Democracy and the Uterus
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Bodily Autonomy
What does it mean to live in a democracy if part of your body is out of your control and subject to surveillance and policies that run against everything you believe in? This is the question every single person born with a uterus must ask themselves between now and July 9th, when Donald Trump plans to announce his nominee for the Supreme Court justice to replace Anthony Kennedy. I can’t answer that question for everyone; it is not for me to answer for others, just as it is not for those who do not have a uterus to answer for any one of us who does. But I can answer it for myself and based on my own experiences in life.
I was born out of a policy that forbade women to have control over their bodies until they raised 4 children. Under communist Romania, starting in 1967 and until 1989, many babies were born because women were refused control over their sexuality and abortion was made illegal. Most women wanted to have children and closely identified with motherhood as a gender role. They also wanted to be able to raise them in an environment that was economically viable, yet they found themselves in circumstances that made it extremely difficult to actually raise more than one child. The economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s made matters even worse, and raising a child, for which mothers took most of the responsibility, became an experience of stress, humiliation, and desperation at times. The birth rate in Romania went from 14.6/1000 in 1964 to 27/1000 in 1967, right after abortion was criminalized. Then it started to go down steadily until it reached 14.3/1000 in 1983, as women chose to have backstreet abortions in order to avoid having more than one or two children under a dictatorship of severe economic austerity, while also working full time, with inadequate childcare support from their husbands or the state. In short, regardless of what the state and its male leadership wanted women to do with their uteruses, women pursued options to fit their beliefs and interests as individuals, often with grave consequences. This is not a sole example. In many other places, from China to Germany and Brazil, over the twentieth century women have chosen to follow their interests rather than those of male politicians, even when the personal risks in terms of incarceration and personal health were very high. Many women died, were imprisoned, or suffered economic consequences and public opprobrium for making these choices. We will continue to do so for as long as men are the primary decision makers over our reproductive choices.
I have two children. They came in my life when I was ready for motherhood, in a stable and loving marriage, and with the economic foundation to raise them in a healthy environment. It was a choice made responsibly and lovingly. I also had several abortions, two intentional and the multiple others spontaneous. Leaving aside for the moment the two I chose, should I be tried for involuntary manslaughter for the pregnancies my body rejected? If life begins at conception, that might be how a theocratic fundamentalist regime would see it: she did not take care of this pregnancy as she should have. She was irresponsible towards this new life. Except I figured out I had aborted only when I got my period after testing positive for the pregnancy. Just like approximately a fifth of all pregnancies. Was that God’s will? I am not delusional enough to believe I know what that would mean. All I know is that as many as 20% of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortions.
The other two abortions were scheduled and premeditated. They were both rational choices made in the face of two different sets of crippling circumstances. The first one was the result of having sex without being able to benefit from birth control with someone I didn’t want to have a relationship with any longer, when I was 20 years old and had not yet finished college. I chose to postpone motherhood at that point, until I knew I could raise a child with someone I loved, and until I had enough financial stability to think about this commitment as a long term relationship. The second termination was the result of an ectopic pregnancy from which I lost enormous amounts of blood and almost died. The abortion saved my life and literally enabled me to become a mother a year later.
I carry these events of my life with me every day. I know no woman who made the decision to abort without thinking a lot about this choice and how her life would have been different if it was a viable pregnancy. And most women who have had abortions are in fact mothers. Their choices have included not just abortions, but also births and the commitment to raise a child.
No man has born the costs of these choices through their body. But under regimes where male politicians decided to criminalize abortion, many women have died for their decisions, been rendered unfertile, suffered other major health problems for the rest of their lives, and suffered in jail or at the hands of self-righteous public opinion that believes it knows better than women themselves in terms of what is morally and ethically right.
What every politician needs to understand as a fact is that, in most societies and at most periods of time, most women choose to become mothers. They want to become mothers. But not necessarily whenever a man decides to ejaculate inside their vagina. If religious dogma of the fundamentalist kind dictates that all pregnancies are the will of God and if people choose to believe it, that is certainly their prerogative in a democracy that takes the separation between church and state, between religious belief and citizenship rights, as a fundamental principle. But in a democracy, those of us who choose not to accept such religious dogma should also have the same rights to our beliefs.
My core belief is that, once they are born, all human beings should enjoy the same rights and obligations. As citizens of a democratic state, women should have the full liberty to determine when, whether, and how to become mothers. They should not be subjected to any pressure or discrimination in how they choose to engage in sexual activities. Those who do not have uteruses may not tread on these rights and may not use their privilege of not having a uterus to ejaculate wherever they want, without any regard for the consequences of their actions for other people, such as those with uteruses. If that choice is no longer part of our constitutional protections, then women are no longer full citizens of the state and the state can no longer call itself democratic. Pure and simple.
If in the United States the Republican Party and its supporters (including members of my family, some of them women) wish to move us in that direction by appointing an anti-choice supreme court justice, everyone in that camp needs to own up to the reality that they are moving this country towards the nineteenth century and religious fundamentalism incompatible with democracy. Even as the rest of the world has accepted the idea that secular political authority should curb religious fundamentalism, with the exception of a few theocratic regimes (Iran, for instance), the Republican Party is positioning our society towards discrimination on the basis of sex that will have grave consequences for everyone living in this country. Women will not go down quietly. We will not be made to open our legs and give birth on command. We will fight, even at the cost of our own safety and life. Because we are not uteruses and birthing vessels. We are full human beings, deserving of the respect and trust extended to all citizens in terms of making choices that best serve both self-interest and the common good.
Maria Bucur is an American-Romanian historian of modern Eastern Europe and gender in the twentieth century. She has written on the history of eugenics in Eastern Europe, memory and war in twentieth-century Romania, gender and modernism, and gender and citizenship. Her book, The Century of Women. How Women Have Transformed the World since 1990, is forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield in May 2018. She teaches history and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she holds the John W. Hill Professorship.