When life begins is a question that has continuously been up for debate in our social discourse. If life begins at conception, do women have the right to terminate a pregnancy even though the foetus is incapable of living outside of the womb? Pro Life and Pro Choice groups continue to argue over who has the right to decide the aforementioned question with little actual conversation about what to do with the children already living.
We recognize that children need the protection of adults to survive and yet there is much social rejection of responsiblity for the most vulnerable members of our society. Children often get caught between our understanding that we as humans are communal creatures and are therefore interdependent, and the social discourse that we have created to support our capitalist economy that privileges individualism.
Nadya Suleman and her octuplets are the living manifestation of our social conflict. On January the 26th of this year Ms. Suleman added 8 new babies to a family that already included 6 children. She is a single mother that currently resides with her parents.
Much of the media coverage regarding this event surrounds the debate as to whether or not it was medically ethical to implant eight embryos in a woman of her age, who already had six children. Though Ms. Suleman was offered the opportunity to terminate a number of the pregnancies, when it was discovered how many were viable, she refused.
No one pauses to consider that Ms. Sulemans approval of what occurred indeed legitimized the events:
She was not forced to carry these babies to term; it was an active decision on her part. If, as feminists, we can argue that women have the right to choose to have an abortion, then the right to choose motherhood should be equally validated; furthermore the right to privacy extends to Ms. Suleman’s decision as well.
Choice does not only involve abortion, it also extends to actively seeking to reproduce. While we may feel dismay at the number of children Ms.Suleman has conceived, the moment we begin to question whether she had the right to make this decision, we invalidate the argument that reproduction is a private issue and that a womans body should at all times be under her control.
We do not have the right to place a limit on when female agency ends. There are many men that are fathers to multiple children by various women and their virility is praised, yet when a woman gives birth to a large number of children her sanity is questioned. In this we can see the historical link between the uterus and the hysterical woman.
Much criticism has been levelled at Ms. Suleman. She has been referred to as a bitch, compared to a dog, had her sanity questioned and even called selfish. Yet if we claim to love children and support motherhood, why is one womans fertility such an issue?
In truth, motherhood is not supported and neither are the children that we claim to love so much. One of the most hated groups in society is the single mother, otherwise known as the welfare queen, as labelled by Reagan.
There is the idea that because pregnancy and giving birth is a natural function of womanhood, that parenting a child is not work. Socially, single mothers are deemed the equivalent of parasites, despite the fact that raising a child is difficult and tedious work. Parenting does not produce a product that can be sold and it is largely done by women, which means that it is continually devalued.
While we need children to ensure that our species continues to be perpetuated, we do little to act in their best interest. Our society is driven my capitalism and commerce, therefore common communal needs often get over looked or suppressed.
The conflation of reproduction and motherhood means that certain children will be valued based on the race and class position of the mother. The degree to which the mother ascribes to patriarchal norms will also play a role in the acceptance of the child into the larger society. Jon and Kate and the Duggar family both consist of what today we would deem inordinately large families. Both of the mothers in these situations have fulfilled what patriarchy would deem their social contract in that they are married and do not work outside of the home.
Kate Gosselin and Michelle Duggar have chosen to dedicate their lives to their families and receive countless praise from the media and religious organizations. Michelle Duggar in particular makes it a point to stress that it is the woman’s job to submit to the desires of men. For her the male is the head of the family and this manifests itself through their continual reproduction. Her children do not represent her maternity; they stand as a testament to her husband’s virility.
The resentment of Ms. Suleman is partly due to the fact that she lacks an active male figure in her life. Her desire to reproduce without being in a heterosexual committed relationship flies in the face of patriarchal norms. We consistently claim that children do better in two parent families, but neglect to mention that even in this situation women continue to have the bulk of the responsibility. A male presence provides an extra income and therefore a child is less likely to grow up in poverty, but a father in the household does not necessarily lead to more engagement for the child or less work for the women involved. Knowing that this is the pattern of the majority of heterosexual couplings it is quite possible to surmise that, partly, the issue is that Ms. Suleman has chosen to not align herself with a male in a long term relationship.
The idea that a woman can exist and be fulfilled without entering into marriage has been discouraged with anything from ostracism to labelling these women old maids. A man who is resistant to attach himself to a woman in a long term commitment is somehow seen as more valuable, or else he’s just being wild and adventurous in the sowing of his wild oats. Ms.Suleman is under attack because her life flies in the face of the idea that families must necessarily involve male headship.
Many have also voiced distress about financial responsibility for these children. Even though we do not live in a true capitalist state, the idea of communal responsibility for all children still exists as an affront to our sensibilities. I find this form of social malaise particularly offensive when we consider the various things that our tax dollars support. We do not balk in this manner when we are forced through taxation to pay for arms and weapons of mass destruction, yet supporting a child is somehow a waste of money or an extravagance.
Ms.Suleman has been offered a book deal and various opportunities to earn an income and this is has been referred to as “pimping” her children. How can this woman possibly win? If she depends on the state for support, which is her right, she is a blood sucking leech. If she explores opportunities made available through the money market economy, she is exploiting her children.
The point is to ensure that Ms. Suleman is held up to the world as a pariah for her decisions regarding reproduction. Unless women have children within the patriarchal family they are stigmatized, and purposefully impoverished. This young mother of 14 stands as a testimony to how little regard we give to motherhood and children unless they lead heterosexist lives that uplift patriarchal norms.