Surveying the GOP’s latest efforts to restrict abortion, I was recalled to a bit of personal history, which I try to not to think about.
As with a lot of couples, the notice that me and my spouse would have a child was greeted with great joy. But about six months in, she started picking up weight at a rate that flummoxed and alarmed her doctors. Her body swelled like a water balloon, a description that we would only later find to be frighteningly apt. The docs diagnosed gestational diabetes, and we changed our diets accordingly. No dice. The weight gain continued, and all we got were puzzled looks and the assurance that after the pregnancy things would abate. Looking back on it now, I’m convinced they thought we were gorging on McDonald’s and lying about it. People do it all the time.
After my son was born, my partner lost very little weight, and I imagine this verified the doctors’ suspicions. She came home and had trouble breathing. On the second night, it got so bad that she couldn’t lay down. My young and immature response was something akin to, “Oh, it will pass.” But her mother was there and insisted on taking her to the hospital ― and in that moment probably saved her life. The doctors took another look and came back with a very different diagnosis: congestive heart failure. She was hospitalized for a week, during which time she lost about a third of her body weight, all of it fluid. Peripartum cardiomyopathy, the disease that led to congestive heart failure, is rare and lethal. It kills women. And no one knows why.
For reasons beyond me, childbirth ― in the popular American mind ― is swaddled in gossamer, gift wrap and icing. Beneath the pastel Hallmark cards and baby showers, behind the flowers, lies a truth encoded, still, in our wording, but given only minimal respect ― the charge of shepherding life is labor. It’s work. You need only look to the immediate past, or you need only look around the world, or you need only come close to losing the love of your small, young life to understand a correlating truth ― pregnancy is potentially lethal work.
As recently as the 1930s, the maternal death rate in this country was 900 per 100,000 births. The Western world has obviously made significant strides in reducing maternal deaths. (In Afghanistan, some 1,400 women die per 100,000 births.) This is excellent news. But it can not obscure perhaps the most specific and nameable species of male privilege ― of all the things that may one day kill me, pregnancy is not among them.
This is the era of Internet intellectuals, mostly men, who excel at analogizing easily accessible facts to buttress their points. It’s a good skill to have, and one I employ myself. But it isn’t wisdom. Like most people, I have deep problems with the termination of life ― and that is what I believe abortion to be. Still, a decade ago, I learned that those problems were abstract, and could not stand against something as tangible and imposing as death.
My embrace of a pro-choice stance is not built on analogizing noted abortion opponent Rick Santorum with Hitler. It is not built on what the pro-life movement is “like.” It’s built on a disturbing, inelidible truth: My son is the joy of my life, but the work of ushering him into this world nearly killed his mother.
The literalism of that last point can not be escaped. Every day, women choose to take on the hard labor of pregnancy. It’s courageous work, which inspires in me a degree of admiration exceeded only by my horror at the notion of the state turning that courage, that hard labor, into a mandate. Women die performing that labor in smaller numbers as we advance, but they die all the same. Men do not. That is a privilege.
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer and senior editor for the Atlantic and its website. ― Ed.
(Tribune Media Services)