Ross Douthat Wants Women to Be Walking Wombs

Does the conservative columnist Ross Douthat have any idea what pregnancy or childbirth actually entails?

Ross Douthat apparently finds it paradoxical that some women want to have children but can’t, and some can have children but don’t want to, and the ones that don’t want to aren’t giving birth for the ones who can’t. Which leads me to believe that Ross Douthat has no idea what pregnancy or childbirth actually entails, since he doesn’t seem to understand that it involves significant physical and emotional difficulty.

Or perhaps he does, and doesn’t care. He writes:

This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.

It’s as if the “unborn” exist unto themselves, and we are callously and casually destroying them. Douthat neglects to recognize that there’s a woman involved, and that the desire of one woman to have a child doesn’t mean that a second woman is morally obligated to undergo nearly ten months of physically and emotionally trying pregnancy.

In every era, there’s been a tragic contrast between the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility. But this gap used to be bridged by adoption far more frequently than it is today. Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason.

Some of this shift reflects the growing acceptance of single parenting. But some of it reflects the impact of Roe v. Wade. Since 1973, countless lives that might have been welcomed into families like Thernstrom’s — which looked into adoption, and gave it up as hopeless — have been cut short in utero instead.

It is absolutely true that legal abortion has decreased the number of “desireable” (white, able-bodied, infant) children available for adoption. Forty years ago, the women giving birth to those babies were mostly young and unmarried; a lot of those women were shipped off to boarding houses for pregnant girls, or cloistered away so they wouldn’t shame their families. Adoption wasn’t much of a choice — the girl in question wasn’t often given the option of raising her own child. Women who did raise children without husbands were not looked upon kindly.

It’s also absolutely true that birth control has decreased the pool of potentially adoptable babies. I suppose in Douthat’s world, that’s a bad thing too, since any control over your reproduction is suspect. But for most of us, being able to prevent pregnancies we don’t want is a net gain.

Douthat also talks a big game about valuing and protecting the unborn, but neglects to lay out the specifics about how he proposes we actually do that. Implicit in his column is the argument that we outlaw abortion, but he never actually comes out and says that — probably because he realizes that when it comes right down to it, a lot of people really don’t like the idea of criminalizing women who don’t believe it’s their burden to provide babies for anyone who wants one. It’s also a lot easier to talk about “valuing life” (and to really mean “punishing women”) than it is to take the sometimes costly steps that actually value that life — providing affordable health care, early-childhood education, childcare, paid maternity leave, and on and on. You know, things that social conservatives like Douthat routinely oppose because of “personal responsibility” and “keeping the government out of our lives.”

We all know that Douthat isn’t a big fan of the ladies (or the rights of ladies). But his concern here isn’t just for fetuses — it’s also for “good” families that, in his estimation, deserve children from not-good women. The old era of adoptions, where middle and upper-middle-class families were able to adopt babies birthed in secret by teenage mothers, required not only a crackdown on women’s bodily autonomy, but also a social model that deemed single mothers inherently bad, and certain families (largely white, headed by a heterosexual couple, and on the wealthier side of not) to be the only acceptable ones. It’s not just about abortion. It’s about a return to an idealized, gender-inegalitarian, racially divided and socially stratified time. It’s about making sure women know that their place isn’t just at home and in the service of their husbands, but also in the service of “better” families.

Good luck with that.

Also, Ross Douthat? Abortions were had on those “most libertine programs” Sex & the City and Mad Men. Characters also decided to give birth. So while you’re learning about the birds and the bees and how pregnancy actually impacts a woman’s body, maybe Netflix some of those shows too.

Jill Filipovic is a lawyer in Manhattan who formerly served as the Gender and Reproductive Justice editor at AlterNet. More of her writing is available online at her blog, Feministe.
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