I have tokophobia and two kids. My mother and both grandmothers were ripped apart during childbirth. They all had lifelong incontinence and sexual dysfunction after countless surgeries. It destroyed one of my grandmother’s marriages. My father just resorted to affairs but stayed with my mother despite her complete inability to orgasm and having to wear basically adult diapers most of her life. (She still does.)
When I became pregnant, I thought I could rationalize through my fears of ending up the same way, but I was terrified. My OB ended up performing an elective cesarean at 40 weeks. I had a healthy baby and excellent recovery. I did it again two years later with the birth of my second daughter. Both times I was walking around the halls with my new baby within 12 hours.
So far I’m the ONLY woman in my family to give birth without incontinence and sexual dysfunction. I’ll advise my daughters to also have surgical births. Sometimes tokophobia is valid.
But this next reader, Diane, thinks that term is being tossed around too loosely:
It’s not a PHOBIA! I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out. It’s a legitimate and rational fear. Walk through an older cemetery sometime and check out the dates of death for the women vs. the men.
The doctor did not make it on time to ANY of my deliveries. Not one. And the practice at the time was to force me to wait for the doctor to show up, even though the baby’s head was showing. My last baby was delivered by the nurse because the baby wasn’t waiting any longer, and it was the best delivery I had.
Here’s the book I read before my second childbirth: Immaculate Deception by Suzanne Arms. [The New York Times in 1975 named it Book of the Year.] It helped me be able to argue with the medical professionals that I did NOT need pain medication. (And it helped me prepare my husband to back me up and not side with them, because they tended at the time to use a tactic of turning to the husband, while you were in labor, and saying something like, “You don’t want your wife to suffer, do you?”)
But I still wound up having an IV inserted that I did not need, “just in case,” and after the birth I still wound up getting pitocin [a synthetic hormone used to induce labor] to “shrink my uterus,” which caused worse contractions than childbirth.
[Suzanne Arms’s] groundbreaking exposé reported how women in childbirth were routinely separated from their partners, physically restrained at the wrists and ankles, lowered into the stirruped lithotomy position, administered drugs without their consent, given episiotomies without their consent, discouraged from breastfeeding, and denied their babies following delivery. At the time of that publication, most obstetric practices hadn’t been studied rigorously, if at all.
The most shocking part of Block’s description of that era: “60% to 90% of women giving birth got episiotomies”—an episiotomy being an incision down the perineum, or the area between the vagina and the anus, to allow for quicker and ostensibly safer delivery and the prevention of tearing. At least 60 percent. Nowadays that figure is much, much lower, thank god:
Since then, the use of this surgical incision has dropped significantly — from 21 percent of all vaginal births in California in 2005, for example, to fewer than 12 percent in 2014. National trends have been similar.
This last reader, Marina, says she isn’t sure if her aversion to getting pregnant qualifies as tokophobia:
I’m a 31 and have been with my spouse for seven years (and married for three). I can remember in first grade knowing I never wanted to be pregnant or give birth. I figured there are enough kids who need parents that I didn’t need to create my own. (I probably had a vague idea of pregnancy and birth from National Geographic animal documentaries at the time.) When I would tell adults that I wanted to adopt, I was always told that I would change my mind when I got older.
A few years down the road, the addition of learning the biological process (and viewing the infamous video) and my feelings towards childbirth were only strengthened. I also started to strongly dislike the thought of the pregnancy and dealing with a newborn. When puberty hit, my feelings didn’t waver. In fact, the drive to never get pregnant caused me to delay having sex until quite a few years into my twenties. But I also started taking birth control in my teens just in case. (I grew up in a pro-choice family, so this was driven by going overkill on pregnancy prevention.)
Even in my mid twenties, as all my friends became baby crazy, I still wanted nothing to do with having a baby. When I reached my late twenties, I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome [a connective tissue disorder]. If I were to get pregnant, I would likely have a difficult pregnancy, the pregnancy would cause a permanent decline in my health (the opposite of what pregnancy often does to those with autoimmune disorders), and there would be a 50 percent chance that the baby would also have Ehlers-Danlos.
In the past year or so, I have been feeling a stronger desire to be a parent. However, I would still avoid pregnancy and childbirth at all costs. My spouse and I recently got a puppy and it is has reminded me that I would be happy to be a parent if my body is able to handle it … but my ideal scenario is probably adopting a potty-trained toddler.
I am not sure if my situation is tokophobia (I normally lack phobia and anxiety; I am way too comfortable with heights, snakes, taking tests, etc.). Or maybe I was innately aware of how faulty my genes are. Regardless of why, I have always, and assume will always be, opposed to personally being pregnant or giving birth.
I am a childfree woman in her late 20s. I find the idea of pregnancy abhorrent and frightening in almost every way. Everything about it makes me cringe, most intensely if I imagine myself giving birth. I occasionally have nightmares about being pregnant and giving birth.
Ten years ago I used hormonal birth control for a short time and had several unpleasant side effects, including morning sickness, weight gain, and mood swings. Since pregnancy hormones are orders of magnitude stronger than birth control hormones, I am terrified of the changes my body would experience if I were pregnant. I’m afraid I would have hyperemesis gravidarum [severe nausea and vomiting] or some other horrible complication.
Going off the hormonal birth control was ten times worse.
I had depression, insomnia, amenorrhea [no menstruation], gained more weight, and I developed an eating disorder in effort to lose the weight. I believe these issues would repeat themselves—probably in fuller force—after a pregnancy, and that scares me more than anything.
It took a lot of time for me to regain my health, and I wouldn’t like to have to go through that process again. I always feel that my hormones are in a perpetual state of delicate balance. If anything, such as pregnancy, disrupts that balance, I will never regain it. I know it’s irrational.
I have always had extremely painful periods, and without strong painkillers I am unable even to get out of bed. I know that the pain of childbirth would be much worse, and that is not something I ever want to experience.
Several years ago I had exploratory surgery to see if endometriosis was causing my painful periods. It wasn’t the cause, but at that time, something deep inside me had been hoping that it was and that it would render me infertile, just so that I would have no risk of ever becoming pregnant. I still hope I’m infertile and have thought about getting tested, just so I can know for sure.
I’m glad that neither I nor my husband want children. I track my monthly cycle religiously so that I can make sure we have sex at the times that I am least likely to be fertile. I also record and pay close attention to the small changes my body undergoes throughout my cycle, such as PMS symptoms, mood changes, etc. This way, I’ll notice new or intensified symptoms that may indicate pregnancy, if it ever occurs.
I, like Ashley Lauretta, struggle with generalized anxiety, which probably has affected my experiences and predisposes me to tokophobia. Tracking my cycle helps me deal with it by giving me a sense of control and comfort.
From the article that started this whole discussion:
There are not many women who openly discuss having tokophobia, though some have spoken out in media or online in recent years to share their stories or seek help. One woman on Reddit, in a channel devoted to people who don’t want children, notes that her tokophobia was so severe she was afraid of having sex with her significant other for fear of becoming pregnant, even when protection was used. “I know it’s silly that I’m this afraid,” she writes, “but I can’t help it.”
That recent college grad, Eileen Jones, emailed hello@ to elaborate on her experience. In her long and compelling note below, she recalls several events in her life that triggered her tokophobia and how those deep-seated fears derailed her first career goal. Her phobia is so overwhelming that she’s “only had vaginal sex two times.” And her thoughts on self-sterilization raises some interesting questions. Here’s Eileen:
I turned to reddit for advice because for years I had felt like such a freak of nature because not only do I not want children, but I am also terrified of pregnancy. It was such a relief to find an online community that understood how I felt.
I can’t exactly pinpoint what caused my tokophobia. I have always thought that tokophobia/not wanting children might be some sort of evolutionary response to overpopulation. I knew when I was about 4 years old that I did not want children. I think I was maybe around 13 when I realized that I actually had a fear of pregnancy. I remember doing sex education stuff around that age and abstinence was really pushed at my school. I can remember the nurse explaining some of the symptoms of pregnancy and being pretty repulsed.
When I was in high school, I had my heart set on being a doctor.
I attended a National Youth Leadership forum on medicine. During this program, I shadowed a radiologist. She showed me an x-ray of a pregnant woman and you could see the fetus inside of her. Although I did not mean to show any sort of negative reaction, the doctor could tell that I was physically repulsed. She asked if something was wrong, and admitting to her that I didn’t really like “pregnancy stuff” was kind of embarrassing for me. I felt like I was being really rude.
Also, during this medicine program, I remember medical students talking to us about rotational programs where you would intern for a set amount of weeks as an ER doctor, then you would switch for a certain amount of weeks and intern as a pediatrician, etc. I remember thinking that there was no way I would ever become a doctor just because I knew I wouldn’t make it through interning as an OB/GYN. Gastroenterology? Fine. Proctology? Great! But something about working in the OB/GYN field was gross to me. Honestly, gynecology doesn’t bother me one bit, but there is no way I could handle obstetrics.
I really related to the part in Ms. Lauretta’s article when she describes how Helen Mirren felt when she watched a film about childbirth. When I was a senior in high school, my anatomy teacher showed us a film on childbirth. I remember staring down at my desk the entire time. My best friend, who sat in front of me, was turning around periodically to check on me. I remember her asking, “Are you okay? No, really … are you okay… ? Are you sure?”
I’ve recently stumbled upon the MTV series 16 and Pregnant. Although I do think it’s a great series, when they show the girls in labor, I can’t watch. I’m seriously like your average person watching a horror movie and shielding their eyes from the screen. I’ve even had to mute it.
Another thing I’ve had to deal with is the repulsion of seeing pregnant stomachs. A friend of mine who is currently pregnant recently posted a video of her stomach on Snapchat. In the video, you can see her baby moving around inside of her. I was so freaked out that I had to exit the video; I couldn’t even watch it.
As far as my sex life goes, I don’t really have much of one. I’ve only had vaginal sex two times. Both times, the guy used a condom, but I still panicked. The last time I engaged in vaginal sex, I sat in my car and cried for a few minutes after. I drove myself to the nearest Walmart and bought some Plan B. I was basically an anxious mess until I had my period. I even took a pregnancy test AFTER I got my period just to make sure I wasn’t pregnant.
I feel that the only way I will ever have a normal sex life is if I get sterilized. Unfortunately, most doctors are not keen on this because they are concerned you will change your mind. However, as I stated earlier, I’ve known since I was about 4 years old that I didn’t want kids and I have only become more sure with age.
I really wish there wasn’t such a negative stigma around women who do not want children. [CB: Readers discussed the contentious subject last year.] I don’t consider myself to be generally selfish. I’m not a child-hating monster. In fact, although I’m not too keen on babies and toddlers, I do enjoy interacting and working with older children, especially teenagers. In college, I volunteered with at the Science Olympiad where I worked with middle and high school kids and really enjoyed it!
One thing I wish people knew about tokophobia, or at least in my case, is that I don’t think less of someone for being pregnant. I don’t hate pregnant people. In fact, I am excited for my friends and family members who are pregnant because I know they’re happy and excited. I will definitely attend their baby showers and get them gifts.
I really wish that I wasn’t mortified by things related to pregnancy, but it’s something that has definitely improved a little in recent years. I can actually look at sonogram images now without being disturbed!
I was so happy when someone told me about Ms. Lauretta’s article. It’s always comforting to me to read about people who feel the same way I do. Thank you so much for taking time to read this. If you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them.
Incredible and timely piece, thank you so much. I actually am writing to ask a question. The article says over and over to get some help if you believe you have this phobia and want to have a baby. That's me, and I want to know how to get help. What are the concrete suggestions from Brian Salmon [a doula and lactation consultant] and his colleagues with regards to getting over this?
My story: I’m a 40-year-old woman, and I’ve only just come to decide that it’s time to be a mom. I don’t have the money to adopt, but I absolutely would if I could. I’m disgusted by being pregnant and terrified of giving birth. I’ve been pregnant before, more than once, and it felt like being invaded by a destructive alien force.
I would say that my phobia comes from the following experiences:
1. I’m a control freak. I’m a lawyer, alpha, eldest child, feminist, political activist, and conservator over my only sibling, who has DD. I fill with anxiety over mere annuals because I cannot STAND the idea of a stranger in my vagina unwantingly, without my guidance and oversight. I avoid them like the plague.
2. Those pregnancies and the subsequent abortions, ONLY with regards to the physical pain, and again, having all these people prod my privates.
3. My parents were open lefties who perhaps shared too much, including horrifying birthing stories that my mother identified (my birth especially) as “the most traumatic experience of her life.” She also showed me videos and books too early, like Our Bodies Ourselves, which depict women screaming in agony with their vaginas gaping in a room full of old white men.
To be fair, my mother’s OB/GYN was an Indian woman, and I have a dear friend who grew up on The Farm with the doulas and midwives who wrote the manuals. And I saw The Business of Being Born, so I know that, rationally, I have options outside the nasty hospitals and their profit-driven approach. And I know that there are oils and exercises to avoid tearing. But this fear isn’t rational, right?
So here I am, ready to do this, and paralyzed with fear. And your article just gave it a name, and the hope of fixing it. Please point me in some direction for fixing it.
When speaking with sources for my piece, I learned a lot about the options available to women who have tokophobia yet wish to have children someday (me being one of them). They recommend finding both a therapist and a midwife, both of whom specialize in tokophobia or have at least worked with it previously. They can not only help you discover the root cause of your phobia but also break it down into smaller related fears and work through each one specifically. They can educate you on the birthing process and your options for it—hospital vs. home, for example, or Cesarean vs. natural—and then advocate for you.
I followed up with Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC to find out if there are any specific questions or concerns you should broach in therapy.
“Voicing your fears and reaching out for help is half the battle in overcoming tokophobia,” notes Brunner. “So many women sit in silence and shame with their fears, and that only causes the anxiety to grow.”
“Finding a professional who is familiar with tokophobia and/or reproductive mental health issues is essential.” Brunner suggests that you find a therapist comfortable working with couples, as it may be helpful for your partner to be in the sessions from time to time to better understand your tokophobia and help work through it with you.
When you start looking for a therapist, don’t feel like you need to choose the first one you visit. Brunner notes that having a connection with your therapist is shown by research to be the strongest predictor of a positive outcome. Should you encounter anyone in your search who responds to your fears with judgement or with shaming, they are not the therapist for you.
If you don’t know where to start in your search, Brunner suggests asking your ObGyn for referrals. “Make sure that your therapist, doula, or midwife feels confident that they can help you get to the root of your fears and overcome your phobia,” stresses Brunner. “You want to surround yourself with positive, optimistic energy, as Brian Salmon correctly stated in the original article. Pregnancy and childbirth can be a beautiful and relatively comfortable experience, and aligning yourself with professionals and friends who ascribe to these empowering beliefs is essential.”
Should you not be ready to reach out to a therapist, Herrera recommends having a lifeguard in place. “Have somebody who loves you pay attention to what is happening; if they see that you are having increased tokophobia or symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety, then they get help,” stresses Herrera. “Have everything lined up, have a therapist lined up with your insurance whom your lifeguard can call.”
I hope this gives Kelly and other readers struggling with tokophobia a sense of where to start as you begin your journey to parenthood. Many of you, like Sacha Zimmerman, had the fear but didn’t know there was a name for it, and I want to remind you that you aren’t alone. You aren’t irrational or broken—you have a legitimate phobia—and asking for help is the best thing you can do to work through your fears.
I always thought I was missing some important maternal chip in my system, some crucial feminine widget in my consciousness that was supposed to look at childbirth as simply beautiful—as the most natural thing in the world. Instead, long into adulthood, my overwhelming feeling toward the act of giving birth was something along the lines of: You want me to push what out of where?!
Ashley Lauretta’s wonderful piece for us this week, “Too Afraid to Have a Baby,” mentions that Helen Mirren was scarred by a childhood viewing of an educational film on the topic. I feared childbirth from the moment I heard how it was done; I don’t remember ever not thinking it sounded ghastly. But I too had my own filmstrip moment that pushed me further over the edge.
In my mid-20s, I saw an episode of Susan “Stop the Insanity” Powter’s short-lived talk show (please do not feel obliged to remember Susan Powter) about nightmare-childbirth scenarios. One guest on the show suffered something so completely horrific, I dare not write it. Suffice it to say, she had to go through several corrective surgeries and receive hundreds of stitches—down there.
Do I sound immature? I felt immature. I also felt rational. That maternal chip I was missing was really a blind spot. Other women could not see the obvious flaws of natural childbirth, but I was cursed with perfect vision.
When I became pregnant at 37, I could feel my due date hurtling toward me like a runaway train. Maybe I could have an elective C-section. I read up on the procedure—too many people have it, hospitals and doctors are too quick to turn to it, it’s driving up health-care costs, it’s selfish, the baby will be bathed in drugs …
As I read, I was not chastened. Instead, I thought, So it’s do-able.
The other women in my mommy pace group would smile at me serenely, beatified by their holy cargo. I’d be fine, they’d assure me. It wouldn’t be bad at all, they promised. I didn’t have the heart to tell them about their childbearing blind spots.
I screwed up my courage and confessed my fears to my doctor. “I’m not sure I can do it,” I cried. “OK, let’s schedule a C-section,” she replied without missing a beat. Yes! She was one of those doctors I’d read about who handed out surgery like candy. She told me that at my age, the chance of ending up with a C-section was already increased because more things go wrong the older the mother is. Given that, she said, she always prefers to schedule procedures than to end up with emergency C-sections—which, obviously, no one plans for. She also said that being in a fevered panic about childbirth was no way to, well, experience childbirth—not to mention it was a pretty poor way to be pregnant; after all, my stress was probably being transmitted to the child inside me.
So as far as my doctor was concerned, it was a no-brainer. Science!
But I still dared not tell a soul. I knew what the world saw: I wasn’t doing it the right way, the best way. I was a selfish, scared, immature crazy person.
Then, as I neared the end of my pregnancy, my baby didn’t turn around; he was breech—a common reason to need a C-section. My doctor and I laughed. “So I’m legit?” I said. Since then, if my C-section ever comes up in conversation (which is far less often the more distance from the event I get), I say, “He was breech”—as though I had no choice in the matter. But I did have a choice. And I actively chose.
Now I don’t look back on the day I gave birth as one in which I was tearful and totally terrified, thinking only of the cruel physics of what was about to happen. Now I remember every detail of that happy spectacular day with joy. Because it was all about my son.
More people than ever are hospitalized with COVID-19. Health-care workers can’t go on like this.
On Saturday morning, Megan Ranney was about to put on her scrubs when she heard that Joe Biden had won the presidential election. That day, she treated people with COVID-19 while street parties erupted around the country. She was still in the ER in the late evening when Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris made their victory speeches. These days, her shifts at Rhode Island Hospital are long, and they “are not going to change in the next 73 days,” before Biden becomes president, she told me on Monday. Every time Ranney returns to the hospital, there are more COVID-19 patients.
This is why you can eat in a restaurant but can’t have Thanksgiving.
Two weeks ago, I staged a reluctant intervention via Instagram direct message. The subject was a longtime friend, Josh, who had been sharing photos of himself and his fiancé occasionally dining indoors at restaurants since New York City, where we both live, had reopened them in late September. At first, I hadn’t said anything. Preliminary research suggests that when people congregate indoors, an infected person is almost 20 times more likely to transmit the virus than if they were outside. But restaurants are open legally in New York, and I am not the COVID police. Josh and I had chatted several times in the early months of the pandemic about safety, and I felt sure that he was making an informed decision, even if it wasn’t the one I’d make.
The president’s abuse of his clemency power is an assault on one of the few truly humane aspects of the American legal system.
President Donald Trump's announcement that he has pardoned Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, is infuriating—and not merely because of the gross favoritism on display. What Trump has done once again is corrupt something that ought to be beyond corruption: the mercy that the most powerful person in the world can bestow upon those who are in chains.
I know the beauty of this power. I've seen it at work myself.
On a bright August day in 2016, I received a call from a number at the Department of Justice. The official on the other end told me that three of my law-school clinic’s clients had been granted commutations that would free them from life sentences on cocaine offenses, after each had served 25 years or more in prison. I was to call each of them immediately, and tell them the news.
Cynical public speech aimed at winning political power has consequences.
Three weeks after the conclusion of the 2020 presidential election, many Republican members of Congress find themselves boxed in. Some have privatelycongratulated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris for their historic win. But publicly, most Republicans have remained silent, while others have actively encouraged President Donald Trump’s baseless accusations of mass voter fraud.
The situation these Republicans face is one that many southern members of Congress would have recognized during the aftermath of the 1860 election. Southern congressmen had spent years stirring up anger and promoting fear of their opponents, and were so successful that by 1860 they had lost control of their message. Abraham Lincoln’s election caused a mass movement among white southerners to leave the Union. Even though they knew that the claims being embraced by their constituents were conspiratorial and overblown, many southern members of Congress felt they had to get on board or be left behind.
The new Netflix film is a think-piece trap—shiny on the outside, hollow on the inside.
“Everyone in this world is one of three kinds,” declares Mamaw (played by Glenn Close), the wise grand-matriarch of Ron Howard’s new film, Hillbilly Elegy. “A good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral.” I hate to correct Mamaw, who is trying to encourage her impressionable grandson, J. D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), to follow a righteous path by invoking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s beloved action franchise. But there is no such thing as a “neutral” Terminator; those cyborg heroes exist to either protect or destroy. I cannot imagine what a neutral Terminator would do, save sit in a chair and remain forever shiny and inactive.
Mamaw is entitled to her bad movie opinions, of course. But this monologue is the kind of speechifying that rings hollow throughout Hillbilly Elegy, an adaptation of Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir that debuts on Netflix tomorrow. When it first arrived on bookshelves, Vance’s story was celebrated as a glimpse into an oft-ignored pocket of America: the white working class of Appalachia and the Rust Belt who swung to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Hailed as an “anger translator” and cited by Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, Vance wrote about growing up poor, living with a heroin-addicted mother, and clawing his way into Yale Law School. The book arrived at a seemingly serendipitous moment, offering a bleak but candid view of communities gutted by drug abuse and poverty.
“We are on an absolutely catastrophic path,” said a COVID-19 doctor at America’s best-prepared hospital.
Perhaps no hospital in the United States was better prepared for a pandemic than the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
After the SARS outbreak of 2003, its staff began specifically preparing for emerging infections. The center has the nation’s only federal quarantine facility and its largest biocontainment unit, which cared for airlifted Ebola patients in 2014. The people on staff had detailed pandemic plans. They ran drills. Ron Klain, who was President Barack Obama’s “Ebola czar” and will be Joe Biden’s chief of staff in the White House, once told me that UNMC is “arguably the best in the country” at handling dangerous and unusual diseases. There’s a reason many of the Americans who were airlifted from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February were sent to UNMC.
The question shouldn’t be whether the president can pardon himself but whether he can grant himself a pardon—and those are not the same thing.
As Donald Trump’s tenure in office comes in for its landing, a major question is whether the president—facing questions about liability for offenses including bank and tax fraud—can pardon himself.
This might seem like the right operational question, but it is imprecise as a constitutional one. Article II of the Constitution says that the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” Did you catch that? The president has the power not to pardon people, but “to grant … Pardons” (emphasis added). So the question is not whether Trump can pardon himself. It’s whether he can grant himself a pardon.
At the dawn of the 1960s, a couple of New York admen named Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass created the Christmas special. Before that, the networks hadn’t been sure exactly how they should entertain children during the holiday season. They had largely come down on the side of edification, as seen in NBC’s 1951 commission of a children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast live on Christmas Eve, after which the show lived on in reruns, and—also on NBC—Babes in Toyland, a turn-of-the-last-century operetta based on the Mother Goose tales.
But American children of the 1960s weren’t going to put up with operas and nursery rhymes. We had grown strong on orange juice, casseroles, and chewable vitamins. We weren’t afraid of polio or tuberculosis—we had the Salk vaccine and the tine test. We had had one small step for mankind, 31 flavors, and 101 dalmatians. The previous decade had already established the whims of children as a legitimate market force; in two years, Wham-O had made $45 million on the Hula-Hoop. Rich guys in office buildings were taking us seriously. What did we want next?
In the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks, the French government has introduced new legislation that threatens the very freedoms it vows to defend.
The beheading of the middle-school teacher Samuel Paty on October 16 by a young man enraged by Paty’s showing his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to vow that France will never flinch in its defense of freedom of expression. In the name of upholding the core values of the French Republic, however, Macron’s government and members of his party have introduced new legislation that effectively restricts them. Unless the proposed laws are modified or scrapped, France will soon be a far less free country than it is now.
Three new pieces of legislation aim to make the French more secure by restricting democratic rights. A bill that sets the research budget for French universities for the next decade, adopted by France’s Senate on November 20, targets student protests and took a stab at academic freedom. The bill includes a provision criminalizing on-campus gatherings that “trouble the tranquility and good order of the establishment” with a fine of up to 45,000 euros and a prison term of up to three years. An amendment requiring that academic research hew to the “values of the Republic” was scrapped only at the last minute, after strong pushback by scholars who feared that its intent was to restrict freedom of inquiry.
Penguin Random House purchasing Simon & Schuster is not the gravest danger to the publishing business. The deal is transpiring in a larger context—and that context is Amazon.
In 1960, Dwight Eisenhower’s attorney general, William Rogers, read the paper with alarm. He learned that Random House intended to purchase the venerable publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Rogers began making calls to prod his antitrust division into blocking the sale. In those days, monopoly loomed as a central concern of government—and a competitive book business was widely seen as essential to preserving both intellectual life and democracy. After checking with his sources, Rogers discovered that the merger would yield a company that controlled a mere 1 percent of the book market, and he let the matter drop.
Not so long ago, Democratic and Republican administrations alike wouldn’t hesitate to block a merger like the one proposed today, which intends to fold the giant publisher Simon & Schuster into the even more gigantic Penguin Random House. How big would the combined company be? By one estimate, it might publish a third of all books in the U.S. This deal is so expansive that it’s hard to find an author to write about it who isn’t somehow implicated. Based on the odds, I suppose, it’s not terribly surprising to reveal that I’m published by Penguin Random House.