What makes pregnancy a disease?

In protesting the Obama Administration’s new decision to treat contraception as preventative medicine, Archbishop Timothy Dolan said that he “objects to treating pregnancy as a disease.” A lot of people have ridiculed the Roman church’s stance on contraception and pointed out that some 95% of Catholics use contraception. While I understand the practical concerns that motivated the Obama administration’s decision, I ultimately share the sacramental worldview behind Archbishop Dolan’s perspective: since every human is created by God in His image, human life should never be treated as a consumer product. The only problem with Archbishop Dolan’s worldview is that it’s completely incompatible with the social forces created by capitalism. The Vatican recognizes this problem, but Dolan may be too cozy with his Ayn Rand-loving fellow Catholic politicians to discern the way that capitalism redefines pregnancy in terms of consumerism. It is sadly a very common form of ideological schizophrenia in America to be pro-life and simultaneously in love with the laissez-faire capitalism that makes life a commodity.

First of all, I should say that on a practical level, I understand the rationale behind the Obama Administration seeing contraception as preventative medicine (even if I don’t agree with it). Since birth control costs money, people who can’t afford it don’t use it. Therefore, making it free reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies, which means less abortion and fewer kids growing up in unstable environments. I understand that logic from an isolated practical standpoint, but I’m opposed to the cultural standards that are set when employers are forced to provide free birth control for their employees as a matter of mandated national health policy. It basically means a complete surrender in the major battle that needs to be fought in our culture against the commodification of sex. I’m not sure who needs to fight this battle or how exactly, but liberals don’t see the problem and conservatives don’t recognize the source of the problem.

The problem is that sex is the most thoroughly exploited marketing tool of global capitalism. Never in human history has a society’s landscape been so thoroughly saturated with sexual images, not because hippies are living out some “free love” fantasy, but because powerful industries use eroticized bodies to sell products. Sex itself becomes a product instead of a sacrament. Our bodies become products whose value we’re supposed to increase with gym memberships, personal trainers, special diets, etc. It shouldn’t surprise us that in such an environment, pregnancy could come to be viewed as a “disease” that decreases the value of the female body. Or that producing life becomes a meticulously planned process in which you space out your babies over a certain number of years much like investment portfolios in which you have to space out your IRA contributions over a period of time.

When I use the word “capitalism,” I am talking about the powerful social phenomenon that redefines objects in its environment as quantifiable value that can be exchanged — a.ka. capital. (In other words, I am not making a comparison between having a free market or a centrally controlled market, since capitalism works just as well in totalitarian China as it does in our democracy.) Capitalism makes our bodies into capital both by using eroticized bodies to sell products (which we compare to our bodies) and by convincing us that our bodies are too fat, dry, or ugly, so that we will purchase whatever products address these issues in order to increase our bodies’ capital.

Capitalism also makes our lives into capital in a different sense: through careerism. Our value as people becomes a quantifiable algorithm that combines how many degrees we have from which schools, how many years of experience in what positions, which software applications we have mastered, etc. I was talking with a friend tonight about how ridiculous it is that despite his 8 years of military experience, tons of jobs he’s applying for won’t consider him because he doesn’t have a college degree. This is because the job market takes its shape according to the credential markers that are easiest to assess objectively and turn into a form of capital rather than unquantifiable skills and character traits that a marine acquires in a war zone.

In any case, if we allow ourselves to be shaped by the forces that value us according to our waistline and our resume, then why would we see pregnancy as anything other than a disease? What contribution to our personal capital does a baby have to make? At one point in time, when we were an agricultural society, making lots of babies meant lots of future farm-hands, but in our current situation, from the perspective of capitalism, babies are purely a liability. The way it becomes morally possible to end an unborn life that has been inconveniently started is when we value above all else the capital of our body or our career which must not be compromised at all costs.

The reason that Catholics like Archbishop Dolan oppose birth control is not just because they’re old-fashioned prudes. It’s because they believe that the value of human life doesn’t come from any market; it comes from the God in whose image we are made. Birth control makes child-bearing a consumer process rather than a divine mystery. Much of our world’s sin is the product of people deciding to be consumers first and foremost rather than images of God. I don’t agree with where Dolan and the Roman church draw the line, but I agree with why they draw the line. Does that make sense? My wife and I use birth control, but I don’t think birth control should be seen as the panacea to our culture’s problems with sexuality. I also don’t think forcing Catholic hospitals to give out free condoms does anything to address the enormous problem of what global capitalism has done to human sexuality, though admittedly I don’t know what the answer is.


10 thoughts on “What makes pregnancy a disease?

  1. Pingback: Looking Back on 2012: Jan-Feb | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. This is a fine, fine essay with much food for thought. What you say about how different aspects of our modern lives are quantified as capital is right on in many respects. I think the way companies track our internet use and then exploit our private information to target their ads to us is another way people become commodities.

    Your words about the way sex and bodies are now commodities are spot on in many respects – I do think there is the growing perception that pregnancy does reduce the beauty or value of the female body as a product for display – observe the obsession with banishing every last ounce of “baby weight”, and the way women’s mags fawn over female celebrities who emerge two weeks after their scheduled C-sections looking as rail-thin as ever. I think the saddest example of this mindset came from an article in a women’s mag I read a few years ago. It advocated breastfeeding not because it’s healthiest for the baby, but because a study discovered that breastfeeding women, on average, can lose one pound every seventeen days!

    However, in a bizarre but nonetheless unavoidable paradox, pregnancy and motherhood are also fetishized in our culture to an extraordinary degree – see how often they’re exploited for movie plots and reality TV shows, and see how infertility can become a consuming tragedy in a woman’s life, to be treated ceaselessly at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Coming from a conservative Christian background myself, I still firmly believe that in our general culture, there is no role women are socially rewarded for more than motherhood. Women who aren’t mothers or can’t become biological mothers are often marginalized or treated as medical or social oddities. So much about a woman’s status in the world hinges on motherhood and women feel pressure to start families. None other than my own doctor recently told me that since I’m 28, I have only one or possibly two more viable years in which to start my family (I have no medical conditions that would render childbirth inadvisable).

    I’m also not convinced that a worldwide sexual fixation is a modern phenomenon, or the sinister effect of capitalism. From what I know, some of the very earliest human art we have are none other than female figurines with outrageously large breasts. I tend to think there’s very little that’s new under the sun. For example, Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t any less steeped in crude innuendo than the average modern sitcom.

    I’m really glad I’m not the first one (thanks Laurie M.) to bring up the essential point that pregnancy is a health risk to any woman, no matter how healthy, and more than this, contraception is very often used in modern medicine for treatments that have nothing to do with with preventing pregnancy. It’s a treatment option for many conditions and diseases that women should not be denied, because of the religion of their employers.

    Ultimately, I think this why I believe legal allowances made for religious tenets in American life should not extend to exempting Catholic-run institutions from providing birth control. In this case, in our supposedly secular democracy, the health and legal medical options of the people involved should trump any religious opposition. Allowances made for religious belief in American public life should only be in place insofar as they don’t place any danger or risk on others. Isn’t there kind of an ongoing controversy about fully-robed Muslim women being forced to reveal their faces at security checkpoints or for government ID photos? Didn’t our government decide that despite the women’s fervent religious desire not to reveal their faces, the potential risk to other travelers, etc, if some people are allowed to pass through checkpoints with their faces hidden, trumped the women’s religious freedom to hide their faces all the time? Maybe it’s a stretch, but this is a similar issue. It’s not simply about the Catholic church’s religious freedom when that policy could have an impact on the health and safety of a low-income woman (make her married, if you want) who, for whatever reason, should avoid pregnancy. An American citizen’s health has now potentially been jeopardized by her employer’s religious edict. I don’t think that should fly in the grand old U.S. of A.

    Personally, I think it’s a great provision of the law to stipulate that those institutions serving only those of their own faith are exempt from this mandate. It seems to me that Catholic institutions are trying to have it both ways: trumpeting their tolerance and charity in serving and employing all people, and simultaneously insisting that all those people follow a Catholic tenet that would fundamentally affect their lives: “we’ll engage with you non-Catholic masses, but only as long as you live by our rules. Ahem. ‘Cause we’re religious and that gives us say-so over your lives.”

    As a pretty good Newsweek article points out this week, in many states, like New York and California I believe, employer-insurance covered birth control is ALREADY mandated by law. Obama’s not actually putting anything on the books that technically isn’t already there, and these institutions that deny employees birth control are already breaking the law. In reality, Obama has actually expanded religious freedom with this mandate, b/c apparently the exemption for organizations that serve exclusively those of their own faith is a new addition to the birth-control-coverage policy.

    I don’t think there should be any controversy about this, because no-one is being forced to use birth control against her religious will. US law merely mandates that it be available for a host of reasons, some of which Laurie M. stated so well above, though no, of course it’s not a panacea for our society’s sexual maladies, and I don’t think it’s being treated as such on the liberal side of this fracas.

    Now that I’ve written a comment that’s probably almost as long as your original post, I wonder if you caught the essay on my blog about the kerfuffle over the Mississippi “personhood” amendment. You might enjoy it, and I’d be interested in your take on that:

    Stop by Alaina Mabaso’s blog anytime and we can keep debating. Looking forward to checking out more of your stuff.

    • Awesome. Thanks for sharing your perspective Alaina. I’ll check out your other piece. I wrote about personhood also but I can’t remember what I said.

  3. Pingback: Opportunistic “persecution” « Mercy not Sacrifice

  4. I appreciate what you’ve had to say here and am largely in agreement. Where I would differ is with the archbishop’s characterization of “treating pregnancy like a disease”.

    Pregnancy is not a disease, but it is a health risk. It’s easy to forget that throughout history, until only very recently, childbirth has been a leading cause of death among young women. Pregnancy has always been fraught with danger. Every woman knew that pregnancy might very well be the end of her. Additionally, infants have historically had poor odds of survival. It is only because of advances in medicine that this is not the case in modern-day America. But preventing the premature deaths of mothers and infants is costly. Pregnancy is a huge health care expense (and industry, I might add), and so it behooves insurance companies to provide contraception, as it is much, much cheaper than providing pregnancy and neo-natal care.

    Our health-care system itself is a capitalist venture. Childbirth is expensive business which insurance companies would prefer not to pay for. Childbirth isn’t just bad for a woman’s waistline, it’s bad for insurance company profit margins.

  5. Memo to Dolan: Fertility is not a disease either. If he and our Bishops would work to strengthen marriage instead of writing documents, they might renew the Church. The problem starts with a contraceptive mentality. Memo to Gloria Steinam et al: Many women evidently believe that contraception and abortion are the golden keys to liberation and social equality. I suggest that, by relying on these two “rights,” they reward males attenuated in adolescent sexual fixation (a former president and a particular shock jock come to mind). Feminists actually collude with the very roots of the sexism and chauvinism they wish to neutralize, depersonalizing their fertility and its fruits (an unborn human being), and probably depersonalizing themselves in order to “terminate.” And their “partners” are off the hook, remaining non-responsible for their own sexual maturity. What a mess. However, the author is on to something re capitalism and sexuality. I suggest it is one reason John Paul II termed the U.S. a culture of death as a product of its commidifying of everything. And, he contrasted us to the depersonalization of communism. Once a society loses its marriage story, its on the road to dissolution. The Founders understood that a democracy without virtuous citizens, cannot last. Virtue begins in the home.

    • I wish more Catholics would read the papal encyclicals and try to understand the worldview that’s behind them. It’s not just a bunch of prudish rules from a bygone stone age. It’s a defense of the world’s sacramental beauty against the colonization of everything by the market.

  6. What I’m reading from you is that we have a problem in this country of glorifying the human body and selling sex. If I’m correct, this is the main problem and if solved, there would be much fewer unwanted pregnancies. So, how do we fix this “system” for lack of a better word. Most Christians are buying into the problem. We buy diet drugs, gym memberships, sexy clothing, etc. It’s nice to think this could be changed. But, it’s not realistic. Therefore, the consequences must be faced. How do we combat hyper-sexualized images, sexual innuendos and sex, etc?

    We live in a country of “just do it”. We don’t think about consequences. I doubt any woman having sex thinks about the consequences, she’s just thinking of what she wants now. Same with the guy, because it does take two to tango.

    And honestly, I believe God created the process of sex and how sperm and egg come together, multiply and make a baby. I don’t believe God blesses us with children. I don’t believe God places an embryo into a woman’s uterus. I believe children are a blessing, but not everyone would believe that.

    Because I can’t fix the brokenness of this world, I would much rather a woman be given the opportunity to have contraceptives than to have an abortion. It doesn’t mean we quit working to educate boys and girls, men and women or that we don’t contact the television networks when something is unacceptable. Maybe Christians need to look at how they contribute to the sexualization of the world and boycott Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch and Teleflora. Stop blaming the government for stepping in and start looking at our contribution to the problem.

    • I’m not sure how to fight the battle against commodified sexuality, but I think we should. I have used and will continue to use birth control within my marriage, but it cannot be a panacea that substitutes for taking a stand against the market’s obliteration of human intimacy.

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