Another battle is raging over women’s bodies. Throughout history, the womb has been ground zero for wars between countries and peoples. When wars are fought over land, women are often the ancillary spoils: they are raped, impregnated, and kidnapped. Soldiers don’t just seize land, they seize the reproductive capability of a territory. Genocidal regimes force sterilisation, take children away from their mothers, or both.
Growing up, in what I then thought was a post-feminist world, I never dreamt that a body part would continue to be the battleground of this generation. And yet, this week legal abortion was again the subject of protests as anti-abortion activists gathered outside St Mary’s cathedral in Sydney, in what they called the “Day of the Unborn Child”. The week before in Melbourne confusion reigned as protesters gathered in a three-way pro-woman, pro-trans and anti-trans melee, crashed by neo-Nazis. After decades of women’s liberation, the womb remains at the centre of society’s hottest disputes.
And nobody should be the least bit surprised. This organ is where the original conflict of rights occurs. Pregnancy termination is the quintessential conflict between a woman, another being, and society.
If she is lucky, and lives in a relatively enlightened time and place, a woman has autonomy. Until her body is colonised by a nascent life, that is, at which point a conflict can arise. In societies where abortion is legal, society steps in to negotiate between the parties. Some anti-abortion advocates believe that as soon as there is fertilisation, the woman’s body becomes a vessel and is not just her own. On the other side, pro-choice advocates sometimes argue to extend the point at which a termination can take place, up to, or even past, the stage at which the baby is viable (24 weeks). Ethicists have, in some cases more seriously than in others, contemplated whether women have a right to abortion right up to, or even just after, birth.
In the US, the landmark (now overturned) Supreme Court ruling known as Roe v Wade implemented a legal fiction – a trimester model to arbitrate between the two parties. It conceded rights to the woman up to the end of the first trimester; to the state in the second trimester in a “regulated” model of abortion with approved special reason; and in the third trimester gave the right to live (still inhabiting the woman’s body) to the child.
The bureaucratic tidiness of this model created an illusion of scientific certainty. For decades now we have pretended that the new life is somehow not human until the first trimester has ended. The life is often referred to in pro-choice circles as a “clump of cells”, a “zygote”, etc. In doing so, we kid ourselves into thinking that we were making a clinical judgement, instead of acknowledging what it is we’re actually doing, which is negotiating a balance between the conflicting rights of two people.
Understanding this conflict of rights can help us understand another battle over women’s bodies which is currently taking place. This one is being waged over the spaces around women’s bodies instead of inside them, as well as over the identity connected with the womb.
This was the substance of the Let Women Speak marches until neo-Nazis crashed the Melbourne rally. As reported, the speakers at the march ranged from “young feminists who said they were once trans allies but had flipped, to older (often lesbian) women worried about losing female-only spaces”.
Now, Nazis are not known for their support of women’s rights, to put it mildly. In fact, the Nazis were happy to reduce women to wombs when they conducted their Aryan breeding program. So people who believed that the rally was about defending the rights and space of biological women and their identity were surprised by the neo-Nazis’ appearance.
As soon as they showed up, everyone at the march who wasn’t a pro-trans activist was painted by the counter-protesters and the media as being anti-trans – or, by association, a Nazi. This well serves the neo-Nazis’ aim: instead of a respectful negotiation between trans people and women over how spaces and identities can be delineated or shared to everyone’s satisfaction, they have cemented a bitter conflict which will fester.
As wrote, the only people who were happy after the confusion of the march were the Nazis, who regarded it as a propaganda triumph.
If there was one clear group of losers from the march, it was biological women who want their space and identity respected but who are not anti-trans. There are many women who feel that their biological sex is part of their identity and sense that they are erased when that biological distinctiveness is denied.
While conceding the use of chest-feeding and cervix-owner as a kindness to trans men, they feel demeaned when they are defined by the body parts that have long been used as a reason to oppress them. Uterus-havers are vessels for other people’s desires and social goals. Women are the complex and intelligent beings in possession of these uteri.
If they fear sharing a bathroom or a similar intimate space with a trans woman, the solution is not to bully them into it. It is to negotiate respectfully on what could be done to make both trans women and biological women feel safer. When they are upset at having their identity erased, the solution is surely to find better language. We are in need of another legal fiction.
If we can’t find it in us to do this well, the womb will again be the spoils of war. This time, of a bitter, bloody and entirely avoidable culture war.
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