysis of the systematic dominance of women by men in our society.
From political point of view, women still need organizations focused on reproductive issues… and such groups should demonstrate that how reproductive freedom is an essential component in every struggle for social justice.
- Faye D. Ginsburg. Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in An American Community. 1988. University of California Press. Berkeley. 315 pages.
- Patrick J. Sheeran. Women, Society, The State, and Abortion: A Str
ucturalist Analysis. 1987. Praeger Publishers. New York. 147 pages.
- Zillah R. Eisenstein. The Female Body and the Law. 1989. University of California Press. Berkeley. 235 pages.
By: Elisabeth DMS