Here’s a shocker of an article about how the American obsession with population control in the 1960s and ’70s led American policymakers and NGOs alike to actually encourage sex selection. If traditionally male-biased families could assure themselves of having a boy right off the bat, the reasoning went, they wouldn’t have so many children. End result: 160 million missing females (and this “at a time when women are driving many developing economies”)—and a corresponding number of frustrated young males looking for trouble. Talk about unintended consequences!
In the Japanese arena the protagonist of pregnancy is the interconnected entity of the mother-baby, whereas in the Israeli case the protagonists are the pregnant woman and her suspect fetus. Pregnancy is conceptualized as an early stage of parenting in Japan and is all about the interdependence of mother and baby and their ongoing relationships. The Israeli model defines pregnancy as a state “in limbo” that involves two separate individuals (of whom only one is a person).
In this respect, perhaps, Israel can stand in for the whole West. At some point autonomy became the premier value in Western, especially American, culture. Relationship thereby came to seem at least as much a threat as a necessity. Women, assigned to be the tenders and maintainers of needed but denied support systems, were themselves often regarded as a regrettable necessity; they, and the part of men that needed them, were regarded with contempt. Just think of the rejected man who kills the woman, their kids, and then himself. Women in feminism’s second wave aspired to the prized virtue of autonomy (I was there! I did!), believing that only when they became as monadic as the mythic ideal man would they have attained full and equal human status.
The biggest threat to a young woman’s hard-won, fiercely guarded, precarious autonomy is her body’s propensity to get pregnant. Young feminist women who advocate abortion on demand seem to regard an ill-timed embryo as a parasite, a hijacker, almost an assailant — a infiltrating secret agent of all those who would throw a net over free women and curtail their autonomy, forcing them into service to others than themselves. (The male equivalent of this alienation of affections from the self used to be shotgun marriage; now, I guess, it’s child support.) They cast abortion almost as an act of resistance to oppression. (Autonomy doesn’t mean Western women are never willing to serve others than themselves, but it does mean they want to be the ones to decide whom and when.) In my own essay on abortion, I tried carefully to describe it in a more balanced way:
It is a kind of self-defense – one life in precarious progress fending off a blameless hijacking by another barely begun – yet it presents the stomach-turning conundrum of self-defense against the defenseless. To define this act as either a crime or a right is too simple. It‘s a tragedy.
The author of the blog post that caught my eye tonight, reporting on an Israeli anthropologist’s comparative study, is a Christian who resonates more with the Japanese view:
The notion that the developing baby is indeed a baby right from the start reflects my own convictions, and I was especially drawn to Ivry’s descriptions of the Japanese practice of taikyô, which involves speaking to the unborn baby. In the words of a bestselling Japanese prenatal guide, “It is practiced in order to deepen the bonds between the mother and the baby, through the mother’s recognition of the baby and her acceptance of him.” Ivry’s descriptions of Japanese mothers practicing taikyô with their unborn babies reminded me of reading the Bible to my daughter, moments after I discovered I was pregnant.
Yet it doesn’t escape Elrena Evans’s notice that early abortion is legal and practiced in Japan:
Although Japanese pregnancy culture embraces the growing child as a current—not future, or potential—person, and the abortion rate is lower than it is in the United States, abortion is not rare in Japan. “To this day abortions are available practically on demand in Japan,” Ivry writes, though there are limitations on how far into a pregnancy abortion can be performed.
She says no more on this fascinating subject, which, like other aspects of Japanese culture, always gives me a through-the-looking-glass feeling. (Follow that link!) Imagine: “the process of government certification for abortionists in Japan makes them members of the Motherhood Protection Association.” And an aborted embryo or fetus, like a miscarried one, doesn’t cease to exist as if it never was; it remains a part of the family! Who is weirder, us or them?
It reminds me of my own frustrated efforts to get people to hear what I’m saying about my abortion. I keep saying, “I don’t feel guilt, I feel regret,” and they persist in conflating the two, saying again and again either “You have to forgive yourself” or “God forgives you.” I feel as if I’m not being heard. Guilt can be absolved and resolved by forgiveness. Regret is forever, without even the sadomasochistic satisfactions of blame.
ADDED: Evans’ blog post goes on to describe the Israeli experience of pregnancy as less one of assailed autonomy than one of anxiety about the normality of the fetus. The broader difference between the Western and Japanese views, it seems to me, is the scientific materialism that’s come to dominate the West. To a majority of Americans, when a baby is physically aborted, it’s gone as if it never existed. And if it’s physically flawed (but viable), it should never have existed. I don’t know whether the Japanese test for and abort, e.g., Down syndrome babies. But while they may bring little knitted caps to the shrine for aborted fetuses, they are notorious for being callous towards the disabled.
None of this is simple.