Speaking bluntly, I believe our nation is deeply conflicted about a woman’s body, especially her reproductive organs. While this conflict can be traced to a Platonic duality of mind and body whereby a man and his mind is valued as superior to a woman and her body, the ensuing cultural impact has situated man as subject/actor and woman as object/acted upon. In the United States, this duality is particularly curious because our nation embraces the value of autonomy as reflected in broad social and political changes of the voting rights for women, the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism and constitutional right to abortion for women. But, a cursory review of media research illustrates this duality in media’s ambivalence toward women who are too thin or too thick, casting them, respectively, as either deviant or normal or in media’s proliferation of make-over television programs for (mostly) women who fail to conform to socially constructed notions of beauty. Brenda Cowlishaw* warns that we can easily fail to notice its controlling, limiting, structuring presence because of the ubiquity of the subject-object binary in modern western thought. Amused and amazed by entertainment, we often ignore the hegemonic forces that view white, heterosexual males as authority figures and render others as less. Her warning is relevant for the argument I want to make in this post. Despite years of progress toward full citizenship, women’s bodies are increasingly under the panopticon of male regulation and control regarding their reproductive organs, which, consequently, diminishes a woman’s subjectivity and full citizenship. Managing women’s reproductive organs is enacted through gender management called paternalism. As Gurevich**** explains, gender management, in the form of paternalistic body regulation and control, is a way to benevolently limit women’s freedom through social regulation for her own protection. And there’s historical precedence for regulating and controlling women’s bodies, much as we controlled the bodies of slaves, from popular culture’s expectations to the Supreme Court’s rulings to various presidencies and state legislators discourse. I’ll begin with an overview of the expressions of ambivalence toward women’s bodies and continue with a brief overview of the function of legal proceedings then move to Supreme Court’s paternalistic discourse in the Roe v Wade decision and then finish with current discourse about how paternalism impacts women’s bodies in the abortion war.
Ambivalence over Women’s Reproductive Organs
People often freely assert their opinions and policies about a woman’s bodies, particularly her breasts, her uterus, her ovaries and fallopian tubes, and her labia and vagina. Recall the local kerfuffles that have occurred in various municipalities over public breastfeeding or the intrusive school policies against young schoolgirls displaying excessive cleavage or the lingerie manufacturers’ padded bras designed to eliminate the stigmatized nipple. These kerfuffles are more easily recognized as absurd politics when framed against popular culture’s enthusiastic support of film and television representations of female cleavage and full frontal nudity or the tolerance of the multi-billion dollar pornography industry.
A woman’s labia and vagina are another part of anatomy for which there seems to be much conflict. While it’s hard to forget the public outrage and titillation when actress Sharon Stone revealed a crotch shot in Basic Instincts, it’s easy to recall the derogatory terms (like pussy, sugar jar, cunt, bearded clam, beaver, camel toe) people use describe this female territory. The current cosmetic surgery offering, labial reconstruction, illustrates the assumed flaw with a woman’s anatomy. According to most plastic surgery web sites, the procedure is meant to rejuvenate the structure and appearance of a woman’s genitalia. But the message is clear: Your labia and vagina are disgusting. Despite this disgust, it seems important to point out that most of us have made the trip through a woman’s vagina on the first day of our life. Pardon my pointing out the ick factor of your birth.
As for ovaries and fallopian tubes, little media coverage, popular expressions or snarky remarks are made about them. Think about it. When was the last time you heard a joke about a fallopian tube? When did you share a snarky remark about some woman’s ovaries? But, let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking that these body parts are unimportant. Two examples should suffice to illustrate their importance to my argument. First, if a young woman, say 24 years old, requests a tubal ligation because she has no interest in becoming pregnant, she will encounter resistance and, often, disappointment because physicians are disinclined to oblige believing that they know better than the woman knows herself. “She might change her mind about becoming a mother,” the thinking goes. Second, ovaries and fallopian tubes are key players in producing viable eggs and in transporting a fertilized egg to the uterus for implantation. This second action is all too often overlooked in the war of the womb, the site of normal implantation. So, let’s give accolades to the ovaries and fallopian tube then pause to ponder the common denominator in this national angst over these body parts.
The common denominator, I argue, is gender management through paternalism. In examining how legal strategies use gender narratives about defendants who are mothers, Liena Gurevich**** calls gender management a form of paternalistic body regulation and control to benevolently limit women’s freedom through social regulation for her own protection. We can look to the function and discourse of legal proceedings to unpack the power of paternalistic regulation and control.
Legal Institutions as Bastions of Male Power and Control
Consider that legal institutions and their proceedings are forms of governance and normalization to maintain the social and political order and advancement of the interests of professional groups. Simply put, they are bastions of male power and control So, to name two examples, legal decisions have drawn, in the past, on the standards of moral purity with the enforcement of the Comstock Laws against birth control for married couples until Griswold v. Connecticut invalidated the law. The decision that legalized abortion, Roe v. Wade, is another example of male power. Often viewed as a legal decision to give women a choice about reproductive options, Roe v. Wade, written by Justice Blackmun, framed the decision as inherently and primarily a medical decision with basic responsibilities resting on the physician. As Katie Gibson** has noted, the decision has two central constructs that justified his decision: “a controlling ‘doctor knows best’ philosophy and the characterization of the ‘woman-as-patient’ in the apotheosis of medicine. Decades later, we see again the courts deference to male authority and the subjugation of women’s agency. In fact, in a more recent article, Katie Gibson*** claims that Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion in the 2007 Gonzales v. Carhart conveys that majority decision was profoundly wrong and also exposed the law as an instrument of patriarchy led by the Roberts’ rightward leaning court.
Today, the discourse circulating in all levels of legislative activities denies agency to women (particularly if pregnant), confers rights to a rapist over the rights of a woman, compares the fetus to the slave who needs to be rescued while symbolically annihilating the woman, conflates consent to sex to consent to pregnancy and scorns the sexuality of women as shameful and deserving of retribution. In 2013, despite years of progress toward full citizenship, women’s bodies are increasingly under the panopticon of male regulation and control regarding their reproductive organs, which, consequently, diminishes a woman’s subjectivity. Comparing the man or woman who was in the involuntary servitude of the slave owner to women forced into involuntary servitude to the fetus, Kuswa, Achter & Lauzon**** conclude that the state has no justification to exert biopower. The paternalistic rhetoric, that slavery was good for the slaves, that slave owners were benevolent in exposing their superior culture, finds resonance in the management of women’s reproductive organs through the regulation and control to benevolently limit women’s freedom through social regulation for her own protection.
For Her Own Protection
Benevolently limiting women’s reproductive freedom through social regulation for her own protection is evident in targeted regulation of abortion providers that require ambulatory surgical standards such as wide hallways, hospital admitting privileges, drinking fountains and state-mandated (mis)information called counseling. The smokescreen, that these regulations are mandated to protect women, is bogus. These regulations do nothing to facilitate access to abortion, do nothing to ensure a doctor’s quality healthcare, do nothing to improve the lives of women, and do nothing to protect the universality of human rights for women. More to the point, laws against abortion are a form of sex discrimination, a heinous attempt to essentialize woman-as-womb and a de facto denial of women’s full citizenship.
* Cowlishaw, B. (2001). Subjects are from Mars, objects are from Venus: Construction of the self in self-help. Journal of Popular Culture, 35(1), 169-184.
**Gibson, K. (2008). The rhetoric of Roe v. Wade: When the (male) doctor knows best. Southern Communication Journal, 73 (4), 312-331.
***Gibson, K. (2012). In defense of women’s rights: A rhetorical analysis of judicial dissent. Women’s Studies in Communication, 35, 123-137.
****Gurevich, L. (2008). Patriarchy? Paternalism? Motherhood discourses in trials of crimes against children. Sociological Perspectives, 51(3), 515-539.
*****Kuswa, K., Achter, P., & Lauzon, E. (2008). The slave, the fetus, the body: articulating biopower and the pregnant woman. Contemporary Argumentation & Debate, 29, 166-185.
- Why the Relentless Assault on Abortion in the United States? (readersupportednews.org)
- A$hole of the day: ‘Pro-lifer’ Erick Erickson advocates the wire coat hanger method of abortion (freakoutnation.com)
- Judge issues temporary injunction against North Dakota law that would ban abortions after six weeks (dailykos.com)
- ND’s ‘fetal heartbeat’ abortion ban ‘invalid and unconstitutional,’ says federal judge (tv.msnbc.com)