‘the religious and conservative ideal that prefers us being dead to being free’

This is a translated post from the Vidas precarias (precarious lives) blog on Diagonal, written by Sara LF. The blog is concerned with ‘interrogating “the crisis” from feminist perspectives’. It was published Friday 3rd May. I’m publishing it here because I think it’s of particular relevance to present events in Ireland.

The local context for the article is government plans –elaborated in secret- for changes to the abortion law in Spain to make it more difficult to obtain an abortion. The governing Partido Popular, which is the main political heir of Franco’s fascist regime, is in the same European parliamentary grouping as Fine Gael, and has close ties to the Catholic Church, with at least one government minister a member of Opus Dei. Incidentally, Spain was the country anti-abortion Fine Gael TD Lucinda Creighton cited as an example of how the Eurozone crisis was not a crisis of democratic legitimacy.

The tales they tell us: reproduction and its protagonists?

In her article “The egg and the sperm: how science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles” the anthropologist Emily Martin explains how, in scientific discourse on eggs, sperm and fertilisation, these are presented as gametes from an anthropomorphic perspective, that is, with human qualities, and based on a binary, unequal and stereotypical vision of understanding ourselves in terms based on co-ordinates of masculinity and femininity. Thus, sperm appear masculinised, as subjects with capacity for action; strong, brave, with objectives (fundamentally: to penetrate the egg), and eggs appear as passive receivers, given meaning only through their contact with the sperm [Translation note: In the original, the gender of the word for sperm is highlighted: “el” espermatozoide]. Lisa Jean Moore, years later, wrote a book on “Man’s most precious fluid” in which she analysed discourses concerning sperm across different spheres. She highlighted how these discourses also reproduced a model of hegemonic masculinity, in which the relation between the sperm and the eggs appears either in terms of the “battle of the sexes” or, in terms of “complementarity”, with a strong component of a deeply heteronormative cartoon battle or fairy tale in which the relationship between the supposed “feminine” and “masculine” poles is clearly an unequal one.

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Certain films have reflected this, no doubt more than one person recalls this one (between 2:40 and 4:35) [the link is to the Spanish version of Look Who’s Talking, with the voiced fertilisation scene]. But it can also be easily seen in documentaries [a link to The Great Sperm Race, though the link may not work in Ireland] and series [a link to animated cartoon Once Upon A Time Life] produced as “popular science”. These discourses naturalise hegemonic masculinity and situate the eggs, and what they understand and define as the body of the woman, in the passive place set aside for them by the heteropatriarchal imagination.

The studies by these authors remind us that science –as with all other discourses- is situated, that scientific definitions of what we are come about in the context of a culture, of a very particular way of understanding the world. The existence of white, western, heteronormative and androcentric hegemonies explains how the reproductive process appears within a simplifying vision in which the key point is to be found at the meeting between egg and sperm. It is as if these explanations needed to seek out protagonists for the story, a boy and a girl to make up what Emily Martin calls “perfect romance”. To give this centrality to fertilisation, as distinct from all the other processes that take place in the female reproductive apparatus, creates a false image in which it would seem that the only necessary and essential thing for a baby to be born is for a streetwise sperm to get one over the rest of his gang in a kind of ‘grand prix’ and penetrate (at what point did we assume that an encounter between cells is “penetration”??) the egg.

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This simplistic and absurd vision renders invisible all the work performed by the female reproductive apparatus and the entire body of the person in whom fertilisation occurs at that moment and the subsequent weeks. It is she who activates a series of mechanisms that brings about an embryo which, in certain cases, can end up as a foetus that, on occasions, can end up as a new person. It is not always thus, many times the process stops, perhaps because the body does not recognise the collection of cells as an embryo and does not generate the necessary processes for its development or its subsequent becoming a foetus, or because the person who is developing it decides not to continue the process because she does not want to, she cannot, or does not wish at that moment to generate a new life with all that this entails. This is carried out, if it can be done safely, by stopping the process through medical intervention. That is, the same way medical intervention puts a stop to other unwanted processes that take place in our body (from the spreading of a common virus to the multiplication of cancerous cells).

The fact that the tales they tell us about reproduction are centred on the agency of men (Daddy puts a seed into Mammy) and deny agency to women is neither innocent nor naive. This is not to say that all those who repeat the story have in their head a malevolent strategy for the subjugation of women, obviously. But the existing imaginary as regards reproduction separates the embryo and the foetus from the rest of the body that is generating it, and separate from which it does not exist. This imaginary forms part of one more strategy of subjugation and denial of the agency of women and other non-hegemonic subjects, one more strategy of control over bodies that do not abide by the norms of the religious and conservative ideal that prefers us being dead to being free [Translation note: the original contains two links to stories on Beatriz, the Salvadorian woman threatened with jail if she goes ahead with a lifesaving abortion operation; I’ve included a link to a Salon report].

The struggle for the right to abortion goes beyond a woman being able to abort at a given moment (though that is important enough). It involves recognising that we can take decisions about our lives that go outside the heteronormative ideal of the nuclear family. That we can decide about our p/maternity, our sexuality, our pleasure. It entails denying that rights are acquired only through the economic route (since obviously, classes have always existed and those who can afford it can go back to flying to London). It entails questioning a discourse that claims to know more about us [nosotras, the feminine version of ‘us’ is used in the original] than we ourselves. Struggling for different imaginaries, liveable, chosen lives with meaning; it does not end with the right to abortion, this should go without saying, but to let them to steal it from us means rendering the already precarious lives of people a great deal more precarious. I believe that for any political or ethical discourse to be considered emancipatory in the slightest must assume that, both in relation to abortion and in general in relation to our bodies, it is ‘women’ who decide, society respects, the state guarantees, and churches do not intervene.  

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