Reproductive Responsibility: A Woman’s Burden to Bear?

A woman and her husband argue over the decision to have more kids. She doesn’t want more, but her doctor refuses to sterilize her because she is in her 20s. Her husband hates wearing condoms and doesn’t want a vasectomy, so the burden of birth control responsibility defaults to her; birth control that requires a prescription, invasive procedures, and medication that alters the way her body functions.  

We live in a society in which this scenario is not uncommon. We place the heavy burden of reproductive responsibility on the shoulders of women; from birth control to maternity care to raising a child. Women are the automatic default for carrying this mental load. Men might say, “I’m not the one that can get pregnant, so why should I have to worry about reproduction?” Some of these same male members of our government fight to strip women of their access to reproductive healthcare and education in the name of cutting funds for something “unnecessary and frivolous,” or even downright “immoral.” The anatomical female body is the one that is affected by all of this, so why should men have to assume any obligations regarding reproduction or a woman’s health, beyond the man’s need to exert control over a marginalized group of people?

The simple answer as to why men can evade responsibility is that women are not valued in the United States, which creates a socially constructed system of oppression and sidestepping. The laws in place, and the bills that men are attempting to turn into law, prove that. Arkansas passed an unconstitutional piece of legislation that would prevent many women in the area from accessing abortion services.

A lack of value for women is not only seen in healthcare—especially for women of color and the poor—but in all aspects of our culture. For instance, women are vastly underrepresented in government. Over 700 million women alive today were forced into marriage as children. The gender pay gap is alive and thriving, even more so for women of color. And rape culture (read here for an in-depth definition) prevails in all social classes in the United States, from those living on the streets to those living in the White House, and all of the in-betweens.

Unequal division of labor within the family unit flourishes to this day, as well, despite the women’s’ rights movements over the past few decades. Child rearing is considered feminine. Women are expected to be nurturing; the main caregivers for any children they may have, while men are expected to be the breadwinners. This is a classic attitude perpetuated by patriarchy, sexism, and gender stereotypes that are “generally not an explicit ongoing effort by men to dominate women. But a long-standing system that we are born into and participate in, mostly unconsciously.”

Barack Obama wrote in an essay that one of his heroines, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, once said, “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl.’” Despite the social justice wins women have experienced over the past century, these commonly held and outdated beliefs are still present because of the social constructs of our society.

Reproductive rights have been consumed by political and religious ideology that have shaped the shared views and social norms that are present in our society. The good news is that these constructs are malleable due to the fact that the socially constructed systems aren’t biologically normal and natural. They are artificially created based on arbitrary ideas that vary from culture to culture. As gender roles slowly change, the expectations and obligations of a society begin to transform, as well.

Patriarchy and religion have influenced society for so long that treating women as second class has become the norm. For instance, a mother arrived at a Catholic hospital after her water broke at 18 weeks along. She was experiencing excruciating pain, bleeding, and signs of an infection. Imagine her horror when the hospital informed her that they couldn’t do anything about it because of a religious directive. They also failed to mention that the pregnancy wasn’t viable, and that ending it would have been the safest option for her. They sent her home with two Tylenol, and her life was put at risk because of religion interfering with healthcare.

The U.S. is one of the only wealthy countries that has seen a rise in maternal mortality rates, alongside countries like North Korea, while other developed nations like the U.K., Sweden, Australia, Germany, and Japan are seeing huge declines in deaths of new and pregnant mothers. Half of the states in the country don’t even routinely review the cause of maternal death. Doing so would provide information and care protocol for these preventable deaths.

Eugene Declercq, Boston University maternal health expert, put it plainly, “The argument we make internationally is that [a high maternal death rate] is often a reflection of how the society views women. In other countries, we worry about the culture—women are not particularly valued, so they don’t set up systems to care for them at all. I think we have a similar problem in the US.”  

Image via Twitter/@VP

Men have wielded immense power over a woman’s body and choices for most of history. Just look at this photo of 25 mostly white men sitting around a table discussing the elimination of basic access to healthcare for women, pregnant or not. Their argument is that forcing employers to provide insurance for basic essential health care takes away an employer’s freedom of choice—i.e. freedom to discriminate. Talk about patriarchal irony.

Women bear 100 percent of physical reproductive responsibility with, in this situation, 0 percent of a voice in the discussion regarding rights to the female body. A woman deserves the freedom to choose if and when she has children, as well as how many children she wants. She deserves access to the highest quality reproductive healthcare without discrimination toward her economic background or her race. The Center For Reproductive Rights states that, “Reproductive freedom lies at the heart of the promise of human dignity, self-determination and equality embodied in both the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Our culture is experiencing cognitive dissonance in regards to a woman’s autonomy. From a pro-life stance, men are taking steps to protect a fetus. Yet, they are continually aiming to remove any and all safety nets to ensure the health and quality of life of the mother and child before and after it is born; from access to birth control to health insurance to benefits that provide basic necessities to live.

Men can choose to completely remove themselves from their part in reproduction and raising a child, yet they are the only people making the decisions for women without their consent or input. Reproductive rights aren’t a feminist issue, but an intersectional one; they cannot be divided into neat categories and discussed in black and white terms.

Gender rights are racial rights are economic rights are identity rights. They are interwoven. To leave out one is to leave out all. And to leave out the role of a man in reproductive responsibilities is detrimental to a woman’s liberty and rights. The only role that men should adopt when it comes to reproductive rights is amplifying the voices of women, assuming equal birth control responsibilities, and committing time to breaking down patriarchy, sexism, and gender stereotypes through their actions, words, and dollars.

Willie Parker, an Obstetrician-Gynecologist, advocated that the dismantling of patriarchy would “cause many injustices to crumble: racial and ethnic tension, class wars, sexual identity oppression, Islamophobia. Imagine if men could see reproductivity justice as their battle to fight —not from a place of chivalry, but from a duty to humanity.”

Featured image by Hana Haley

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Author Bio Sam Milam is a freelance writer, social justice advocate, and photographer. She is also a kombucha-drinking mother of two from the Pacific Northwest who loves her intentional living parenting blog, Pocketful of Pebbles. Sam has been published online and in print, and believes that united voices and actions for social justice can have a powerful impact.

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