The Pro-Death Movement

Tom Doran

wire hanger de 96752663 300x234 The Pro Death MovementI was hoping to write something lighthearted today, but no such luck. A friend sent me a link to this piece on the ultra-right US website Newsbusters, and it’s made me so incandescently angry I have to write it out of my system.

I’d like to start by saying that the grief being expressed by the writer, Brent Bozell, is palpably real and raw, and I’ve no interest in disputing his sincerity. Nor do I object to the article’s intense religious sentimentality. I confess that I find talk of crying angels and the Lord’s plan hard to swallow in the aftermath of tragedy, since it lets God off the hook for allowing the disaster in the first place while crediting Him for the good things; heads I win, tails you lose.

Grief is a thing bigger than any of us, and if this is how those who loved the deceased need to mourn, it’s not my place or anybody’s to judge. If Bozell had only left it there, I could let this column pass in respectful silence. But he doesn’t, and the implications of what he writes are so appalling that I can’t avoid responding. If you find this offensive or self-righteous, I understand, and recommend you stop reading now.

If you haven’t the time to read it yourself, the piece is a eulogy for a woman called Caroline Weiner, clearly a close friend or relative of the author (the exact relationship is unspecified). She died shortly after giving birth to her third child, at the age of just 32. This is a tragedy almost beyond comprehension. I try to imagine myself in the place of her husband, having to raise the children alone and tell the youngest all about a mother she never knew, and am lost for words. It’s just about the worst thing any family could go through.

Or is it? Because I’m afraid I can’t read this passage, describing the events leading up to her death, without detecting a distinct undertone of… satisfaction? Celebration? Victory? None of these quite fits, but I think you’ll see what I mean:

No one knew better than her husband Justin exactly how tired she really was, and no one was more anxious. He knew she suffered from HELLP syndrome, an obscure but potentially deadly disease for pregnant women. He knew she’d been told by her doctors that another child might kill her. Twice before she’d suffered emergency C-sections. They feared her body might not withstand a third pregnancy. But this was a woman who loved children, and even more, loved her faith. “If God grants me a child, I will bear that child.” It was as simple as that. She rejected the advice. She became pregnant. The childbirth was almost catastrophic. It almost killed her.

She died just three weeks later.

When you read about someone, especially a parent, dying as a result of rejecting life-saving medical advice, is your first thought “how admirable”? I certainly hope not. While we might understand and empathise with the factors leading someone to that decision, I think the overwhelming natural reaction is one of disgust at such a terrible waste of human life. This is doubly true when the reasons are religious in nature, because even most religious people habitually – and correctly – put temporal responsibilities ahead of their spiritual ones.

Here, we find this pointless sacrifice eulogised and euphemised in glowing terms. She did it, we are told, because she was a “woman who loved children”. Three children will now grow up without a mother, and one without ever having known a mother; Caroline Weiner and her husband knew this was a high risk when they conceived for a third time, yet proceeded anyway. This is an act of love?

This veneration, nearly glorification, of what amounts to an act of self-manslaughter would merely be deeply creepy if it weren’t for the wider context just beyond the margins of the page. The key sentence is this one: “If God grants me a child, I will bear that child”.

This is what good, dutiful, Christian women do, you see. If you have a womb, your body isn’t yours but God’s, who can “grant” you a child at any time. It’s entirely in His hands because the woman can’t grant herself anything, or even exercise a veto over her own fertility. Birth control is for whores who want sex without consequences, and abortion unthinkable. If she dies? Well, it’s sad, but not as important as producing as many babies as possible.

I refuse to flatter this worldview by calling it “pro-life”. Some people who call themselves that may deserve the title, but the attitude implicit in Bozell’s column is better described as extreme natalism, where fertility is all and women mainly vessels for their husbands’ seed.

Nor do I any more wish to humour the emollient fiction that the abortion debate is broadly symmetrical, with both sides having equally reasonable grievances. Pro-choice extremists do exist, but are thoroughly marginal, and the fundamental difference is this: we don’t want to force women into doing anything. If they want to keep the baby, good luck to them. Pro-choicers tend also to support generous welfare states, thus ensuring that mothers who do decide against abortion aren’t left in the wilderness. We want women to have all options available, no more, no less.

The same can’t be said for the “pro-life” movement. In the UK, their numbers are mercifully too small to curtail reproductive freedom in a big way, but they’ve enjoyed much more success in the United States. There are now many states where obtaining a termination is next to impossible, especially for poor and otherwise disadvantaged women.

This outcome isn’t a side-effect of “pro-life” activism but its explicit goal. We know how this movie ends: in a dirty room in a back alley, with knitting needles and amateur butchers, with lives ruined and ended. This is the reality of a world without legal abortion, and always will be.

Some “pro-lifers” will raise the following objection, if they deign to respond at all: it was her choice, wasn’t it? Aren’t I being just as intolerant as I claim my opponents are, attacking a dead woman for choosing to bear a child? Is that feminism?

To this I respond with a hypothetical question. Let’s say Caroline Weiner had suddenly had second thoughts early in her pregnancy and decided she wanted to terminate it. If she’d told her husband, parents, priest and others that, do we think they would’ve responded with equanimity and told her to make her own mind up in her own way?

I rather think not. If she’d done any such thing, or even contemplated it out loud, I think she would have come under immense social and emotional pressure to decide against it. I think she would have been plied – lovingly, but insistently – with grisly propaganda images of bloody foetuses. I think all this would have been done out of the most sincere of motives, but the effect would be the same. I think she’d feel that she couldn’t make that choice without rejecting her entire family and way of life*, and I think all of us know that on some level.

This isn’t God’s love, it’s moral blackmail. Don’t let them tell you it’s all about the preciousness of human life; in fact, it’s about cherishing some lives while devaluing others, the latter category just happening to be entirely female. The rest of us mustn’t tolerate this sleight-of-hand for a second. Her body, her life, her choice. No excuses.

*The analogy with the debate over the veil within the Muslim community should be obvious, but I may write more on this another time.

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