Pregnancy as Labor

By Ta-Nehisi Coates
I wrote the following almost two years ago, but I wanted to repost in light of Richard Mourdock's comments on rape and conception. I think it's especially appropriate for the abstract way in which we discuss pregnancy and abortion. With that said, over the past year, some of my beliefs have changed. 

I no longer have "deep problems" with the termination of fetal life. I don't think it's my place. I don't think I have much right to any qualms. I will never be pregnant. I will never be subject to the many biological functions that precede pregnancy and the ones that follow. I cannot know what it is to subject my body to such a process for the benefit of another. I don't believe everyone's opinion should be weighed equally. Some people carry more than others.

In any pregnancy, I am, at best, a handmaiden. Allow me to play my position.

****

Surveying the GOP's latest efforts to usher forth a particular species of fiscal responsibility, I recalled a bit of personal history, which I try to not to think about.  Like a lot of couples, we greeted notice that our family would increase by half with great joy. Before Samori, I was a rather aimless ronin: a 24-year-old college dropout whose greatest accomplishment was managing not to run off his beautiful and wise girlfriend of one year. But I had no real core, no grounding, no sense that big things were at stake. I was writing, but had wavering confidence in its prospects, and thus a wavering commitment to making those prospects manifest. 

For most of my conscious life I had failed at the thing that mattered most (school). There was no reason to suspect I'd be any different professionally. Still, to paraphrase an old friend, there was nothing in my background that justified being a bad father. And upon news that that was what I'd be, I threw myself into the preparations. It was fine for me to be a fuck-up. It was not fine for me to bequeath more fuck-ups to the world. I didn't know it at the time, but this was the start of me getting a "core." 

So I went at the thing. I moved up to Delaware, where Kenyatta was working at the time, threw myself into all the requisite manuals, took up the household chef role, and installed myself in her life in such a way that has endured. And in those months I found a purpose. The house was a castle. The job of a functioning adult was to protect the castle. 

My son is the joy of my life. But the work of ushering him into this world nearly killed his mother.
About six months in, Kenyatta started picking up weight at a rate that flummoxed and alarmed her doctors. Her whole body swelled like a water balloon, a description which we would only later find to be frighteningly apt. The docs diagnosed gestational diabetes, and we changed our diets accordingly. No dice. The weight gain continued, and all we got were puzzled looks and the assurance that after the pregnancy things would abate. Looking back on it now, I'm convinced they thought we were gorging on McDonald's and lying to our docs. People do it all the time. 

After Samori was born, Kenyatta lost very little weight, and I imagine this verified the doctors' suspicions. She came home and had trouble breathing. On the second night, it got so bad that she couldn't lay down. My young and immature response was something akin to "Oh, it will pass." But Kenyatta's mother was there and insisted on taking her to the hospital, and in that moment probably saved her life.

The doctors took another look and came back with a very different diagnosis -- congestive heart failure. It's been a long time, and we've had reason to forget parts of the experience. But my recollection is that Kenyatta's oxygen level dropped really low -- to something like 23. That sounds too low, but whatever it was, it was cause for serious alarm. She was hospitalized for a week, during which time (again memory is sketchy) she lost about a third of her body weight, all of it fluid.

Peripartum cardiomyopathy, the disease that led to congestive heart failure, is rare and lethal. It kills women. And no one knows why. Kenyatta was lucky. She didn't need a new heart. She only needed her meds, and time. But luck has not obscured from us a set of essential and disturbing truths.

For reasons beyond me, childbirth -- in the popular American mind -- is swaddled in gossamer, gift-wrap, and icing. Beneath the pastel Hallmark cards and baby showers, behind the flowers, lies a truth encoded, still, in our wording, but given only minimal respect: The charge of shepherding life is labor. It's work. And you need only look to the immediate past, or you need only look around the world, or you need only come close to losing the love of your small, young life to understand a correlating truth--pregnancy is potentially lethal work.

Over the past few weeks, I've been studying the seminary movement in the South during the mid-19th century. In these all-female boarding schools, women found a security and friendship that would elude them for the rest of their lives. Their parting notes to each other are filled with foreboding hints of early death. It's not very hard to imagine why. As recently as the 1930s, the maternal death rate in this country was 900 per 100,000 births. 

It's been some time since I read What Hath God Wrought, but my recollection is that in the mid-19th century men actually lived longer than women. As a society, the Western world has obviously made significant strides in reducing maternal deaths. (In Afghanistan some 1,400 women die per 100,000 births.) This is excellent news. But it cannot obscure perhaps the most specific and nameable species of male privilege -- of all the things that may one day kill me, pregnancy is not among them. 

This is the era of Internet intellectuals, mostly dudes, who excel at analogizing easily accessible facts to buttress their points. It's a good skill to have, and one I employ myself. But it isn't wisdom. Like most people, I have deep problems with the termination of life -- and that is what I believe abortion to be. Still a decade ago, I learned that those problems were abstract, and could not stand against something as tangible and imposing as death.

My embrace of a pro-choice stance is not built on analogizing Rick Santorum with Hitler. It is not built on what the pro-life movement is "like." It's built on set of disturbing and ineluctable truths: My son is the joy of my life. But the work of ushering him into this world nearly killed his mother. The literalism of that last point can not be escaped.

Every day women choose to do the hard labor of a difficult pregnancy. It's courageous work, which inspires in me a degree of admiration exceeded only by my horror at the notion of the state turning that courage, that hard labor, into a mandate. Women die performing that labor in smaller numbers as we advance, but they die all the same. Men do not. That is a privilege.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/10/pregnancy-as-labor/264070/