Saturday 16 November 2019

Carol Hunt: Once more into the fray on the oldest battlefield of all

Carol Hunt:

It was political philosopher Mary O'Brien who said that the discovery of paternity was a seismic world historical moment. And I'm inclined to agree with her. In fact, it's the only thing that makes sense of how the world has been run for millennia.



O'Brien, in her book The Politics of Reproduction, insisted that when men realised they actually had something to do with the creation of new life they were ecstatic, delighted, smug even. They'd always suspected that something as important as reproduction shouldn't be just the gift of mere women. The human need to reproduce was so primal, so elemental; surely the men should be in charge of it? And so paternalism was born. Father knew best.

But there were problems. Primarily of the "who's your Daddy?" kind. A woman's link to her child is obvious and involuntary. But how could a man be sure the child was his and not the offspring of the neighbourhood Lothario? It was awfully frustrating for the boys to be forced to sit by while the women got on with the important business of populating the planet. They needed to be in control.

In a play on Marxist terminology, O'Brien explains the importance of "relations of reproduction" between men and women. In order to control production (birth), men appropriated women and children through the institution of marriage. Men ensured paternity and the privatisation and domestication of reproduction rendered it "natural" – and so patriarchy as we know it evolved.

But by (male) God, did it take a lot of work to set up! And about 8,000 years later, after the boys devised a whole system of laws, beliefs, social structures and religions that put women securely in a submissive position, something occurred that threatened to pull the whole patriarchal edifice down.

Yep, you've guessed it – the invention of safe, reliable contraception. Suddenly women could control their own bodies, and consequently the means of reproduction. The Catholic Church, that bastion of paternalism, immediately banned all contraception as the work of the (female) devil. And the war of the sexes commenced anew.

I was reminded of how serious this war can be last week when I heard Professor Patricia Casey make the comment: "Pregnancy is the safest time of a woman's life, in fact" (despite all objective evidence showing that the risk of suicide is relatively equal for pregnant and non-pregnant women) in a radio discussion on RTE 1's Morning Ireland.

Casey made the comment in the context of legislating for the so-called "suicide clause" in Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution. As a patron and co-founder of the Catholic Iona Institute, it is natural that she would argue against the right of a woman experiencing suicide ideation to an abortion.

But it wasn't that fact that stopped me in my tracks. It was the realisation that pregnancy, far from being the safest, can sometimes be one of the most dangerous periods of a woman's life.

A report released in June this year (Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and the HSE) noted: "Violence against women is more common in pregnancy" and according to the Child Protection and Welfare Handbook, HSE, 2011, 30 per cent of women who experience

domestic violence are physically assaulted for the first time during pregnancy.

The most common reason given for the increased risk of abuse during pregnancy is that the male partner can feel stressed and out of control over the impending birth, this creates a frustration which is then directed back at the perceived cause – the mother and her unborn child. It's all about power relations and control. And increasingly, research shows that "reproductive coercion" is becoming ever more prevalent as a means of controlling women, particularly amongst younger couples.

Just think of that phrase: "reproductive coercion". It is defined as pressure on a woman to become pregnant, interference with or with-holding of contraception and control of pregnancy outcome – including access to the morning after-pill and safe abortion.

It's pretty much how life was lived by the vast majority of Irish women up until relatively recently. Once married, a woman was expected to return to the private sphere and have as many children as possible – not only was she denied access to contraception or control over her own reproductive system, she was also told that any desire to possess such control was immoral and against the wishes of her God and church.

And to be fair to the Pope and the head honchos in the Catholic Church, they're still holding faithfully to the old patriarchal line. Contraception, they keep insisting, is immoral and not at all what Jesus would have wanted. And though some of the half billion Catholic women throughout the world obey their Pope and refrain from the use of contraception, the vast majority do not; which is rather a good thing for population control on our increasingly battered planet.

Indeed, as Michelle Goldberg explains in the recent book The Means of Reproduction, the conflict between self-determination and patriarchal tradition has come to define pressing questions of global development –such as the progress of Aids, curbing over-population and helping the Third World climb out of poverty. But, she says, attempts to give women control over the "means of reproduction" elicits fierce opposition from groups who see the control of reproduction as key to their own national or religious identity (which explains the hysterical response of our bishops and others last week to the proposed legislation on the X Case).

Access to safe abortion, particularly when the life of the mother is at risk, (be it through physical or mental danger) is all part and parcel of control of the "relations of reproduction".

When women dismiss the involvement of men in decisions relating to their own bodies, they are exposing the most primal of all fears – the lack of control over reproduction, over the future of humankind, over life itself. It is without doubt, the oldest and most bitter of battlefields.

Sunday Independent

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