Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Memo, Mr. Stupak, and choice

Reader, I had a choice. Whatever that means, really.

One day in 1996, my right shoulder was in pain. Not me, my right shoulder. I went to see my internist to figure out whether I had hurt a ligament or tendon (if shoulders have tendons--well, I suppose so). It really hurt.

My internist is a very practical woman. She offered me a prescription medication and advised me to change the way I carried my usual bag full of books. The weight of the books was creating pressure on the shoulder and the various muscular and nervous structures of the shoulder and causing the pain.

But would the medication cause harm to the baby if I were pregnant, I asked.

Are you pregnant, she asked.

I don't know, I said, but we've been trying.

How long?

As it turned out, not very long. But long enough for it to be a possibility and too soon, a few days too soon, for a pregnancy test.

My internist told me that the medication might cause me to miscarry--if, and she stressed, if, I were pregnant. Which seemed highly unlikely to her. She advised me to fill the prescription.

I declined. If there were a baby, I was already committed to this course of action. Dedicated. For whatever reasons at the time, the baby did not seem hypothetical, a collection of cells without a beating heart, a scientific possibility. Something that could be lost, replaced, tried for again. I had a responsibility to someone else, already.

We had not been trying long. I was not a woman who had miscarried repeatedly. At every practical level, there was no reason for my apparent irrationality to decide against trading my shoulder pain for comfort.

As it turns out, I was pregnant. I was pregnant with Robert.

Times are, I have looked back at this moment--an apparent turning point--and wondered. No, I haven't wished that I had taken the medication, surprisingly. I've only wondered whether this was my moment of 'choice.' Was I supposed to have known then that I was closing off my "options"?

So many friends and relatives and others whom I read about in glossy magazines and newsprint speak convincingly of their 'choice' to have a child. That the time is right, the time is now, they have determined there are no obstacles in their way, life will work out just fine from here because they have made a choice. And in so choosing, are blocking off their calendars for pregnancy and child-rearing, ordering a 5 year subscription to Parenting magazine, reconciling themselves to the known effects this will have on their jobs or careers or other life decisions, in short, having made the choice, knowing what the future will have in store for them for the next 5-10 years. For sure.

Because in America we have 'choices.' And that is somehow analogous to 'freedom.' Because it is only when we are free that we have choice. Free choice. And free will to make our free choices. And when we choose something, that is exactly what happens: we get what we pick.

I missed that memo. The one entitled, 'Feminism as Careful Decision-making.'

I guess I thought feminism was an ideology. I had no idea it was a certificate course.

And that when I demonstrated I knew how to recognize appropriate choices and made all the right ones and proved that I was responsible, that not only would I get my certificate in feminist worthiness, I would also be given a healthy, typically-developing baby and a handful of tokens of self-righteousness to spend at my leisure. Because if you just make the right choices, everything goes just fine. That's how we know whether we should empathize with someone or not. In America.

Had I gotten the memo and been apprised of the fact that I was making a choice with overwhelming life-time ramifications by not taking the pain medication for my shoulder, well, what would I have done? I think I was speaking a different language then, and I doubt I would have understood the memo. I thought I was a feminist because I believed in the rights of all women to have both families and fulfilling work, regardless of the timing or the outcomes of their pregnancies. Or, whatever, skip family, or skip work if someone else will support you. I thought I might be able to lead a life similar to that of my male college classmates.

That's what freedom meant to me. I had no idea that I could "choose" unforeseen restrictions or that innocuous "choices" I might make could be lobbed back at me as evidence of my failure to take advantage of free will. Because everyone knows what's going to happen in life, right? It's just the sum of our choices.

Let me put down this heavy platter of sarcasm and parody, just for a moment.

Those of you who have read my blog for a while know that I am in the DMZ on abortion--neither fully pro-choice nor pro-life. I believe that abortion is a necessary, but insufficient, precondition for the rights of women. I do not believe that it secures any of our rights, except the right to choose 'no.'

Because if I believed that abortion secures all my rights, then I would believe that the choice to have or not to have a child is the single most consequential decision of a woman's life. I don't think it should be. I don't think any of our lives should come down to some decision to take or not to take a medication that might cause a miscarriage. Or to feel a simmering anger episodically, year after year, when some stranger on a comment board to an article about motherhood or disability parenting pointedly remarks that, well, that woman CHOSE to have that autistic child, or another stranger in a magazine article waxes poetic about her CHOICE to have her (healthy) baby and how carefully the choice was made and how rewarded she feels for making the right ones.

Clearly, I need a bumper sticker. One that reads: I didn't choose to have a disabled child and you didn't choose to have a typical child. And, you, over there, you may not have chosen not to have a child at all.

Yup. You could say I think that Choice Feminism is a bunch of self-delusional hooey. Sorry.

Which is why, in the end, Bart Stupak was so oddly refreshing.

Throughout the agony over the Hyde Amendment and its alignment with or not so much with healthcare reform legislation, I just kept my head down. Did I think women should be allowed access to abortion? Absolutely. Did I feel a knot in my stomach when a registered nurse spoke on television about adjusting the language of the amendment to include permission to abort 'fetal anomalies'? Yes, indeed I did. Did I believe that the Stupak Amendment should mean Nancy Pelosi should chuck the whole reform legislation package? No, I did not.

Call me any names you like (privately, please), but the more 'choice feminism' aligns my rights as a woman with my decision to become pregnant or the outcome of my pregnancy, well, the more feminism wraps me in chains. And wraps my child in chains. If Robert's just a choice that shouldn't have been made, what right does he have to education or healthcare?

The much-reviled Bart Stupak stood up on Sunday night to rally the Democrats to block the Republicans from sending the whole damn thing back to committee (or something like that, forgive me if I have my parliamentarian hat on backwards). I don't know if he meant what he said or whether he was just channeling the talking points of Catholic nuns who gave cover to those who wanted to move forward on health insurance reform, come hell or high water.

But he said that affirming life had more to do with caring for the sick than it did with abortion politics. He said that he wanted to tell women that if they have a child and that child has medical problems, that that child will be entitled to medical care.

And that, that was a positive message. And I'm real, real tired of being made to feel badly by the Emily's List people--even if it's only a series of implications--about how (and why) I shouldered my responsibilities. I wonder if they even know that and if they even care.

And I love Robert. I'm glad he's here.


Dale said...

Dammit, your blog needs to come with a warning label: "not work-safe: will regularly bring you to tears in the office."

erika said...

Can I have one of those bumper stickers too? I find it so annoying when people talk about 'choosing' to have a typical or disabled child. Like you can guide the formation of cells and you can prevent chromosomes from sticking together or getting deleted. Like anybody can control whether a baby has a stroke or autism or one of the many rare disorders that doesn't even have a name or can't even be diagnosed. There is so very little that we can truly control in life. We can choose what to do with a situation, event, circumstance, tragedy - but most of the time, we can't choose whether or not we want them in our lives. Surely I would have chosen Izabella's 15 and 18 chromosomes to be intact, but nobody asked me.

You are probably sick of me telling you every time, but I love your writing.

Laura said...

Bravo, Jeneva! Bravo!
I wish had more articulate words, but these will suffice for now: bravo, well done, good show, and may it be so.

Sara said...

We seem, culturally, to be stuck with the belief that not only is 'choice' a good thing, but that choice is somehow binary: good or bad, child or not, happy or sad, healthy or ill. Life is messy; life doesn't always offer either/or answers. Obviously. And I think sometimes this choice feminism, which I am also uneasy with, simply is a response to an opposition which offers only black-and-white scenarios (babykillers versus family values), a human desire to draw the line between us and them, right and wrong, our side and yours. My parents' choice, in the late '70s, with a deaf child were either to send her to an institution or, in the words of one doctor, 'raise a burden upon your family'. And so we all carry on, I guess. The feminism I'm interested in is the kind that affirms ALL life. That says all of us are valued, chosen or not. If there is a God, I think he/she chooses us all.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.