a modest proposal

I’m new here on Difference Engines—you can think of me as a 12th century physician of Constantinople, if you like— so first I’d like to say hello to everyone before plunging in.

I’ve been increasingly horrorified at all that is being done to persecute women of child-bearing age in the United States, and I’m just sick  of reading stories like this one. Reducing access to contraception, chipping away at the right to abortion: the list goes on and on, a relentless rollback of women’s rights. I will leave aside questions of the soul or the viability of a fetus;  I consider these red herrings. Whether the discussion pertains to fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, the arguments around limiting women’s choices ultimately turn on a single point: the devaluation of the actual woman in favor of her potential offspring. I do not see a sound ethical argument for such a position. A woman may choose to risk herself for a potential child, but such a sacrifice should not be forced on her.

The risks of child-bearing vary from person to person but in all cases there is at least some chance of long-term disability or death for the woman.§ To refuse a woman full autonomy in deciding, with her physician, whether to carry forward a pregnancy and how to terminate an unwanted or problematic pregnancy is to force her to undergo this risk (as well as the risk of serious complications). I do not think it is right for 40% of all U.S. citizens‡ to be legally required to risk death in quite this way, through denial of simple, relatively inexpensive options that we know can greatly reduce her health risks.

For these and other reasons, I believe we must make a stand against all forms of reproductive coercion enshrined in law, and to this end I make the following proposal. It is time for women of child-bearing age to go out on strike. Literally. Together, we should refuse to bear any more children until all the laws standing between us and our child-bearing decisions are struck down. We should take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that we do not get pregnant. It won’t be perfect, and it won’t be pretty, but we could collectively crash the national birth rate overnight if we put our minds to it. True, it would be an enormous sacrifice for an entire generation of women to give up children altogether. But between the frustrations it will create at the family level and the likely economic consequences at the national level, it may be the surest way to get results. (Remember Lysistrata?) There are many people who urgently need to be reminded that there are no children without the bodies and labor of women, and that women are citizens, not chattel. We cannot continue to allow real women to be trumped by phantom children in the framing of our laws. A strike by today’s potential child-bearers would be in line with a long American tradition of organizing in the name of fair treatment, from the labor strikes of the early 20th century through the marches and sit-ins of the Civil Rights era.

Women of child-bearing age, withhold your labor. Both kinds.


§ The U.S. maternal mortality rate, at 12.7 per 100,000 births in 2010, is double what it was a quarter-century ago and puts the U.S. in a disgraceful 50th position among all countries.

‡Women make up just over half the U.S. population, and about 80% of women now bear children, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

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3 Responses
  1. Lilly says:

    Wow. That’s incredible. It seems like one difference between Singapore and the US is that in the US, childbirth seems most spectacularly a way of turning a profit in biotechnology (reproductive technologies). If affluent, well-insured women stopped wanting babies, I bet it would be biotech that would freak and then put pressure on the government — unless the mass refusal was a really significant chunk of the population. Singapore is very literally concerned about filling out its labor force and the government has direct populational stakes.

  2. Komnene says:


    You underline an important fact, that a significant number of women are balking at the conditions of childbearing/rearing in the U.S. without actually even thinking of it as resistance. They may decide to forgo children because of the lack of support, as you say, or they may organize their lives in such a way that they just never get to a moment where they have to make a decision one way or another, and the possibility slowly expires. I certainly agree that anyone’s single decision doesn’t amount to anything much. A mass refusal could be something else, but only if it included a wide spectrum of women, including especially those who want children but don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to cushion the situation.

    I heard a report today on NPR about an experimental group of women with implanted uteruses who are now trying to become pregnant. The technologization of reproduction marches relentlessly onwards even as the social support for raising actual children continues to decline.

  3. Lilly says:

    I’ve been thinking about this one on and off. The thing is that I am already witholding my labor, but not as resistance, but because the systems of child rearing and social reproduction I am embedded in make childbearing daunting and dangerous, in part because I am in a job that lovely as it is also feels very precarious with regards to children, in part because I am in a social setting where childcare defaults to women all the time — as if lactating explosivity wasn’t enough. I want a childcare co-op, I want all people to have mandatory parenting leave to institutionalize the expectation that it is a responsibility independent of gender.

    Interestingly, nobody is pressuring me to have kids either. The singaporean government is working on trying to get their population to have children to fill anticipated labor needs. They hired design firm IDEO to work on the problem. They have childbirth classes, financial bonuses, dating sites. Seems to me that the biopolitics of the US works differently and I’m not clear that witholding my reproductive labor will make a ripple. Then again, maybe it is because people are so into having kids that they’ll pay 100k for treatments that let them do it.

    It was an interesting idea and made think though. I wonder where this withdrawal of labor could be made felt by those who are pushing for these intrusions into reproductive autonomy.