Of Handmaids, God and Miscarriage

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The Senate hearings on Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court did not sit well with American feminists. An ultra-conservative judge belonging to an ultra-conservative Catholic faith group vehemently opposed to abortion and anything gay was hardly a candidate one would expect feminists to endorse. Interestingly enough, feminists zeroed in on one particular aspect defining the candidate, the fact that she is a mother — and a working one at that — to a relatively large family: five of her own, two adopted. This fact provoked a prominent feminist to tweet, “It’s a very weird thing to watch these old creeps congratulate a handmaid on her clown car vagina.”


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For those unfamiliar with the terms, the Urban Dictionary defines “clown car sex” as “the act of trying to place as many penises as possible into a single vagina like many clowns try to fit into one car somehow.” The term “handmaid” as used in the tweet presumably comes from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” where women of all statuses living under a totalitarian theocratic state (in the US Northeast and parts of the upper Midwest) “are stripped of their rights, forcing them to live out lives of servitude in a patriarchal society” ” and made “(through servitude and rape) to carry children for the powerful.”

The link to Barrett is her presumed membership in a Catholic faith group that, according to ex-members, dominates the lives of its members and preaches the subjugation of women.

Fertility Shaming

The term, of course, is hardly new. As early as 2012, the conservative Trump convert, Mollie Hemingway, wrote a piece entitled “Fertility Shaming: ‘It’s A Vagina, Not A Clown Car.’” In it, the author noted that she lived in two fundamentally different worlds. Here, a culture where “large families are considered awesome. You’re not looked down on for being childless or having a smaller family — indeed, my folks only had three children — but large families are considered cool.” There (Washington, DC), a different environment where “large families are mocked or derided. You only have 11 children if you’re retarded.” The latter she referred to as “fertility shaming.”

Hemingway points out the hypocrisy of those who promoted reproductive rights and, one might add, a woman’s right to choose, but only as long as it means “avoiding our fertility, and doing whatever it takes to not have kids (or more than one or two of them).” Ironically enough, her reference in the text is to Michelle Duggar, the Arkansas mother of “19 Kids and Counting,” who supposedly said “It’s a vagina, not a clown car.”

Duggar, unlike Barrett, is not a Catholic. But both women obviously believe artificial (as opposed to natural) birth control methods are fundamentally frowned upon by God. I am not sure where they got that from the Bible, but then I’m not a theologian versed in the intricacies of Bible exegesis. In fact, I started my academic career at a Catholic university where I had a colleague with 11 children, in addition to a number of them who never made it. Initially, even the Duggars were not against birth control — until they saw the light and “vowed to leave how many kids they’d have in God’s hands.” Apparently, the Duggars’ conversion moment was triggered by a miscarriage following the birth of their first son. Duggar blamed herself for the miscarriage thinking that her use of the pill had caused the problem. It somehow never occurred to her that miscarriages are quite common, as are stillbirths. Her miscarriage was not an act of divine punishment but an act of nature, random and unpredictable.

US statistics suggest that between 10% and 15% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage during the early months of gestation, while one in 160 birth are stillbirths. Research shows that “Miscarriage is the most common complication of pregnancy with 1 in 4 women experiencing at least 1 miscarriage during their reproductive lifetime.” A Swiss website claims that half of all fertilized egg cells end in a spontaneous abortion. Most “natural” abortions occur during the first three months of pregnancy. In a number of cases, women report several miscarriages. And as the age when a woman can become pregnant increases, the prevalence of miscarriage increases too. In fact, after the age of 40, the likelihood that pregnancy ends in miscarriage increases by 50% compared to a woman in her early 20s.

A recent article in The New York Times recounts the story of a woman desperately trying to have a baby. In the process, she experiences three miscarriages within a relatively short period of time. Unfortunately, studies show that the likelihood of a miscarriage after three previous miscarriages increases by 50%.

What these stories imply is that miscarriages are a fact of life, a “natural” occurrence. They are one of these things that just happen, for no apparent reason. It’s the bad luck of the draw, similar to the fact that some people (such as Germany’s ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt) smoke all of their lives and live prosperously well into their late 80s, while others never touch a cigarette and yet die young of lung cancer. For those who believe that life has no particular meaning, that you get what you get, this is perfectly understandable, perhaps even acceptable.

It Is What It Is

For those, however, such as Europe’s dwindling number of true Catholics, and particularly American self-proclaimed Christians, it poses a fundamental problem. America’s “true believers” hold that life starts at conception. They also believe that its termination represents a crime, equivalent to murder in some circles. Unlike abortion, however, miscarriages cannot be blamed on human agency — unlike, for instance, global warming.

This leaves only one alternative. The termination of human life via miscarriage must be the result of God’s will, similar to the way American Christians explain to themselves the rapid warming of the planet, the eradication of much of the planet’s ecosystem and the potential destruction of humanity. It is all part of God’s plan for humanity. It is, as one of the great sages of our time has observed, what it is.

To be sure, this is a terrible simplification. And clearly not every American Christian subscribes to this logic. Far from it. At the same time, however, surveys suggest that many do; they certainly act as if they did. The reality is, there is nothing that would suggest that there is any necessity for this planet to survive as a home for intelligent beings. By now we know that over millions of years, this planet was populated by scores of creatures, ferocious and majestic, only to be wiped out by cataclysmic events. Their remnants can be found in museums all over the world, reminders of the fragility of life on Earth.

The fact that more than 10% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage poses a fundamental challenge to the notion, so dear to Christians, that the termination of a pregnancy represents an abomination in the eyes of God, that life starts at conception and that there is a fundamental “right to life.” God obviously disagrees, otherwise he would not allow for the “natural” termination of the life of millions of fetuses every year. For believers in a merciful God, be they Christians or Muslims, this must be nothing short of frightening. It suggests that God might not be as merciful as they believe or, worse, that God could care less about the fate of humanity.

For non-believers, it is one more piece of confirmation that the existence of God is a myth, that human life is the result of a chain of processes based on trial and error, and that humanity might be nothing but the accidental, and highly destructive, byproduct of natural selection and evolution. We don’t know. For believers, it is all part of God’s plan, like earthquakes, pandemics and the extermination of whole nations.

Fatally enough, this kind of thinking has failed to imbue us with humility and prudence. Today’s ruling class, from Trump to Johnson, from Bolsonaro to Putin, acts as if the destruction of the natural environment, the extinction of much of the planet’s species and rising average temperatures are of no consequence. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is credited with having noted that one day, the living might envy the dead. Khrushchev is said to have made the remark with regard to the threat of nuclear war.

Today, other threats are much more urgent than nuclear war. Pandemics, global warming, the extinction of a large part of this planet’s flora and fauna are realities that suggest that human life in the decades to come will be confronted with the quite real prospect of extinction, be it because of intolerable climate conditions, the exhaustion of the planet’s freshwater resources or because of pandemics, similar to the plague in the Middle Ages, that wipe out large parts of humanity. Under the circumstances, the living might very well wish they had been among that 10% to 15% whose potential existence ended in miscarriage.

Bigger Than Nuclear War

For the likes of Barrett, Hemingway, Duggar and Simcha Fisher, a Catholic freelance writer and blogger with 10 children, these ideas are most likely heretical, detestable and pernicious to the max, given they prevent women from fulfilling their divinely-mandated destiny of motherhood. They tend to ignore the fact that their pursuit of a grand family is only possible because the vast majority of Americans don’t indulge in it. If everybody did it, the consequences would be disastrous.

Take the case of a small country like Switzerland, which has a population of just over 8.6 million people. A large proportion of the country’s territory is covered by high mountains and several large lakes, areas that are largely uninhabitable. In 2016, there were roughly 3.8 million private households in the country. If each one of them had produced 10 children, within a few years, Switzerland’s population would increase by more than 30 million — roughly half that of France. Even the most pro-natalist representatives of the Swiss far right would consider this a nightmare scenario. And this despite the fact that Switzerland is one of the richest countries in the world, with excellent health and social services.

The consequences of unbridled fertility can daily be seen in the news: the treks of desperate refugees from largely Catholic Central American countries such as Honduras and El Salvador, seeking to make their way on foot to the southern border of the United States. Between 1960 and 2010, the population of Honduras more than quadrupled, reaching more than 8.5 million. And this in a country with rudimentary health care and no social services to speak of. The same is largely true for El Salvador.

To be sure, over the past two decades, population growth in the two countries has dramatically declined, now approaching European levels. At the same time, the influence of the Catholic Church has considerably waned in the region, compensated by a dramatic upsurge in the number of evangelicals, which might to a certain extent explain the collapse in fertility rates. But by now, the damage is done, reflected, in part, by the steady stream of refugees from the region.

President Donald Trump’s response was to freeze aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, thus further aggravating the situation in these countries. Earlier on, his administration, as Summer Brennan writes in Sierra, had already “stopped contributing to the United Nations Population Fund, the largest global supplier of contraceptives and reproductive services.”

At the same time, the US named Valerie Huber to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. “Huber,” Brennan points out, is “a longtime advocate of abstinence until marriage, is a proponent of “natural” family planning — in other words, the rhythm method.” Now, if they could only stop God from allowing miscarriages and stillbirths, and prevent Catholic priests from sexually assaulting young boys, Donald Trump could find his place in the history books as the president who restored religion to its rightful place in the center of American life.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.





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