Politicised Bodies: We Cannot Always Take Care of the Life We Are Carrying
20 July 2022
Image Credit: The Guardian.
The dimensions of existence, care, responsibility and autonomy of women, and of the care of society itself are ignored in the recent American political theatre. This decision gives a dramatic signal and reminds us how much a woman's body bears witness to juridical and electoral democratic conditions. That is, during political crises the first decisions of a group of people with power will be directed at women's freedom. Women are the sounding board for the political state of a country, they are forced to pay.
These are images, memories from my early teens in the 90s, images shown on TV of the so called ‘pro-life’ women demonstrating outside clinics with signs depicting enlarged fetuses, hateful messages to women, and some blood-red liquid being poured over other women who were entering the same clinic. At the age of 11 I didn't really understand what abortion was, but I had at least understood that it could be at the root of women's hatred of other women, which seemed to me astonishing, confusing and impressive enough to try to understand what kind of logic was at play.
The first logic that comes into play in this game is that of the hierarchy of life. When does life begin? At what point does an embryo come to have a soul? What is a soul? Does abortion correspond to an assassination for the benefit of the mother's comfort? Can the life to come be taken as an "absolute value" whatever be the circumstances of conception, whether it be rape or incest? These questions are known, had been worked on, but were never surpassed, since in many states of the world abortion is illegal, as it is on almost the entire African continent (unless it allows the mother's life to be saved), with the exception of South Africa and Mozambique where it is authorised. The same is true in South America, with the exception of Uruguay, Argentina and Colombia where it is legal. At the opposite extreme, it has been the norm in China for the implementation of the one-child policy. For now it is legal in India too. For a dozen states such as Nicaragua, Jamaica, El Salvador, Honduras and Madagascar it is illegal and criminalised. Thailand decriminalised it a year ago.
American law, 50 years after the Roe vs Wade amendment, still considers that a woman's body and her destiny do not belong to her. The law decides on her body and thus on her health, on her ability to make choices, as if a woman's only destiny were to be just a mother.
The U.S. Supreme Court is shifting the balance of what a woman can choose by giving back to each of the states of America the ability to legislate on abortion, knowing that many will choose to make abortion illegal, unless it endangers the life of the mother. (1) This decision gives a dramatic signal and reminds us how much a woman's body bears witness to juridical and electoral democratic conditions. That is, during political crises the first decisions of a group of people with power will be directed at women's freedom: to restrict them, to break them, to criminalise them. Women are the sounding board for the political state of a country, they are forced to pay.
This is a far cry from the declarations of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, (2) where the need to promote women's autonomy in the decisions that concern them was affirmed worldwide, as a "right of peoples to self-determination" applied to women. It would be simplistic to think that this setback is due formally and simply to a vote by men against women's bodies. As I said at the beginning of the text, it is also a question of women opposing each other on what the body says, what it is, on the definition of a female body that is essentialized or not in its mission of gestation, of giving life. A body assigned to what happens to it, whatever the cost to its own life. Women's bodies on the issue of abortion resist secularisation, they remain attached, bound, prisoners of both a biological and religious representation of the female body.
It seems that American law, 50 years after the Roe vs Wade amendment, still considers that a woman's body and her destiny do not belong to her. The law decides on her body and thus on her health, on her ability to make choices, as if a woman's only destiny were to be just a mother. The law thus creates the possibility of intimate violence in favour of a single, universal figure, the mother. The United States is thus re-launching the promotion of this image of the woman as an inhabitant by erasing the scene of procreation, by denying the figures for abortions, the catastrophic risks to women's health, and by erasing the truth: we cannot always take care of the life we are carrying.
No abortion takes place without leaving a trace in a woman's history, that is what my clinical experience has taught me. In every woman's story, if the act of abortion has been chosen, it is never forgotten, swept away, suppressed, it may be the object of a repression, a shame, a modesty or a secret, but it is never counted for nothing, it always remains a place in the psyche, a marker. This act is not always the result of a deliberate, pure choice; on the contrary, it can be forced by the identity of the partner in cases of rape and incest, but also forced by a moment in life. Abortions punctuate family histories, pierce filiations and genealogies, they are the secret history of women who, let us not forget, also abort at the request of men who do not want to "keep the child". In this respect, abortions always constitute stories that are invisible in the civil registry, but which are always alive and which we inherit in one way or another. In this, we can fully support the freedom to choose without trivialising the act resulting from this choice, because every woman knows the price in her body and psyche. These stories run through us, it is a knowledge that women share with each other, a taboo that still seems to be and unfortunately is becoming more pronounced in the 21st century. How many women have secret abortions at the cost of their lives? How many are still in the United States now?
Who can consider that a woman is wrong when she has an abortion? Who can judge this act, certainly the most intimate that a woman can go through?
When the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Winnicott wrote "there is no such thing as a baby" (3), he captured in one sentence that it is impossible to deny the decisive impact of a mother's physical and mental state when she gives birth. Giving birth is the most fundamental gesture of welcome, how can we believe that women ignore it? Choosing to have an abortion in one's life is, on the contrary, to preserve the sacred dimension of this gesture when it must take place for each woman, when she wishes it.
1. Which is itself doubtful as can be seen in recent new reports. See “10-year-old rape victim forced to travel from Ohio to Indiana for abortion”, The Guardian, 3 July 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jul/03/ohio-indiana-abortion-rape-victim
2. See the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action document, https://www.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/Headquarters/Attachments/Sections/CSW/PFA_E_Final_WEB.pdf
3. Donald W Winnicott, “The Baby as a Person”, The Collected Works of D. W. Winnicott: Volume 3, 1946-1951, Edited by: Lesley Caldwelland Helen Taylor Robinson, Oxford University Press, 2016.