It understands that childbirth is scary and dangerous, transformative and worthwhile.
Modern medicine often allows us to forget it, but the fact remains; death is always one of the possible outcomes of birth. We had a painful recent reminder of that late last month, when a woman named Savita Halappanavar had a miscarriage in a hospital in Ireland. Abortions in Ireland are proscribed by law, so the doctors were afraid to terminate the fetus. As a result, Halappanavar died.
If you're out at the cineplexes this week, you may again be forcibly and uncomfortably reminded of Halappanavar. The final installment of the Twilight series features a young woman—Bella Swan—who refuses to have an abortion even though her pregnancy is threatening her life. The juxtaposition with Halappanavar is visceral enough that Alyssa Rosenberg, writing at ThinkProgress, says, that it made it impossible for her to enjoy Breaking Dawn 2.
When we last saw Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, Bella was suffering from a pregnancy that was killing her. Her fetus was starving her of nutrition and giving her pregnancy cravings for blood. Despite the extreme danger to her life, Bella insisted on keeping her baby. And ultimately, her child snapped her spine in one of the few genuinely horrifying scenes in this vampire story and had to be removed by emergency—and bloody—Caesarean section. But instead of dying, Bella was transformed into a vampire. Bella was more beautiful, stronger, more sexual than she'd ever been as a human. Her disregard for her own life earns her a vastly improved version of it.
Millions of people will get that message in a movie theater this weekend. But what they should really know is that callous disregard for a woman's life doesn't transform her into a higher being, even if both she and her baby survive hardship. Instead, it can leave her in delivery for three days. It can lead to doctors who ignore a woman's wishes, endangering both her own life and her future opportunity to bring more viable life into the world. It leads to a dreadful answer to a nightmarish question—as Katha Pollitt put it, "Who is more valuable, a living woman or a dying fetus? The Catholic Church has given its answer, and Savita Halapannavar is dead." It leads to an arithmetic where the value women's lives and women's decisions is degraded even when there isn't a choice between her life and her child's. I can't bear to cheer Bella Swan's transformation when Savita Halapannavar has been sacrificed.
For Rosenberg, the story about birth transforming women is deceptive. The story about birth killing women, however, is true. And , obviously, in the most straightforward sense, this is correct. Bella's story is fiction. Halapannavar's story, dreadfully, happened. A vampire's bite cannot save you, but anti-abortion policies can, and have, killed many women, and will kill more.
But. I think it's a mistake to see Bella's narrative solely as a pro-life fantasy, and I think it's a mistake to dismiss as unwitting dupes those who think that there's something worthwhile in her story.
In particular, I think it's false, to my own experience at least, to deny that there is something transformative about bringing children into this world. As a father, my son is just about the most important thing that's ever happened to me. I wouldn't say that he's made me "more beautiful, stronger, more sexual" than I'd ever been as a human (and I doubt my wife would say that he'd made her any of those things either)...but still. It's a pretty fucking big deal. Bella's transformation from human to vampire is in part a metaphor for her transition from woman to mother—a transition accomplished in fear, pain, terror, and love. And while I can't speak to that in terms of women changing to mothers, I can testify that, as a metaphor for the transition from man to father, it has a certain emotional veracity.
It makes sense, though, that Rosenberg would focus her piece almost exclusively on abortion rather than birth. Contemporary feminism in the US has been obsessed with the first and much less focused on the second. This is in no small part because of the craziness of feminism's conservative interlocutors—and as Rosenberg says, a story like Halappanavar's shows very clearly how important abortion rights are.
Still, however understandable it is in this instance given Halappanavar's death or for general tactical reasons, the intense focus on abortion remains problematic. And the reason it remains problematic is that many, many women are like Bella, and see motherhood as extraordinarily important, worthwhile and transformative. Some of them might even be willing to risk their own lives for the lives of their children. And it's a good thing that they'd be willing to do so, because the fact is that women risk their lives literally every time they give birth. If it weren't for the courage of people like Bella, or people like Halappanavar, there wouldn't be any us anywhere, male or female.
That courage is but one reason why people of any political persuasion should check themselves repeatedly before they tell women what choices they can make about childbirth or about motherhood. Women who decide to terminate their pregnancies, for whatever reason, need to have that decision respected. And women who decide to carry their pregnancy to term—even if, like Bella, doing so is dangerous—should maybe be respected, too. A doctor callously and cravenly letting a woman die in front of him is simply in no way comparable to Bella determining, with care and deliberation, to risk her life for her baby. Deciding to have a child doesn't make you a victim of false consciousness—it doesn't even make you a victim. Maybe, in some respects and from some perspectives, it might make you a superhero. Millions of people will get that message in a movie theater this weekend. I refuse to believe that that's incompatible with feminism, or that it in any way trivializes Savita Halapannavar's death, or the value of women's lives.