Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice: "Do you see this woman?"

difficult choices

I don’t like Walmart. It is a predatory capitalist monopoly that thrives on miserable, low-paid labor from around the world, environmental vandalism, and the worst kinds of consumer manipulation. Walmart wields considerable and malignant political power. It is, to use my Christian idiom, one of the principalities and powers; and we know who’s in charge of those.

But I also live in a small town, surrounded by industrial agricultural activity, where the public water supply is only marginally acceptable by official standards that are too low. If I drink water from the tap, I will get more heavy metals, herbicides, and pesticides than I am willing to accept for myself, my spouse, and the people who stay with us.

I would have to go to Toledo, thirty miles away, to find a place other than our local Walmart that carries the filters I need to clean our household drinking and cooking water. So, rather than use the gas that spews the carbon and uses the oil (that is produces as exploitatively as Walmart stuff), spending the extra money from our fixed retirement income, I go into Walmart (where many other people hereabouts shop because their budgets are tight and the jobs pay crap). I make this ethical compromise because I am ethically constrained by the existing state of social organization. Call them boundary conditions if you like. Everyone reading this, I’ll wager, has experienced discomfiture in the face of this kind of structured complicity.

the context of male power

The Walmart example is probably not controversial. Equally non-controversial except to patriarchal apologists is the fact that women face structural constraints, oppressions, limitations, unwanted obligations, and threats that are concentrated by male social hegemony, and that these conditions are imposed on women qua women.

The #MeToo movement has brought this out into the open with regard to sex (as if it wasn’t already apparent to women, and men who weren’t in a state of self-serving denial). Many men, I would say most men who are between twelve and sixty now believe they are entitled to sex with women, regardless of what any particular woman wants; and those same men regard women as sexual objects. And the women who are not sexually objectified are afforded less value by men—patronized, immobilized, subjugated, marginalized, humiliated, and silenced.

The forms of male dominance have been renegotiated many times over the last few millennia, but the fact of that dominance has not changed.

In recent decades, women themselves have fought back politically against this domination, which includes men’s prerogative to “define” women; and this feminist (for women) movement has met with serial backlashes, last year’s U.S. presidential election being a massive example of the reassertion of male qua male power, with the complicity of many white women. “Stand by your man” is one accommodation of the more structurally powerless.

Other categories of the structurally marginalized, for example oppressed nationalities/”racial” groups, even class categories—agricultural workers, low-paid wage workers . . . they all have members who seek to accommodate themselves to their circumstances the best way they know how.

Suppose you are a single, divorced, or widowed woman with a meager income and three children; and you hate wearing makeup and walking in heels. But there is a secretarial job up for grabs, and you know that the male employers will be assessing you against other applicants, and that many male bosses want their secretaries to look “secretarial.” You put on the despised makeup and heels, and just the right clothes, because you feel compelled to make some accommodation for your children’s sake.

Suppose you are that same woman, deeply in debt, and winter has hit hard. Your children need coats, and you don’t have the money to buy them.  A creepy male co-worker offers you $200 to have sex with him. My spouse knew a woman in exactly that circumstance; and that woman had sex with the creepy man so her children would have coats for school in the winter.

Are you judging her, dear reader? Or are you acknowledging that this woman was confronted with the “boundary conditions” of patriarchy, and making a terrible accommodation that probably cost her a great deal psychologically, even setting herself up to be whispered about at work as “the whore”?

Liberals call this consent.

Socially, women are marginalized, exploited, and humiliated in myriad ways; but there is one arena where women are biologically unique from men. Women get pregnant. Men don’t get pregnant. MTF transsexuals do not get pregnant. Women get pregnant. It happens after men ejaculate into women.  That’s the end of men’s “biological role” in pregnancy.

Men ejaculate into women under a variety of circumstances; but in every case this action is taken in the context of a society that marginalizes, exploits, and humiliates women in countless ways, to which women, also in many ways, employ the accommodations of the underdog in this system of power. Some are pressured by peers. Some are seeking to escape low status. Some are overwhelmed with desire for which they are ill-prepared. Some are cajoled by men. Some are raped. Some go through it as a marital duty. Some use it as a means to an end. Some just want to "get off" in a culture that tells them this is as good as it gets, then you die. Some have sex in committed, loving, non-exploitative, and non-objectified circumstances, but this is actually rare (as I’ll discuss further down, with regard to “perversion”).

All women are indoctrinated from childhood with the relentless sexualization of liberal culture. All are indoctrinated with the idea that getting a man is a priority that trumps other priorities. Almost all are faced with the reality that they might depend on a man for survival or for the survival of their children.

Seen in this light, the liberal preoccupation with consent is operating in the shallowest end of the pool.


Many of my friends, Catholic and other Christians, are "opposed to abortion." Some of them are women. Some even identify as feminists. “Pro-life feminists.” Some of those women boycotted the Washington DC March for Life four days ago because Trump—a serial sexual predator who was elected on a program of white male supremacy—was keynoting the event in Washington (though many white male supremacists are also "opposed to abortion"). This must have constituted a moment of anguish for pro-life feminists, because they know very well that many men who oppose abortion are primarily interested in reasserting male prerogative in controlling women’s bodies; and this obnoxious, entitled sexual predator who boasts of his "big nuclear button" (that's "pro-life"?) was just too much to take.

The official Catholic position, shared by many other Christians, male and female, is called a “consistent life ethic.” Abortion is seen as killing a human, and killing humans is always wrong. These same people, to their credit, oppose the death penalty, and many even now oppose war.


There is no reference to procured abortion in the Bible, because there was no such thing as a medically-assisted abortion then.

Even into the early twentieth century, the mechanism of “conception” (a peculiar term in itself, meaning “receive into” the womb) was not understood, and the “ensoulment” of the unborn child was generally associated with “quickening,” the woman’s first sensation of movement by the unborn child.

People were aware that sex led to pregnancy, but their ideas about how this took place would be bizarre to us today, most involving the idea that men were squirting a tiny version of a formed human into a kind of baby-growing hothouse.

The Catholic Church constructed its most recent doctrinal language on abortion in 1991, which I’ll return to momentarily.

Early Christian opposition to abortion, as far back as the first century when networks of house churches were organized as mutual aid societies, was based on an understanding of pregnancy that, again, we now reject. Many early church leaders, however, suggested that abortion was wrong after the unborn child was “formed,” which was around forty days after a guessed conception (Aquinas believed that females took longer, around ninety days); and after that, abortion was prohibited. Even then, abortion was considered a sin, but not legal murder.

The idea that ensoulment happened at some yet poorly-understood “moment of conception,” was not articulated until the seventeenth century.

Another peculiar term in common use is to say that a woman is “carrying” a child. The root of this term includes a possessive modifier, that is, she is carrying his (a particular man’s) child. She is a receptacle. And every early doctrine, as well as most subsequent doctrines, took this for granted—the idea being that a woman is a passive receptacle, a kind of gestational mule, and that men had both the “power of generation” (in support of patrilinealism) and total entitlement to the child (as well as the obedience of the woman).

This is the Catholic juridical context that pertained until 1990, when the church was trying to lawyer its way around feminist demands and women’s refusal to let committees of ostensibly celibate men define who and whose they were.

Throughout these changes, women continued to became pregnant after men ejaculated into them; which meant that many women were having sex that was cajoled, forced, or accepted grudgingly as marital duty. Consent was a notion that would have left people scratching their heads. Rape was, in fact, a crime against male property; and the victims were invariably blamed (as they still are quite often) for provoking the crime. Women, in other words, had little say about how, when, or why men ejaculated into them.

life, the idol

The new twist on the old abortion prohibition in 1991 was the incorporation of a modernist abstraction called “life.” The revered Pope John Paul II declared, mors et vita duello conflixere mirando. “There is a momentous struggle between life and death.” This is an interesting claim from the leader of the largtest Christian church, when most Christians agree that the path to eternal life is through death, and that death is a part of postlapsarian life.

But what is more interesting is how the term life itself is commonly used in late technological modernity. It is not “that’s life,” the experience, or “he lost his life,” or “this is the story of her life.” It is LIFE, a kind of universalized cipher that calls to mind Schrödinger and his paradoxes.

Barbara Duden rightly asserts that this division of cipher-Life from cipher-Death, and the “war” between them, set up a situation where—after decades of struggle by women to get men’s boots off their necks—“women are eclipsed by something new—life.” Actual, embodied women are now re-invisiblized by an abstraction, that, coincidentally, reinforces a longer, more transhistorical doctrine of men "eclipsing" women, of men defining women and controlling their bodies. Surprise!

Why do I suspect their motives? Well . . . their history, for one thing.

(If Life is my mission, my moral compass, will I go to Hell for slapping a mosquito that is biting me? They are, after all, alive. Perhaps this falls under “just war” theory. Sorry, I get snarky when confronted with serial hypocrisy.)

The cardinals elaborated: LIFE is “a complex eco-system like a forest, the self-development and transmission of genetic information by a single organism, or the full development of a human being from the fertilized egg cell to the newborn and its further growth.” Ecosystems, genetic information, fertilized egg cells? The male church leaders who had repeatedly criticized liberal modernity certainly got comfortable with its episteme when there was a threat to their authority over women.

As Duden writes, “this transmogrification of the unborn into part of an endangered ecosystem is a question of historical epistemology.” Ecosystems, genetic information, and fertilized egg cells are part of the same late modern episteme that the church has (rightly, in my view) questioned in every other field. Likewise, the talk of “rights,” of the rights of the unborn (or should we call it a fetus?), is really rooted in notions of citizenship that didn’t come to pass until after the French Revolution. What the Church is attempting to do here is justify its interventions into the political realm to pressure the secular state to prohibit women from procuring abortions under any circumstances, by transforming the unborn into a citizen.

That "endangered ecosystem" (that is “carrying” the unborn citizen) is endangered by . . . women.

In that nanosecond when one sperm is finally swallowed into an egg (an image we only know second-hand through technology), the actual embodied woman—regardless of the circumstances under which some man ejaculated in her—that instant transforms her into a state where her body, in a bad pun, now belongs to the state (and by extension, men). Because her citizenship is now trumped (another bad pun for the time) by the citizenship of four cells.

Through a pseudo-syllogism, many “pro-life” people use to trace the juridical line: The unborn is a citizen. Killing a citizen is murder. Abortion is murder.

And yet, as I have pointed out in the past, around half the women I know have had an abortion at some point in their lives. Statistics say that around a quarter of adult American women will at some point procure a medically-assisted abortion; but I know for a fact that many women do not report this often harrowing experience to statisticians. Even if the number is as low as 25 percent, we are still talking about more than 30 million American women alone. So if this were a criminal offense in the U.S., with a prison sentence, then we would need to increase the construction of prisons by a factor of fifteen in a nation that already imprisons people at the highest per capita rate in the world.

Does anyone who identifies as pro-life want that? Actually, many would.

Prior to Roe, women still had abortions at nearly the same rate, some self-induced, some assisted by quacks. And post-abortive deaths constituted one fifth of maternal deaths in the U.S., around 2,700 a year, not to mention the many non-fatal complications. Of course, the grimmest statistics were concentrated among racial minorities and-or the poor.

Do you know anyone who has had an abortion? Do they “have it coming” if they die as a result? Does the circumstance under which some man ejaculated into her have any bearing?

At all?

These are straightforward questions, and if there is the sense of something contradictory, I will suggest that the contradiction is rooted in past and present refusals to ask what Jesus asked in Luke 7: “Do you see this woman?” This embodied, particular, breathing, thinking, struggling woman!

But no! Instead, we reach for rules to control her (and all like her), or categorical imperatives to disembody her (and all like her), or abstractions like Life to eclipse her (and all like her, by virtue of their sex).

Just as women have been consistently eclipsed in my church by men. The bone they throw to women is calling them "God bearers."

contrasting idols

Pro-life. What decent human will oppose Life?

Pro-choice. What decent modern consumerist liberal could possibly oppose choice?

Polemics in the service of a policy agenda: one to criminalize abortion, the other to make it available “on demand.”

Neither even begins to scratch the complexity of the situations in which women, usually painfully, make these so-called “choices.” Likewise, neither wants to carry the question back to the moment when that man ejaculated into that woman, or the circumstances surrounding it.

The Life worshipers want to reduce the whole question to two instances: one when the sperm is drawn into the egg (an autonomous process, speaking biologically), and the other when the woman takes action . . . as if these two decisive moments, like electrical fences that light up on contact, the current suspending context, can be separated. Do I hear the distant refrain of “Every sperm is sacred,” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian in the background?

The Choice worshipers—many of them, the liberals—avoid the context of ejaculation, because they still want to separate sex from power, ergo their fixation on the moment of presumed consent. The Choice worshipers also want to pretend that this “choice” to abort a pregnancy is as simple as choosing between Coke and Pepsi—because to acknowledge the anguish with which most women approach this decision is to acknowledge that the “fetus” (let’s sterilize and medicalize the language on behalf of our policy agenda) might muddy the vexed question of whether the unborn are citizens.

Even most “pro-choice” women who decide to "conceive" and“bear” a child, will name the little goblin in the picture as soon as the image is sexed via ultrasound (where are the Foucauldians to discuss the relation between “knowledge” and the scientific armamentarium of instruments?). It is quite a feat, carrying these two contradictory notions around in one mind: Fetus when I don’t want it, and child when I do.

Returning then to the Life worshipers. Remember the ethical contortions the Magisterium went through when faced with the question of ectopic pregnancies? Do we murder the little zygotic citizen to save the female ecosystem’s life? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that when ethics can be reduced to these kinds of quandaries, there is something amiss with the ethical framework.

It ensures the job security of some professors, I expect.

What’s missing here, speaking as a Christian in all this, is the Parable of the Samaritan. “Who is my neighbor?” Is it her? “Do you see this woman?”

Well, no. We see an abstracted ethical quandary, based on hypothetical situations that are incapable of capturing the complexity of “this woman’s” history. We try to control that messy, enfleshed reality with our authoritarian-male-authored rule-books.

When Trump addressed the March for Life, the crowd was a white-man festival. When I saw a nun introducing Pence and Trump, I shook my damn head. Can we see this yet?

On the same day, Pope Francis, darling of many who have cultivated social consciences, denouncing pedophile victims in Chile. It is always about power. Shook my head again.

men are perverts

Let’s talk now about those ejaculations. Because we seem to have lost the ability to “see this woman,” maybe we can get back onto our favorite topic, the center of the phallocentric universe in the church and out, men.

Most of us (men) are perverts. Perverts living on the high side of the gender dipole.

We live in a culture where we all know that cunt is a bad woman and pussy is an inadequate man. Bad woman reduced, insufficiently hard men transsexualized. Does anyone doubt that in our age men—as the dipole’s top dogs—associate sex with hostility, with domination, with revenge and aggression? “Power,” wrote the late Nancy Hartsock, “irreducibly involves questions of eros.”

Psychoanalyst Robert Stoller once made the uncontroversial assertion that threats to one’s core “gender identity” (like a man’s sense of masculinity) are experienced as threats to one’s very being. Stoller said that people also defend their sexual identities in their sexual lives through perversion.

By this he did not mean our colloquial meaning of deviance from the norm or sexual crime, but the transformation of the sex act into something different than love, “fusion,” or what Jessica Benjamin called “attunement,” when that permeability of boundaries is experienced as a threat (for example, to male autonomy).

In Latin, the term pervertere means “to turn away from.” This can take the form of hostility, revenge, degradation, dehumanization, fetishization, or any number of strategies that create a bulwark against fusion, that permeability which is to be feared.

The academically lauded French philosopher-pornographer Georges Bataille equated coitus with killing, saying that each act “is intentional like the act of a man who lays bare, desires and wants to penetrate his victim. The lover strips the beloved of her identity no less than the bloodstained priest his human or animal victim. The woman in the hands of the assailant is despoiled of her being. . . . [She] loses the firm barrier that once separated her from others . . . [and] is brusquely laid open to the violence of the sexual urges set loose in the organs of reproduction; she is laid open to the impersonal violence that overwhelms her from without.” (italics added)

Lover equals (male) assailant; female equals victim.

Hartsock disclaimed any suggestion that Stoller’s analysis relieved men of moral agency and accountability for their actions through the medicalization of the association of sex and hostility; it simply provides an insight into male formation during which autonomy and omnipotence are drilled into boys alongside a heaping helping of plain misogyny.

Hostility and violence are eroticized; and the erotic life of men has largely become dependent on these perversions. Men come to be sexually stimulated by hostility even when they know better. Stoller himself was taken aback when he was forced to admit that most heterosexual unions contained some element of the perverse, that is, of hostility, dehumanization, and/or fetishization. If anyone disbelieves this, open any porn site online, and note that (1) they have fetish menus and (2) the sites are brimming with language that objectifies and demeans the women and even openly reinforces racial-sexual stereotypes.

Look up “porn” and “desensitized” on a Duck-Duck search (Google is becoming an evil empire), and read the plethora of articles about men who can no longer “get off” without their porn-fueled fetishes. Transgressions are no different that drugs. You have to keep upping the dose. Given that men had already valorized “getting off” (and now many women are being indoctrinated into this kind of self-serving, instrumental, and objectifying sex), women are rightly suspicious of all men who make sexual approaches.

I had a woman colleague joke with me once, “God made us all different; and to punish me, He made me a heterosexual.”

I’ll tell you a little secret. Those conservative men, who assert directly or derivatively that women’s sexuality must be controlled by their pious rules are whacking off to porn at about the same rate as liberal men.

Sex is seen as rule-bound on the one hand, and "getting off" on the other, so universally now that many will find it hard to imagine what sex is for (apart from instrumentally trying to get pregnant), or "how to do it."

What about being close, with enough of a sense of safety to allow ourselves to be sufficiently vulnerable to experience it as sharing, as love?

beyond consent and conception

In a gender regime characterized by domination, actual sexual relations between actual people are always inflected by power. This claim put the more radical of feminists at odds with liberal feminists, who saw the only problem with sex as the denial of women’s desire through archaic rules that limited their own sexual activity, that is, by a “double standard.” Women deserve to “get off,” too.

Our liberal Choice worshipers like to make disembedded claims like “sex is healthy” and “sex is good.” There is even a strain of feminism that now calls itself sex-positive (which actually means pro-pornography, but we know how pro- works in polemics), suggesting that those who refuse to understand sex apart from social power are somehow sex-negative—a straw man that evades the centrality of masculine sexual identity constructed as domination and submission, and women’s inescapable immersion in it.

There are liberals who now celebrate the prostitution of (overwhelmingly) women as “sex work.” I know, I know, the new term is designed to remove the stigma; but this is an ahistorical move. The reality for the vast majority of prostituted women is that they are under the strict and abusive control of men; they were likely the victims of child molestation and rape; they are often medicating mental health problems with addictive substances; they are exposed to unpredictable dangers with johns; they are often forced to have unprotected sex; and when they accidentally get pregnant, they seldom have a meaningful choice about what to do about it—many are pressured by pimps to abort, just as many wives and girlfriend are.

This common pressure to abort is a phenomenon that gives little succor to the Choice worshippers, because their “thing” is the “right to an abortion.”

The thing about the political fiction of a “right” is that, while it can be a useful tool (for a time) to assert one’s self-determination against power; political fictions like rights are far more often employed effectively on behalf of the powerful.

As Anatole France quipped: La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.

In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.

Just as Life worshippers begin and end agency at the “moment of conception,” Choice worshippers begin and end agency at the “moment of consent.” Equally arbitrary. Equally stripped of context. Equally in the service of power.

Choice is the watchword of capitalism. Believe me, if you think your transgressions, sexual or otherwise are forms of rebellion against the status quo, give it a month. The capitalists will package your transgressions and sell them back to you as a lifestyle commodity or a Showtime series. Undisciplined desire sells like hotcakes.

Many Christians have such difficulty (we all have that difficulty) not seeing the problem with the relentless sexualization of culture as born of promiscuity, or extramarital sex, or women’s freed-up “libidos.” The irony is that Christians and non-Christians, liberals and conservatives, Life worshippers and Choice worshippers, have all accepted the same fundamental premise: that you can abstract an actual woman into some prefabricated universal and determine the correct ethical outcome. Once again, the actual woman is eclipsed.

My idol is Choice. My idol is Life.

But . . . “do you see this woman?” THIS woman!

Will you demand she “carry” her rapist’s offspring on behalf of your rule? If she refuses, will you punish her? will you criminalize her?


A Catholic “Instruction,” issued by the all-male Ecumenical Council in 1987 was entitled “Instruction on Respect for Human Life.” It cited the Parable of the Samaritan in demanding that we each “recognize as a neighbor even the littlest among the children of men.” Children of MEN.

I respectfully disagree with this interpretation of the Parable—the point of which was not embedded in making “neighbors” of others, but in the then-scandalous point that neighbors can be outsiders, even enemy peoples. Proof texting, that perennial temptation.

This is the same body that, in the face of Gospel accounts to the contrary, still asserts that Jesus had no actual siblings (because Mary was a “perpetual virgin”), because the idea that Mary had sex after Jesus was born is just too difficult for these old, insulated, woman-loathing men (many of whom were complicit in covering up for pedophile priests) to reconcile with their conviction that women who have sex are no longer “pure.”

It’s grotesque.

In my humble opinion.

Pope Benedict, in 2007, warned Catholics running for political office that they faced excommunication if they refused to support the criminalization of abortion. Fortunately, I won’t be running for office (I refuse to subject my family to that kind of scrutiny), because the powers inside the church would have to excommunicate me. Here was the head of the Catholic Church explicitly trying to wield the power of the secular modern nation-state to reassert male power over women.

It doesn’t matter how, when, why, or under what circumstances that man ejaculated into you, once the autonomous biological moment of sperm-capture happens, you come under the regulatory regime of the state.

You’d think the Catholic Church, with our violent history, our killing of heretics and “witches,” our serial Crusades, our overwhelming role in the Shoa (growing out of centuries of vile Christian anti-Semitism), would quit trying to wield the power of the state’s legal monopoly on violence to accomplish its ends. But, apparently, there is still plenty of work to do. We still want to criminalize “sin.” And we still refuse to see the structural sin that puts women on the rack of these horrific “choices.”

I, a Catholic who took communion yesterday with many women, will never support the criminalization of abortion.

That does not make me pro-abortion any more than my criticism of pornography and prostitution makes me sex-negative. Women cannot be shut out, marginalized, exploited, silenced, reduced sexually, and humiliated systemically throughout their lives, then assessed solely based on the moment when they touch the electric fence of “conception.”

And “consent”? I hope Christians can do better than this meager, decontextualized conceit. We should be better than the law, deeper than the law, more compassionate than the law. We represent a different kind of sovereign. We are citizens of a different realm.

One might suggest instead that those of us who are trying, as imperfectly as we are, to follow that Palestinian rabbi on the difficult road to the cross learn to encounter women in the flesh, with the compassion we are called to, and see each one’s life in its sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrible complexity before we command, condemn, and judge.

The powers will do what the powers do.

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