So this article, “Why Are Even Smart, Liberal Men Freaked Out by Abortion?”, is circulating around. Apparatchicks says the tone undermines the whole pro-choice movement. (The comments to the original post explode with all kinds of big reactions.) What follows is a string of thoughts that don’t necessarily find a conclusion.
The article is about a 20s women who had an abortion, and how various pro-choice guys react when they learn. Her tone is important – here is a key sentence: “My abortion had basically been the uterine equivalent of minor knee surgery, annoying and a bit painful, but not soul-destroying or existentially angsty.”
I’ve had some discussions recently with a pro-choice friend who is really unhappy with that tone in the pro-choice rhetoric. He feels that “legal, safe and rare” isn’t rare enough, and that women should feel that kind of soul-destroying existential angst. When pressed, he feels it should be legal and safe, but that women should really feel torn up about the decision. I counter that “it is not the end of the world but we should rub her face in it” is advice better suited for when the dog shits the carpet, not for human beings expressing autonomy over their body.
This conversation counters that an existential, angsty, and intellectualized discourse should pervade the decision. To this I am reminded of JM Coetzee’s Youth; it’s his autobiography of his 20s, told from the same dramatic and self-important viewpoint he had as a literary polite liberal dude. The book is highly recommended – it is him writing his own viewpoint in the third person of an insufferable artistic depressive in his 20s after becoming a great Booker-prize winning author (“In a perfect world he would only sleep with perfect women, women of femininity yet with a certain darkness at their core that will respond to his own darker self. But he knows no such women.”). Ending my 20s this year, it is a real trippy read, since I’ve been at least half of this productive decade as that douchebag. At one point in his early 20s he gets a girl pregnant:
He gets one of them pregnant…There is the tiniest pause, long enough for him to accept the opening and speak. ‘I will stand by you’ he could say ‘Leave it all to me’ he could say. But how can he say he will stand by her when what standing by her will mean in reality fills him with foreboding, when his whole impulse is to drop the telephone and run away?
The pause comes to an end. She has the name, she continues, of someone who will take care of the problem…
Now that disaster has struck, she does not hide away in her room pretending nothing is wrong. On the contrary, she has found out what neds to be found out – how to get an abortion in Cape Town [where it is illegal] – and has made the necessary arragenments. In fact, she has put him to shame….
[After] Every few hours she takes one of the pills the woman has given her, followed by water, glass after glass. For the rest she lies with her eyes closed, enduring the pain. Sensing his squeamishness, she has hidden from his sight the evidence of what is going on insider her body: the bloody pads and whatever else there is…
He sleeps on a mattress at the bedside. As a nurse he is useless, worse than useless. What he is doing cannot in fact be called nursing. It is merely a penance, a stupid and ineffectual penance…
She has issued no reproofs, made no demands; she has even paid the abortionist herself. In fact, she has taught him a lesson in how to behave. As for him, he has emerged ignominiously, he cannot deny it. What help he has given her has been fainthearted and, worse, incompetent. He prays she will never tell the story to anyone.
His thoughts keep going to what was destroyed insider her – that pod of flesh, that rubbery manikin. He sees the little creature flushed down the toilet at the Woodstock house, tumbled through the maze of sewers, tossed out at last into the shallows, blinking in the sudden sun, struggling against the waves that will carry it out into the bay. He did not want it to live and now he does not want it to die. Yet even if he were to run down to the beach, find it, save it from the sea, what would he do with it? Bring it home, keep it warm in cotton wool, try to get it to grow? How can he who is strill a child bring up a child?
He is out of his depth…If he has nothing to say, it is because he has not the courage to ask what is happening to her, in her. Is it like a sickness, he wonders to himself, from which she is now in the process of recuperating, or is it like an amputation, from which one never recovers? What is the difference between an abortion and a miscarriage and what in books is called losing a child?
The difference in tone – the women knows what has to be done, while the man runs around as both a navel-gazer and a hysteric, still amazes me when I read it. He is terrified by what is going on, but also wants to intellectualize it. He wants to nurse the clump of cells from the sewer, but also wants to run away from the phone calls. Though on a quick glance, he seems to be the intellectualized one – full of the Big Questions about Life and Responsibility, her with the narrow pragmatism – his intellectualization is a sign of his immaturity and anxiety in the face of these conditions.
She simply goes into a woman space where she knows what needs to be done. This idea of the woman’s space, safe from the disastrous intellectual frettings of men, is also in Coetzee’s masterpiece Disgrace – where the Professor isn’t allowed to be part of his daughter’s safe space in the wake of her terrible assault.
I enjoy when this framing of abortion is used – as something women do, when they know they need to do it, and the intellectualizing of men ranges from fretting to control. Consider this review of The Culture of Death by arch-conservative John Derbyshire: “I wonder again: Who, actually, is the Party of Death? Here I see a woman who, having missed her period and found herself pregnant, has an abortion, comes home, downs a stiff drink, and gets on with her life. With her life.” This notion, of action without justification to your judgers, which is indistinguishable from flippancy at times, is the characteristic of genuine autonomy.
Or so it strikes this polite liberal dude, who often intellectualizes away the autonomy of others. But for all I know I’ve just turned the issue 180 degrees. But I’m trying.