Wednesday, November 29, 2006

On Women And Babies

I read two quite different articles last night and they interbred in my mind to create quite a horrible baby. Or so I think.

The first article was a rehash of the need for all fecund women to get preconception care the whole length of their fertile lives. Not, mind you, for the sake of the hypothetical babies that might be planned for some other decade of the woman's life, but for her own sake. For her own sake, yes, but not really. The care has to be linked to her role as a potential mother.

Not so for men, though they are reminded to stay away from sexually transmitted diseases and toxins known to cause birth defects. But they don't get preconception care. And their obesity is their own business. They appear to have no role as a potential father. For instance, the article quotes smoking cessation as something women should do long before they plan to get pregnant, but fails to mention what men should do about smoking before fatherhood strikes.

Ah, you say, but surely it is the biological differences between the sexes that causes this freedom or neglect of men by the medical establishment. Perhaps. But I doubt the number of researchers studying the impact of fathers' behavior on their future children's health is very large. Have we thoroughly studied all the different ways that fathers might affect their future children's health?

We have always regarded babies as mostly women's business, but the women responsible for babies were the mothers. Feminists used to write about the need to get fathers more involved and for more societal support for mothers. And what do we get? Something very weird: the concept of healthy babies is now the responsibility of all women from the first period to menopause. For that is the length of time women are told to need preconception care.

I don't think that the biological difference in the reproductive roles of men and women is sufficient to explain the tilt in the story, however subtle it is (after lots of angry writing on feminist websites, it has gotten subtler). I think the different emphasis has more to do with the way we define public space in reproduction. Some bodies are seen as town halls, to be kept pristine and safe, some as private dives where you can do what you please.

And this brings me to the second article, I read, via Pandagon (where Amanda admirably dissects it): a piece by Mark Steyn titled "Quartet of ladies shows where we are headed". A snippet from it:

Have you seen a movie called ''Four Jills In A Jeep''? Don't worry, it's not at the multiplex. It came out in 1944. A wartime movie, about the contribution of the gals to the big existential struggle. Great title, and downhill after that. This column is, metaphorically speaking, four Jills in a jeep: It's about a quartet of ladies who provide useful glimpses of where we're heading.

The first is Fatma An-Najar, a 64-year-old grandmother who had a livelier Thanksgiving than most grandmas. She marked the occasion by self-detonating in the town of Jebaliya, and, although all she had to show for splattering body parts over the neighborhood were three "lightly wounded" Israeli soldiers, she will have an honored place in the pantheon of Palestinian heroes. She was, according to the official statistician from the Hamas Book Of Records, the oldest Palestinian suicide bomber ever. And, naturally, her family's pleased as punch.


An-Najar gave birth to her first child at the age of 12. She had eight others. She had 41 grandchildren. Keep that family tree in mind. By contrast, in Spain, a 64-year old woman will have maybe one grandchild. That's four grandparents, one grandchild: a family tree with no branches.

Which brings me to our second Jill: the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to run a national division of the Anglican Communion. Bishop Kate gave an interview to the New York Times revealing what passes for orthodoxy in this most flexible of faiths. She was asked a simple enough question: "How many members of the Episcopal Church are there?"

"About 2.2 million," replied the presiding bishop. "It used to be larger percentage-wise, but Episcopalians tend to be better educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than other denominations."

This was a bit of a jaw-dropper even for a New York Times hackette, so, with vague memories of God saying something about going forth and multiplying floating around the back of her head, a bewildered Deborah Solomon said: "Episcopalians aren't interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?"

"No," agreed Bishop Kate. "It's probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion."

You get the idea. These women are named Jill and there are two more Jills in the story. Women are interchangeable and women are responsible for making babies for their tribe. Men have nothing to do with babies, except that they demand either more or less of them, it seems. The people responsible for babies and for civilizations are Jills. And Jills, or "a quartet of ladies" are showing where we are heading, which is a race suicide by the whites, because of feminism and women who refuse to mate with Mark Steyn, I presume, and an excess of...Muslims? Muslims are not a race, of course. But then the Muslim women have a lot of babies and that makes Steyn full of envy.

I told you it wasn't pretty. I'm muddling through this topic, I know. It is at the same time so very obvious and also very slippery, and that is one reason why I mixed up the two pieces, one very neutral and fairly acceptable and the other pretty clearly biased. Because they are both about how to make women behave.