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Who is Compelled to Respond to My Need?
Discussions of viability, violinists, and what we owe to each other
Last week, I took a hiatus for the July 4th weekend. This week we return with your comments in response to my New York Times op-ed on the injustice of Roe v. Wade’s viability standard.
Other Feminisims readers clearly hold a range of views on the morality of abortion, though it’s clear there’s common ground in supporting mothers and children. None of the pro-choice readers want abortion to feel like the only choice for a woman in a hard situation. We can agree that our culture is hostile to babies and to women, and thus puts them both at risk.
I was impressed with your charity and patience as people disagreed in the comments. Many readers spoke firmly in defense of the people they saw as vulnerable, without forgetting that their interlocutors were also speaking in good faith, but differed on who was most at risk, and who fully partook of human dignity.
In my roundup, I’m trying to follow your good example. I’m leading off with a longer response to two commenters who disagree with my argument, followed by a few short highlights from the broader conversation on how we cultivate attentiveness to another’s need.
Let’s start with some of the pushback from Other Feminisms readers who are both passionate and polite. Magdalen wrote:
I'm glad that you used your article to point out that a viability standard runs into the issue of constantly shifting as medical care for premature infants improves, and that can have some perverse outcomes in terms of pitting pro-choice activists against such medical developments. But I disagree with you that using a viability standard for legal purposes must necessarily mean a devaluation of those who are unable to survive on their own.
While the needs of the more vulnerable do create a just demand for care on those around them, I don't think it should be the place of the law to enforce that demand when it requires that we give of our own bodies to sustain the vulnerable. The existence of, say, a patient in need of kidney donation DOES create a just demand on society to find him a kidney if possible, but nevertheless this demand should not be enforced by law.
And Martha added:
We'd be aghast if the state required a person to donate their kidney because someone else needed one, and even more horrified if they required the donor to pay for the surgery, and/or mandated the donors' lifestyle for years beforehand. Anti-abortion legislation has the real possibility—the reality—of being more dystopic.
The kidney example (or the more vivid parasitic violinist) captures some elements of what it means to be pregnant and to face the fact that someone’s life depends on you. But I think it leaves out some big parts of the reality of how a mother and child are connected that make it a bad analogy for the justice of abortion.
First, let me say right away that kidney donation is much much easier than pregnancy and parenting. I have a friend who has done altruistic kidney and liver lobe donation to strangers, and Dylan Matthews has written about his own kidney donation. It’s a powerful way to save a life, and it’s something I think folks should actively consider. I have a recurring event on my calendar on World Kidney Day (March 10th) so I have to actively consider the possibility every year.
Now, on to the other way I think the example is a meaningfully imperfect fit. Having a baby is harder than giving a kidney. And the bond between a parent and a child is meaningfully different than that between a donor and a stranger—even one for whom you happen to be the only match. The example frames the mother and child as strangers to each other—two unconnected individuals who can choose, or not choose, to begin a relationship.
But that relationship already exists. Just as one does between a child and an elderly parent who depends on them for care that is often difficult to provide. A child caring for a parent often finds, like a mother caring for her child, that our society does not respond justly to their dependent’s need and to their own needs as caregiver.
But when that particular dependency is ignored (and a tiny child cannot have been abusive or otherwise alienated a parent the way the elderly parent could have driven away their child) there is a real, added injustice. It is an injustice to a mother as well as her child, that she is presented with the option to sever her connection to her child and end her child’s life as her best or only choice.
There is a similar, smaller injustice when parents aren’t offered a living wage that allows them to support their family while still seeing their family and having leisure to share at home. Mothers and children aren’t strangers to each other. Their relationship creates bidirectional needs.
Amy Anderson told the story of a friend who is quadriplegic whom she used to see regularly. She got into the habit of doing recon to make sure wherever they went would be accessible to him. But then, when she finally got to see him after a few years…
I showed up with my kids to meet him at a park a few weeks ago and realized I hadn't done any of the research that used to be second nature; there were no curb cuts and no paved trail from the parking lot to the playground and picnic area, no handicap-accessible bathroom, etc. But what had I researched? That the playground would be shaded in the afternoon sun and that there was a port-a-potty available, both things I thought about in the context of MY children and THEIR needs. How quickly I forgot someone else's needs! I was heartily ashamed of myself. Fortunately we were able to park the van carrying my friend so he could motor up the hill to the playground and picnic area and we all had a lovely time together, but two weeks later I'm still reflecting on it. I think Leah may have meant "thinking less of those who need more" in the way of not valuing them as fully human, but in my case, I literally spent less time thinking about someone whose needs (which I was quite familiar with! I cannot claim ignorance!) were much greater than mine and my children's.
I have to recommend Raising A Rare Girl to all and sundry, because it's so good at recognizing that disabled peoples' needs aren't completely alien to the human experience, they're just sometimes more visibly intense versions, so dignity can't be something we earn by doing things—no one, in the long run, would have any at all—but must be innate. Or present even before birth.
In response, Catherine Jo Morgan contributed this on disability and viability being a spectrum, not a Boolean trait:
Yes, disability is a gradation, isn't it. Not a category or set of categories. It can come to any of us suddenly, without warning—via accident or illness or attack—and can come to any of us gradually as we become less able to "do." We may even become unable to do anything but lie in bed unable to speak, having trouble swallowing or not being able to swallow at all. Yet no disability, hidden or visible, can change a human being's uniqueness, rob the person's accumulated wisdom, or disable a human being's radiation of that unique energy outward—as long as the heart beats.