Ani DiFranco on Reproductive Freedom and Taking on the Patriarchy
"I have had two abortions, I have borne two children."
“To my children, whom I signed for at a time when I would’ve signed anything,” that’s what Adrienne Rich said when Oriane and I went to see her give a reading uptown one night. Those words followed me home. Mother Nature insists on wanton procreation and Mother Nature and society together collude to insure that only females are held accountable. Only females are shamed for sexual activity outside of “wedlock.” Only females are condemned for unwanted pregnancies.
Nature pushes in a female’s door and insists that she feed its relentless pursuit for immortality. It pursues her ravenously from within and without her skin. Does patriarchal culture really imagine she should be some sort of self-taught Jedi at any age? Prepared for a sudden swordfight and a daring escape? Ready to stand as one individual against all the forces of the living, breathing, physical, chemical, mammalian reality? Nothing could be sillier.
As a female, should you not be a self-taught Jedi and find yourself with an unwanted pregnancy, society has a ready-made verdict for you: You are a slut who forces others to suffer for your carelessness and stupidity. You are a bad girl, a fallen woman, an irresponsible and cheap human being. Patriarchal culture will spin a force that is bigger than all of us into your own personal character flaw and your mistake will be your own. Oh, and because of this mistake, your life is no longer rightfully yours. Having an abortion will make you a thief at best, walking around in a stolen life.
It is ludicrous to me that I was thrust into the world with a reproductive system not really knowing anything about the intentions it had for me, the methods it would use, the challenges I could expect. Waterfront School’s “sex ed” class in the ninth grade was a charming effort but didn’t really count. We all knew where babies come from. The vast arena of feminine knowledge and wisdom that lay beyond that, I would have to discover for myself over the course of the next thirty years. I had to reinvent the goddamn wheel. I’m only really getting a handle on my relationship with my reproductive system now, on the brink of menopause. Where were all these tools when I was building my life?
Finding myself with another unwanted pregnancy at the age of twenty, I returned to Buffalo to have another abortion. I was administered some kind of gas and remember muttering things on my way from and back to full consciousness. I was mortified at this. What did I say? The very next night I was on stage in a whole other town, playing guitar with a dull ache in my gut where my tissues had been sucked from me. I had already committed Lucille Clifton’s “lost baby poem” to heart and I cried while I recited it. I cried secretly behind my singing. I had experienced a physical and emotional upheaval and again the trauma was compounded by the shaming and condemnation. I shared lots of things with the audience that night but fear of more shame and condemnation kept me from sharing the one biggest thing.
Here’s the truth: I have had two abortions, I have borne two children, I think I had an early miscarriage once, and of course, I’ve had more periods than I care to count. From experience, here’s what I know to be true: Life does not begin at conception. It begins before.
It is written in patriarchal texts that the man carries the seed and that he sows it in the world, but that’s more of that classic patriarchal flip-of-the-script if you ask me. It’s not the man who carries the seed, it’s woman. The human ovum, by far the largest cell in a human body, is the seed of a person. In every seed, even before fertilization, there resides a powerful dream. It is the dream of becoming. Seeds are, by their very nature, full of hope and longing. They are very much alive.
Every girl baby is born with a basket of tender seeds. Her birth is fractal, her being is fractal, and from there stems the revolutionary consciousness that feminism, at its best, can offer the world. Only in relationship with one another do we actually exist. Autonomy is an illusion. Your blood is my blood, my body is your body. Such is the lived truth of the mother. The advancement of feminism and the emancipation of women is necessary if only to break the masculine trance of separateness and individuality. Or at least to provide an adequate counterweight.
As a female, you can claim your individuality but also there is the macro experience which I will call being a part of the Great Mother Spirit, which you cannot opt out of. Even should you choose not to personally reproduce, there are still sacrifices to be made. The first of which is that, when you become a woman, you will be asked to start letting go of your seeds. You will be asked to serve the cause of life by participating in its brutal inner mechanisms of natural selection and death.
The death of each unfertilized ovum, in the days prior to menstruation, is also the death of a potential human being. On some level, it is felt as such by the woman whose death it also is. When a human seed gives up its dream of life and dies, there is some measure of reckoning to be done by the Great Mother Spirit. If, in this moment, you are she, the everyday cell death that is a function of growth and being-hood can magnify in your heart to a scale that feels unbearable. The world spins dark. The woman whose job it is to reach into her basket of dreams and let one die every month may become angry and resentful. She may rage at the world. She may sob.
In medical science, this physical and spiritual experience of grief is called PMS and culturally it is seen as proof of woman’s irrationality and hyper-emotionalism. In truth, I think it is more a function of our collective misunderstanding of the whole phenomenon, which is crazymaking. It is the default setting of disrespect and disregard, or seeking to pathologize and control the feminine experience that becomes maddening.
There is difficulty in the menstrual cycle, yes, even darkness, but if we could collectively comprehend it enough to depersonalize it, I believe it would make a lot more sense to us all. How could the “miracle” of creation not come at an equally profound cost? A cost not simply exacted in one seismic moment of childbirth. A cost not even exacted just from women. We should have respect for the Great Mother Spirit even as rumbling storm clouds and lightning move through her mortal servants. We should listen closely to the messages her servants bring back from the fire. We should respect the grief and the suffering, for they are inherent to the fires of creation. They are the handmaidens of renewal.
Watch the woman who holds a seed’s hand as it rides a roller coaster from high hopes and an unbridled lust for existence, down the dizzying dive of the fallopian tubes, to abandonment, rejection, and death in the womb. One minute that woman is ovulating and irresistible, exuding all the force and beauty of life itself, and the next she is twisted around her bitterness. But how could she not rage at the world when all of nature is using her eyes to cry? Afterwards, she will bleed and shed the loss and disappointment and the process will begin again. She will reopen herself again and again to the dream of becoming. With or without cultural conformation, this is the reality women live every day.
Some seeds give up their dream and reintegrate into the cosmos easier than others, maybe they weren’t convinced about the whole undertaking to begin with? Others can drive you horny-toads with their willfulness and then slay you with their disappointment when they get shit-canned. The fertilized ovum that dies in an abortion is a seed that managed to get a little further along (it really thought it had it this time!) but one abundant rain of spermatozoa does not a whole human being make. Making a full-fledged human being is actually a long, complicated and arduous process, not an instant miracle from God.
The seed of a tree falls from the safety of its branch onto concrete. Another finds ground but there is no rain. Another is chewed up and eaten by an animal. Another is so lucky as to sprout but then is thwarted under a falling log. None of these things is a tree. The seedlings of animals, including humans, are no less voluminous and their deaths no more tragic. This process of selection is repeated naturally and necessarily for every actualized human being as for every mighty oak. For every tree in the forest, there are thousands of tree dreams deferred. To pull out the hearse and have a funeral for every aborted fetus is indicative of man’s will towards exceptionality. His quest for superiority and mastery over all other beings, including women.
Until a human fetus is viable and can live and breathe in the world, it is a thing synonymous with woman, just as the walnut is part of the walnut tree. I know I’m working this tree metaphor a little hard here but, seriously . . . it is just so damn simple! The woman is the tree, dude! Her branches have been waving and waving all this time, shouting, “Up here!” while the patriarchal gaze looks right past her, unseeing, and projects its ego like a laser into her gut. War is mass murder, capital punishment is murder, murder is murder. Abortion is part of the eternal process of natural selection, one that women have been engaging in since long before medical science came along to offer any compensation for the entrapments of the modern social design. When a woman chooses whether or not to reproduce, the earth itself is choosing. With or without confirmation from man, this is the reality that the earth lives every day.
I used to periodically count the ages that my first two children would’ve been if they had entered the world as such. It wasn’t that I was wistful that maybe I should’ve borne children at eighteen and twenty years old (not at all), more that I was in awe that the life inside me had the power to overtake me at any moment and jump from my clutches into the hands of another. It was an exercise in the terrifying math of the near miss. Your life as you envisioned it could have effectively ended three, five . . . ten years ago. Just imagine. What kind of shell of your former dreams would you be now?
And now, having happily carried two children to term, I can also tell you this about pregnancy: At first it is something that happens to you, then it becomes something you do, then, many months after that, it becomes a relationship between you and “someone else.” Taking the position that a two-celled zygote has more liberty and agency, more of a right to become itself than the woman who carries it, that is the real tragedy. The real murder. For man to be unable to acknowledge the full humanity of a woman and instead to project his own ego onto a partially formed fetus hidden in the lining of her most central core being, shows the deep deficiency of perception created by patriarchy. Only in a world so thoroughly immersed in patriarchy would this whole farce of enforced reproduction (or enforced sterilization) even be possible. Men dictating to women when and how they shall give birth is treason.
Granted, another woman might have a totally different relationship with her basket of seeds than I do. She might have lived it all differently and her truth will be equally true. Contextual thinking is another hallmark of feminism. There really are no absolutes. Another woman might feel so much compassion for each tiny little green shoot that she might immediately and eternally scratch abortion off her list of remote possibilities. This seems entirely understandable and sweet to me. I respect maternal nature in all its forms.
Women make these calls based on so many things that men can only begin to speculate about. Every situation is unique and every woman is right when she decides what is right for herself. At the core of a belief in reproductive freedom is an affirmation of diversity. The right to our human diversity, more than the right to privacy, is what we’re really talking about when we talk about the freedom of choice. Like religious freedom and the freedom of speech, reproductive freedom in America should be understood as a fundamental right of reasonable people to be different from one another and to understand things differently. Our freedom to have differences of opinion and perception and to be allowed to live and express those perceptions is at the supposed core of the American state. Reproductive freedom must be understood as a civil right.
Meanwhile, each and every aborted seed is simply hurled back into the infinite field of possibility, death not being an ending, but a life process. The first law of thermodynamics (one of the classical properties of our earthly existence) is that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Why should humans be different? Where does the dream of life go when it is unable to manifest into a particular (temporary, finite) human form? It goes somewhere else. It goes into another, wanted, welcome, and supported form. It moves to the left and to the right and becomes that dragonfly, that mountain, that happy, cherished baby right there. Trust women and fear not. All of consciousness is manifesting, no matter who gives birth to what.
From NO WALLS AND THE RECURRING DREAM by Ani DiFranco, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by LFS Touring, Inc.