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An excerpt from "Maternal Desire"

By Daphne de Marneffe

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The importance of a woman’s reproductive freedom has justifiably been framed in terms of her rights to self-determination, to personal choice, to the inviolability of her body. But in framing the argument almost solely in those terms, pro-choice rhetoric has forsaken a more inspirational discussion of the profound necessity and liberating potential of a desired motherhood.

When my husband picked me up after work during my first pregnancy, I would vomit before I could even say hello. I had to admire, in the glazed aftermath of yet another bout of puking, the sheer will to life displayed by this small cluster of cells. It seemed it would do anything short of killing me to ensure its own survival. I remember learning during my third pregnancy, when I suffered an endless string of flus and colds, that a pregnant woman’s immune responses are partly suppressed to lessen the chance she will develop an immune reaction to her own baby. It seemed that as long as I stayed alive, nature didn’t much care how sick I felt.

Many women, including myself, are unprepared for how abstract their happiness at being pregnant becomes in the face of those first-trimester physical surges—the midsentence stuporous sleep, the racking waves of nausea. But in that brutal and aweinspiring contest of bodies, I also sensed the genesis of a relationship in which the struggle for growth in earnest was at the core, and in which my love — already too ethereal a word — was expressed, and even strangely defined, by my strength and resilience in the face of that struggle. That stage of pregnancy was my best lesson in the unsaccharine nature of mother love, its intimacy with creation and destruction.

Pregnancy begins a relationship. Most essentially, it launches a relationship between a woman and the potential child she carries within. It also initiates a new relationship between a woman and herself — her body, her history, and her future. For these reasons, when a woman considers abortion, the question of whether the fetus should continue to develop does not stand alone; it is a question she wrestles with in the context of whether a relationship should continue to develop between herself as a potential mother and the fetus as a potential baby.

Some believe that the fetus is a full-fledged person from conception. I do not. But the belief that the fetus is not a full-fledged person does not make abortion emotionally easy or morally simple. Awareness of the potential relationship set in motion by pregnancy is one of the most heartrending and ethically fraught issues for a woman considering abortion. Pregnancy’s ineluctably relational nature means that once it begins, it can never be completely negated. A baby comes to term or it doesn’t, through choice or fate. It comes to term, and it is kept or relinquished. In any case, in any outcome, there is a relationship the woman has to do something with— mourn it, celebrate it, try to forget it, embrace it, dismiss it, accept its loss. When a woman feels she must not allow the child and the relationship to develop, it is almost never an easy thing, physically or psychologically. Yet women sometimes feel that as difficult, painful, even tragic as it is, they must do it to survive, or to respect themselves and their situation in life.

This very aspect of the abortion dilemma illuminates a facet of maternal desire. The desire to mother involves the intention and commitment to enter into a relationship of love and care with a child. It represents an attempt to integrate our deepest personal longings and highest human aspirations. There are situations in which a woman does not want to enter into that relationship, or she recognizes she does not have the ability to responsibly commit to it. Such a woman confronts the same basic realities as the woman who chooses to keep a pregnancy does. First, each grapples with the enormous importance of a potential mother’s desire for a child to that potential child’s flourishing and fulfillment as a human being. And second, each faces the reality that when a woman bears a child, she channels her emotional and physical energies in ways that are hugely consequential in defining the person she will become. In light of these facts, what a woman wants with respect to having a child is of absolutely decisive, even sacred, importance.

Desire and Selfhood

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