Stumping in Iowa on May 24, President Obama declared, “We don’t need another political fight about ending a woman’s right to choose, or getting rid of Planned Parenthood, or taking away affordable birth control. We don’t need that. I want women to control their own health choices, just like I want my daughters to have the same economic opportunities as my sons. We’re not turning back the clock. We're not going back there.”
Instead, throughout his speech the President insisted that “we are going forward.” The suggestion is that the HHS mandate that requires all employers—except for houses of worship—to provide access to free contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization procedures is a part of, but not the completion of, a journey “forward” toward some future destination envisioned by Progressives. Toward what destination are we going forward? What does “going forward” mean in matters concerning human reproduction?
For one clear and bold vision of the future toward which this defense of the current policy seems to point, we need for a moment to look back—specifically, to revisit an argument made by second-wave feminist, Shulamith Firestone in her landmark 1970 book, The Dialectic of Sex.
In The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone embraced Marx’s call for a revolution, but faulted Marx and Engels for failing to extend their analysis of the division of classes to the division of the sexes. She called not only for a revolution in which the proletariat would seize the “means of production,” but a sexual revolution in which women would seize the “control of reproduction.”
Firestone held that liberation would not be achieved until all forms of reproductive differentiation by sex were eliminated through technology. Thus, she called not only for “the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility—the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of child-bearing and child-rearing.” Women had to be liberated from the bondage of their bodies in order to achieve equality.
Thus: “The end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally. The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would be born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally. The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.”
The means by which this would be achieved was a radical embrace of technological intervention in human natural processes. Firestone was unambiguous about humanity’s relationship to nature: “feminists have to question, not just all of Western culture, but the organisation of culture itself, and further, even the very organisation of nature.”
Firestone favorably cited Simone de Beauvoir that “human society is an anti-physis—in a sense it is against nature; it does not passively submit to the presence of nature but rather takes over the control of nature on its own behalf. This arrogation is not an inward, subjective operation; it is accomplished objectively in practical action.” Nature oppresses and limits human freedom and human equality, and so we must extend the fullest possible human mastery over it.
How does the unquestioned Progressive commitment to human mastery over sex and reproduction fit with Progressive criticism of technological control of the natural world? The very same environmentalist commitments that lead to criticisms of techno-optimism in its application to nature do not appear to extend to human nature, including human reproduction. This juxtaposition is at least puzzling, if not outright contradictory.
This contradiction has been increasingly called out and criticized by a younger generation of Catholic women who—to their great credit—have embraced a consistent “green philosophy” that does not stop at the point of their own fertility. Writing in the new journal Verily, Ashley Samelson McGuire exposed this absurdity:
For all the greening of the supermarket, odds are a significant portion of the female consumers buying their hormone-free options are daily taking some form of hormonal and chemical contraceptive, not by accident but on purpose and with a prescription. Let’s face it: As Americans quasi-obsessed with eating organically—with making sure no chemicals go into our produce and no hormones into our meat—we are at the same time culturally attached to a most un-organic method of sex and reproduction.
McGuire highlights the fact that today’s “progressives” advance a fundamentally contradictory set of practices: we are supposed to act with great deference to natural rhythms and patterns when it comes to nature “out there,” but extend—by government fiat, if necessary—the greatest possible technological control over human reproductive rhythms and patterns. We should learn to live with and in nature out there, but conquer nature in here. To what can one attribute this fundamental contradiction?
It may be that the contradiction cannot be sustained, and arguments like McGuire’s (or, Wendell Berry’s) will pave the way toward a more consistent embrace of natural patterns, particularly by a younger generation who suspect the hubristic claims of human mastery over nature. Down this path lies the prospect of a sacramental and even more Catholic future.
However, there is another path, one envisioned by Firestone and worryingly neglected by most Progressives. Not only was Shulamith Firestone an admirer of Marx and Freud – she was also an enthusiast for Lincoln H. and Alice T. Day's book Too Many Americans (1964) and the Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb. Midge Decter argued in a 1993 article for First Things that Firestone (along with de Beauvoir) was the intellectual inheritor of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, specifically her enthusiasms for eugenics and planned population reduction.
In short, the embrace of a “green” philosophy toward nature “out there” led Firestone to a radical embrace of human reproductive technology to reduce population. The stance which criticizes technology when it “controls” nature while embracing technology when it “controls” human nature is consistent in light of a vision of a radically transformed world. In this new era, humans could at once pursue limitless desires (including sexual ones) without deleteriously impacting the planet. The answer lies in radical population reduction.
Firestone’s book can only be understood to be one of the great hedonist handbooks of the 20th-century. Consumption at the level enjoyed by Americans in the late 1960’s, she feared, was unsustainable on a world-wide level short of a severe reduction of world population. Thus she sought not only a way for women and men to achieve full equality and autonomy (including the ability to engage in sexual encounters without consequence) but also a guarantee that population would decrease so that consumption never would have to. The freedom of the current generation entails, to a great extent, liberation from concerns about future generations. The aim of life was to be personal satiation, achieved by overcoming sacrifice and love. In overcoming birth and (through cybernetics) work, we could overcome the consequences of the first sin. We could have it all.
When we are told that we must embrace a path “forward,” citizens should demand to hear more about the world envisioned in that word. Implied in the President’s claim that equality and liberty hinges on government mandated provision of contraception are worrisome echoes to what many would regard as a dystopian future. The technological sterility of Shulamith Firestone’s progressive vision has been variously tried and found wanting—even at its worst, inhuman. The only proper way “forward” needs to include a world filled with children and parents who embrace and love nature—a continuous nature, without and within.
Patrick J. Deneen was, until May 30, 2012, the Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Chair of Hellenic Studies and Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University. In 2006 he founded the Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy. On July 1, 2012, he will begin an appointment as Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.
Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex
Midge Decter, The Nine Lives of Population Control
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