Speaking Out -- Women Must Make Personal Choices Which Empower Them --
But Is It Always Possible?
One of the most pervasive myths of the post-feminist era is the belief that reproductive freedom has improved women's lives. Contraception and abortion ostensibly empower women to choose the timing and circumstances of pregnancy, even as society has discarded the outmoded notion of illegitimacy. Post-modern democracies pride themselves on being tolerant and inclusive and to all outward appearances, women are free to choose motherhood on their own terms. But the smiling facade of feminism masks the painful contradictions of women's real lives.
The advent of the birth-control pill ushered in sweeping social changes and allowed women for the first time in history, to choose a life path other than automatic childbearing. However, the pill had an unforeseen down side. It jump-started the sexual revolution and slammed the door on male commitment. The 1960s playboy staked out his claim to pregnancy-free sexual entitlement and left the newly emancipated woman wondering how to make him tie the knot. The most contested social change affecting women's reproductive lives has been the legalization of abortion. Abortion supporters view access to abortion as a sine qua non of women's freedom and progress, whereas opponents view it as the epitome of moral decline. yet despite decades of public sparring, there has rarely been any discussion about the impacts of abortion on women's lives.
Growing studies highlight the Pyrrhic victory of abortion rights. The World Conference on Breast Cancer cited abortion as a risk factor for breast cancer in its 1998 Global Action Report. Increasingly, studies link abortion to infertility and chronic reproductive health problems. In stress studies conducted by Dr. Georgia Witkin, a leading expert on gender-specific stress differences, women identified abortion as the third-highest-rated grief and loss stressor, outranking even death of a family member.
For years, social studies have documented the twin realities of male coercion in abortion decisions and father absenteeism. Legal, funded access to abortion has created a context of no legitimate right of refusal, according to U.S. sociologist James Davison Hunter. Women who resist male pressure to abort pay for their transgressions. When deadbeat dads are asked why they don't support their children, one of the most frequently cited reasons is that the mother of the child could have had an abortion. Unwilling fathers are not the only culprits. Young, poor, marginalized women are all too often pressured to abort by family members, employers and the professionals who broker their existence.
Single mothers have become just about everybody's favourite punching bags. Conservatives accuse them of welfare abuse and insinuate blame for crime and juvenile delinquency, even as liberals castigate them for not using birth control. These criticisms are not entirely without merit. Studies do link single motherhood to poverty and the social pathologies that ensue from it. Contraceptive studies, such as the 1998 Canadian Contraceptive Study, show that nearly 40 per cent of all women are not using birth control or family planning, or use it inconsistently.
What is objectionable about these arguments is their blaming rhetoric. Critics fail to grasp the significance of the trend toward single female-headed households. Women rarely choose to go it alone. Their single-parent status is typically a reflection of male abandonment. The fact that so many women are spurned by their male partners says something about the credulity of supposedly liberated women. Women are becoming pregnant in situations that are too casual to reasonably justify any expectation of male support.
Male exploitation is the flip side of female romanticization. Men are groomed from childhood onward to pursue the path of least resistance. The goof-off boy culture, followed by boozing and cruising in young adulthood, all conspire to inculcate in men an attitude of selfish irresponsibility. The paradox is that when men assume the role of protector and provider, they aren't socially validated. In today's marketplace of ideas, there is zero tolerance for gender differences and no room for men to carve out a positive, proactive role for themselves.
The problem with the feminist critique is that it plays to male pathology by typecasting all men as villains. Years of disparaging marriage and hokey family values have taken their toll. The sad fact is that for too many men, the role of bad guy is the only one they know. In the end it all works out as self-fulfilling prophecy.
Marches and sloganeering will not end female misery. The buck stops with each and every woman. Women need to take a long hard look at the kind of life choices they are making and ask themselves where their best interests really lie. Anything less is incompatible with true equality.
- Deborah Rankin is a longtime community activist in Montreal. (Montreal Gazette 2002)