Sunday, April 09, 2006

Fetal Rights

Jack Hitt's article on the effects of the El Salvador abortion laws is now available. It shows us what life will be like in some future South Dakota, if the anti-abortion wingnuts have their way with us. El Salvador bans all abortions, even those, where the woman's life is at risk. This leads to such distortions as a refusal to treat ectopic pregnancy (one where the embryo is attached to the wall of the fallopian tube which is only pencil-thick and where the embryo will have no chance of survival) with the kind of promptness that is medically required. You see, the physicians must wait until the embryo can be declared dead before they can attend to the woman, it seems.

Two thoughts swam to the surface of my mind after reading the article. The first one was the whole atmosphere it provoked: one of secrecy, of women quietly living in the little gaps and ruptures of the society, of horrible events inexplicably happening to them. All this smelled familiar to me, and I realized that this is what many books and interviews of the pre-abortion era described. A kind of numb, unquestioning powerlessness of women, where real power is replaced by either legal rules or private rituals, where power is invisible and outside and something that just is, where the real culprits are not pointed out or held to scrutiny, where change is something that happens from the outside. It could be that it's the writer who provokes these feelings but I suspect it's the people he interviews. Traditional societies tend to do this to women. Whatever the faults of modernity might be, at least we have aired these dank and hidden corners of powerlessness and its subterfuges.

The second thought was about how to define a person in this story and how to assign value. My feminist eyes immediately spotted that men had only a small role to play in the story, despite the fact that those who made these punitive laws are probably almost solely male, and despite the fact that the church which supports these laws is totally dominated by men. It's a women's world of crime, this abortion business, and the men come across as rather astonished bystanders. Except for the fact that some men had to play a role before a woman could get pregnant.

Then there is the embryo who gets human status from the point of conception. Not before, mind you, because then the human status might get men into trouble, should we take after the medieval writers who believed that children are wholly formed by the sperm and that the uterus is just a food cupboard for the little homunculus. And not after birth, because then the women would get the power of deciding on fertility. No, it has to be on the very moment of conception that a person becomes a person, so that we then have two persons, one layered inside the other, and we also have the interesting legal question of when this layering of human beings privileges the woman and when it privileges the embryo. The South Dakotans argue that if someone forcefully inserts another person into a woman (rape) the inner person has more rights of autonomy than the outer person. The El Salvador fathers of state have decided that the outer person doesn't even have the right of self-defence if she is faced with the risk of death. She has truly become a container, a walking aquarium for the little embryo fish, and she can never have equal rights with those persons who can't become containers. Because her life must always be judged on the basis of what her rights mean for the rights of any potential inner person.

No wonder that laws of this kind would make women feel powerless, for they really make women powerless to decide on their own lives, at least on paper. In reality, as the article points out, wealthy women can hop on an airplane and get the abortion done nicely and safely. It is the not-so-wealthy women who will scutter in the secret corners of the society, looking for the small hidden gaps that the eagle-eyed patriarchy has not yet spotted.