Carol Sanger, About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First-Century America: This is a book about the law and meaning of abortion. Sanger points out that, even direct regulations of abortion aside, American law rewards childbirth over abortion, for example, when the Supreme Court upheld a law treating foreign-born children of citizen mothers differently than foreign-born children of citizen fathers, Sanger notes that it pointed out that “even before the child has been born, its mother had already engaged in deserving conduct” by choosing childbirth over abortion, which the Court recognized as a real alternative even where locally illegal. Likewise, our immigration policy for a while favored victims of China’s one-child policy, both men and women; then it faced accusations of incentivizing illegal entry, especially by men who claimed derivative protection from coercion against their wives but might never in fact send for those wives. In the second Bush administration, the AG told the BIA that spouses couldn’t get the same protections as women who actually had been forced into abortion or sterilization. Sanger also tells the story of a woman who was kept in jail awaiting sentencing on an unrelated charge by the judge specifically so she couldn’t get out and have an abortion, as well as similar instances of judges using unrelated events to coerce women into giving birth. Graphic images have their own legal roles to play—while policymakers insist that forced ultrasounds will make women reconsider abortion (they don’t), graphic photos of allegedly aborted fetuses have caused First Amendment disputes in advertising as well as in prisons, where one warden was allowed to bar the display of such images because they upset inmates.
There are a lot of horrible stories of pressure and shaming in the book, such as the woman who applied for a job at the police department and was given a polygraph asking whether she’d had an abortion and with whom she’d gotten pregnant. “In civil, criminal, and family law custody cases, evidence of a prior abortion has been admitted in court to show that a woman litigant is undeserving, untrustworthy, or unmotherly and that she should not prevail”; while sometimes these cases are reversed on appeal, the fact is that abortions are used against women. One divorce case allowed the husband’s attorney to attack the wife’s credibility because either she was “traumatized by the abortion … or worse, she wasn’t traumatized by it.”
Sanger argues that abortion is presently more about secrecy than about privacy because of this shame connection. “Privacy is valued for what it provides to those who choose it: a decision taken for privacy is credited as reflecting a person’s will; it is an exercise of autonomy…. By contrest, the decision to keep a matter secret in the context of abortion is often a response to the threat or prospect of harm, whether harassment, stigmatization, or fear of violence.” But silence about abortion is part of what keeps it shameful: because very few women talk about their abortions, “it seems as if it isn’t exactly happening, or at least it isn’t happening to anyone you know or care about,” just as Justice Lewis Powell in 1986 thought he’d never met a gay person when he’d had gay clerks.
Sanger also includes fascinating accounts of the history of fetal representation—as tiny men (of course) moving to the famous Life photos, which were of dead fetuses that had been placed against a background that made the womb disappear. But women’s bodies had been erased “centuries before ultrasound images obscured fetal connection to the woman.” (She also tells stories of taking or painting pictures of dead babies/children as a mourning practice in earlier times—the rise of photography allowed middle-class families to access the kind of remembrances already available to the wealthy; the lifelike pictures of dead children could cost up to ten times as much as a standard studio picture.) Also, I wasn’t really aware why early miscarriages weren’t recognized as such: “the embryo is typically enclosed by membranes which have to be peeled away to see the actual entity,” and early on also looks reptilian “so that the expulsion was often regarded not as a failed pregnancy but as a ‘monstrous birth.’” Now, however, with the spread of ultrasounds, at least for wanted pregnancies a child’s social birth—“the incorporation of a child into its family—often precedes biological birth.” (Sanger doesn’t spend much time on race and class.) Still, her story is one of continuity—images weren’t necessary for fetal images to override women’s choices and lives.
The few discussions of non-US abortions are largely about how abortion doesn’t have a fixed meaning: abortion is a crime in Thailand, but in 2010, over 2000 fetal corpses were found in a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, where the clinics had been sending the corpses for cremation. “[R]eports of hauntings by disrespected fetal spirits began to spread. Apologetic local citizens came to the temple with gifts of milk and bananas …. After deciding that the spirits had been appeased, worshippers began to regard them as harbingers of good luck ….”
And the trend in fluid meaning in the US is anti-choice; opposition to abortion on moral grounds has increased, especially among younger women, and Sanger connects this to the “increased moral status of the fetus” along with their inability to remember the fallout from illegal abortions. Forced ultrasounds are used to coopt women into the social category “mother” because of the role of the ultrasound in wanted pregnancies. Lawyers for minors seeking judicial bypass of a parental consent or notification requirement routinely tell them to look at the ultrasound so that they’ll seem mature enough to the judge.
One of the most compelling chapters in the book, in fact, is about the meaning of bypass hearings. What happens? Either they’re rubber stamps—pure humiliation rituals—or the judges impose their own morality on girls, reasoning that the act of becoming pregnant signals immaturity sufficient to deny the bypass request. Sanger emphasizes that even the success stories, including states in which nearly every application is granted, are about forcing young women to expose and demean themselves by recounting the circumstances of the pregnancy, explaining their life plans—in ways teens often can’t no matter what their situation, especially not in the intimidating environment of a courtroom full of strangers—and even answering questions about what contraception they’re using. The procedure “makes her appear an unreliable sort of girl from the start,” given that by definition she’s had sex and is trying to make an end run around her parents. The anonymity of the procedure, which is important for a young woman’s protection, nonetheless contributes “to the aura of furtiveness.” “There is irony amidst all this sneakiness, for these are not the girls who typically turn up in court for misconduct.” Judges punish young women for sounding like teenagers, for example vowing not to have sex again and also saying that they plan to get on contraception. And judges “never” approve petitions from minors who appear a second time—connected to the remorse a minor must show to be deemed mature enough to avoid parental notice/approval. In 1992, a judge said that he rarely grants bypass petitions, but he would if a white girl were raped by a black man; he was censured by the state supreme court, but Sanger points out that his racist example was an exception to his general policy of denying bypasses due to his personal beliefs about abortion, which went “undiscussed and uncensored.” Even when the bypass is granted, it’s punishment for having sex and seeking an abortion; some parents know about the abortion but deny consent even knowing that their daughter will succeed at a hearing: “This is your responsibility, not mine.” Sanger compares this to counseling regimes in European countries where no one else’s consent is required, but notes that they probably wouldn’t work as well in the US, where even county court clerks feel justified in denying marriage licenses to couples they don’t approve of.
Sanger connects bypass procedures to the history of seeking pardon in court—women are less often petitioners for forgiveness in court proceedings because excuses like being drunk or becoming overcome with rage at an insult weren’t considered as exculpatory for women, and “because subjection was an everyday feature of women’s lives,” symbolic submission such as pleading on one’s knees was less impressive coming from them than from men. The absence of female pardon-seekers also resulted from substantive law—capital crimes most associated with women were the unpardonable witchcraft and infanticide.
Another interesting chapter asks, somewhat seriously, how would men think about abortion if they were the ones who got pregnant? This is a difficult counterfactual because if men got pregnant they’d be, socially, women. But focusing on women’s bodies as the locus of abortion’s meaning obscures the gender-based judgments that motivate abortion regulations, and make it harder to see the post-pregnancy consequences of motherhood as relevant. Having, and probably raising, a child is what makes many mothers’ adult lives different from most fathers’, which is why unwanted pregnancy is an equality issue. Sanger examines how men in relationships react to abortions—cohabiting men “generally support whatever their partner wants to do,” and most exes of women who aborted “report that they were unready for fatherhood and wouldn’t have wanted a kid with her anyway.” But Sanger thinks that even more information is available from men’s actual behavior regarding the disposition of cryogenically frozen embryos; abortion clauses in commercial surrogacy clauses; and cases where men have to decide whether to withdraw care from brain-dead or comatose pregnant women.
Sanger concludes that men give basically the same reasons for choosing not to bring a fertilized egg or fetus to term that women do—the interference with their life plans and the interests of their current children; their unwillingness to extend a relationship with the other parent or create a relationship with the future child, including the creepiness or tragedy of knowing that there’s someone genetically related to you out there even if you give the infant up for adoption; the difficulties of caring for a disabled child (the most common scenario for the commercial surrogacy cases, where the child is usually wanted, but only if it’s conventionally healthy). These scenarios aren’t exactly analogous, because the social meaning and obligations of fatherhood still differ from that of motherhood, but they’re probative of how men would think about abortion if they were pregnant. Men who want embryos destroyed are allowed to speak more crassly about how they want to be able to have a lot more sex with different people in these cases than young women are in bypass cases, but they both want freedom to act without the constraint of a child. And men in the surrogacy and embryo cases are generally well-off (that’s how they afforded these procedures in the first place), so they aren’t generally worried about current finances, but they do worry about the effect on existing children’s inheritances. They are also concerned with disability; men in surrogacy contracts were “less concerned about adding children than about adding certain kinds of children.” By contrast, women choosing abortion often find financial concerns to be central—three-quarters of women seeking abortions in one study said that they couldn’t afford a baby at present, often because of the needs of existing children.
Similarly, men didn’t fear the disruption of their education and careers in these scenarios, because they were not as subject to those risks, but women regularly did. Women, like men, desire to have children they can provide for—both materially and emotionally—and when they think they can’t, they may prefer not to have those children. “In sum, it turns out that most of men’s reasons for terminating a pregnancy or destroying an embryo—wrong time, wrong partner, enough kids, too tired, already committed enough—are strikingly similar to the reasons given by women for ending an unwanted pregnancy…. Differences seem to fall less along absolute gender lines than along such markers as situational stability, relationships, support networks, finances, and stamina.” But in our public discourse, the impact of “sex, stigma, and [perceived] selfishness” lead women’s choices to be condemned. Men didn’t suffer for being revealed to have had sex; they were willing to assert the right to enforce abortion clauses in surrogacy contracts and be publicly identified as fathers who rejected disabled children. Women are expected to do more caring work, and so their abortion choices are deemed selfish when they are acts of profound self- and other-care.
Sanger ends the book with meditations on abortion revelations as a means of diminishing the shame and stigma surrounding abortion. People who hear abortion secrets tend to have a more accurate understanding of how common abortion is and the reasons women have them. While Sanger doesn’t argue that women have an obligation to disclose, given the potential consequences, she does argue that more openness will lead to more understanding of the truth of abortion. Open secrets—such as the prevalence of abortion and the prior use of maternity homes—have social value in “let[tting] a disfavored practice go on without anyone having to acknowledge or condone it”—but that’s not good enough. Among other things, these practices can lead to “preference falsification,” where people wrongly think that their private beliefs aren’t widely shared. This is an issue in US politics, as well as in the sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall, where Communism’s support proved much weaker than many people thought.
So here’s the part, I guess, where I talk about my abortion. I’ve never felt comfortable claiming that term, because although the state of New York required it to be reported as such, I had the procedure because the cells stopped dividing very early on, before the “fetus” stage. After my first (and last, for that pregnancy) ultrasound at 8 weeks, which I’d expected to be a happy moment, the doctor told me I could wait and eventually I’d have what seemed like a big period, but I didn’t want to wait with something that wasn’t alive inside me. There was no potential child, so was that really an abortion? It certainly wasn’t the kind of abortion that Sanger discusses, where there’s some realistic possibility of an alternative that is a born child, even one with possibly fatal health problems. Anyway, it left me more pro-choice than ever; the sense of invasion I felt when thinking about others deciding for me was much greater afterwards.
Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning: This is a book about the idea of the Holocaust more than its mechanics, though it emphasizes again and again that those who killed Jews also killed non-Jews and vice versa, and that the killers were never willing to kill Jews but not non-Jews, though they did sometimes save specific people. I was struck by the pre-war idea of “Madagascar” as a place for the Jews—to non-Jewish Poles it was a real place to which Jews could be expelled, while to Hitler it was “a bookmark in a burning book,”a symbol of the plan to eliminate Jews entirely. Although Snyder doesn’t explicitly engage with Arendt, he emphasizes that the Nazis found that the simplest way to deny the protection of the state to Jews was to destroy the state. Stateless Jews, by and large, did not survive the Holocaust; Jews who were part of functioning states, even states occupied by the Nazis, were much more likely to survive (even the Jews deported from France were mostly not French Jews but rather refugees from other states; German Jews were more likely to survive than Polish Jews, because the Nazis held that Poland was never a legitimate state). Snyder takes from this the lesson that citizenship—recognition as a person by the state—is an essential barrier against genocide, which ought to worry Americans in the present climate.
Laurie D. Ferreiro, Brothers at Arms: The role of the French and Spanish in American independence. So trans-Atlantic it hurts—but it’s a new angle for me on the Revolution, which is really about how it fit into Continental power politics and often about how frustrating the French (and to a more limited extent the Spanish) found the fractious colonists, who could help them only if they committed to independence.
Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: Short book, well worth reading in the present circumstances. One of the key lessons: don’t comply in advance (which sadly I couldn’t help but compare to Sheryl Sandburg’s “don’t leave before you leave”)—don’t do things because you expect they will be required or approved by the powerful.
Robert A. Caro, On Power: Very short piece on Caro’s interest in the operations of power: how do things get done? Biography is his tool in the service of that inquiry. He tells various stories about writing his biographies of Robert Moses and LBJ, as well as some stories about his history as a reporter, but the main thing I came away with is that his wife is his uncredited co-author; she did a huge amount of the research and is presented in Caro’s telling as a pure helpmeet.
Paul K. Conkin, A Revolution Down on the Farm: Over about a century, the US went from a rural economy in which one farm could support a few families to an urban one in which one farm supports hundreds. This was the result of huge changes in production methods and productivity. Conkin tells the story of farm policy, focusing on federal policy supporting farmers in various ways, throughout that time.
Marc Levinson, An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy: This book raises but doesn’t really answer the question: what if the productivity gains of the 1950s to 1970s were exceptional and unrepeatable? Levinson basically uses that as a hypothesis, arguing that countries around the world—including Communist countries—experienced a huge flowering of production, in part driven by the rebuilding of all the institutions and physical assets that had been destroyed in WWII. Thus, explanations specific to individual countries’ policies may be missing the point—almost everyone in the West experienced this huge uptick, and then stagnation, though to different degrees. (China is basically missing from this story, though the USSR and Japan are not.) People thus expected government policies to be able to restore economic prosperity when they couldn’t, and that fueled a conservative backlash in many countries. If the same pattern holds true for China, only twenty years behind, we might have even more problems than we now think.