Blog for Choice: The Language of the Not-Born
[Watch my brown hands blog!]
I wrote a post at De Novo recently, noting that I found the fact that "[t]he IRS had to work out whether you could claim a kidnapped child as a dependent" to be disturbing. I quoted the relevant Code provisions and concluded, "If my spouse asked me whether we still could claim a dead or kidnapped child for that year, he would be filing as single the next year."
One commenter thought that "Arizona recently changed the law so stillborn babies are considered born alive" (in actuality, the law simply allows women who deliver stillborns to receive "Certificate of Birth Resulting in Stillbirth"), and I sarcastically remarked, "Oh good, in Arizona I can be consoled for having delivered a dead body by knowing I get a tax credit for it."
My intent in saying that was to be as direct as I could about what happens with a stillbirth: a woman who has been anticipating a living child, who goes through the same pain and danger of delivery as a woman who does produce such a child, instead is presented with several inert pounds of flesh that should have been that beautiful baby. Because I don't believe that what makes a human important remains when the animating force is gone -- to put it in semi-religious terms, I'm all about soul and indifferent to the body except inasmuch as it carries the associations for others of the soul that once inhabited it* -- a stillbirth constitutes delivering a dead body.
After the federalist tax question had been hashed out, the post didn't receive any more comments for over a week, until a person writing as "sue" left the following:
heartless people, my child (NOT BODY THAT I DELIVERED) my child died minutes after birth.......its devestating, i acknowledge him whenever possible appropriate/ i talk about him, keep photos of him and am beginning to work through the grieving process (happened less than 2 months ago) if i claim him on my taxes, its appropriate, if i don't its also appropriate...it does nothing to help the painful situation of the loss of a desperately wanted and loved child that my family has found itself in -- it might help a financial situation (maybe even offset a tiny portion of the cost of a funeral and burial and hospital bills) but it will do nothing to ease the pain of our loss. and i guarantee if it happened to you, you would stop referring it as "BODY I DELIVERED" ugly personNow I feel bad that somehow running across my post about tax law (I do wonder whether Sue googled for "tax stillbirth," which pulls my post as the fourth hit) made someone upset -- I hadn't meant it very seriously, more in the vein of "wow there's some surprising stuff in the Code." Nonetheless, I don't feel compelled to agree that I wouldn't think of myself as having delivered a dead body if I went through the tragedy of a stillbirth. Sue has reason to disagree with the phrase because she didn't suffer a stillbirth in the narrow sense of the term, i.e. death in-vitro after 20+ weeks of pregnancy; if her child died minutes after birth, then he was born alive, not born dead. Indeed, the Code definition makes exactly that distinction:
[Y]ou may be able to claim an exemption for a child who was born alive during the year, even if the child lived only for a moment. State or local law must treat the child as having been born alive. There must be proof of a live birth shown by an official document, such as a birth certificate. The child must be your qualifying child or qualifying relative, and all the other tests to claim an exemption for a dependent must be met.But of course, these all are terms of law that comport with the current Supreme Court-made rule that says before being delivered, a fetus is not a person, and therefore the state's interest in banning abortion is a merely police power rather than one to protect someon's rights. People who are otherwise pro-choice feel discomfort with "partial birth" abortion because they believe that it kills fetuses that could just be fully delivered and thereby become full-fledged legal persons. (That states can and do ban abortion of viable fetuses, and therefore partial birth abortions almost entirely kill fetuses that could not survive outside the womb, is a fact seldom noted by those seeking to have the procedure prohibited, possibly even less than the fact that a procedure that kills fetuses just as far developed, but in a manner more unsafe for the woman having the abortion, becomes the only option once "partial birth" is banned.)
Stillborn child. You cannot claim an exemption for a stillborn child.
To my knowledge, Anglo-American law never did consider fetuses to be legal persons, even in the halcyon pre-Roe days of Ye Olde Backe-Alley Abortion. But "fetus" also wasn't in common parlance; it was a scientific, Latin term. Before assisted reproduction technology pulled ova from women to be fertilized in petri dishes, the distinction between embryo and fetus almost was theoretical -- by the time a woman knew she was pregnant, she was carrying a fetus. Because abortion is a medical procedure, one that should be carried out under informed consent by MDs with malpractice coverage, scientific terminology is appropriate to it.
But I wouldn't want that language to displace what ought to be the forward-looking, person-making vocabulary of pregnancy. Sue, after all, presumably experienced nausea and other unpleasant things during her pregnancy, and these are made worthwhile by the expectation that a baby will result. We look for personalities in pregnancies, too; before radiology, people would try to predict the baby's sex by the woman's symptoms or how her body swelled, and even nowadays people will treat the pregnant belly as public property to be patted. Women who are tolerant of that sort of intrusion will let people feel or listen for the baby's kick, and we'll say things like "He moves more when it's noisy!" or "Ouch, you must have a soccer player in there." The ability we now have to look into the uterus makes the developing baby even more real.
[UPDATE: CM's Blog for Choice post is the fact to my theory --
I've always wondered if becoming pregnant and having a baby would change my views. It hasn't.Despite concern that viability is dependent on technology, that seems to me a far more realistic point at which to consider the fetus a person than conception is, particularly when it's pre-implantation conception (e.g. the embryo in the petri dish).]
In my first trimester, I felt so miserable and exhausted and sick all the time. Knowing that it was all for my baby made it bearable. ... I knew I would grieve for my lost baby if I miscarried, but my grief wouldn't be for a person who died -- it would be for the loss of our hopes and dreams of our baby. ...
Now that I'm only a few weeks away from my due date and I can feel exactly where my son is inside of me, I still haven't changed my mind. He is a person now -- he could be born tomorrow, and even if I died he could survive on his own. I know there's no clear line for when a blob of cells becomes a human being, and that's why some opponents of abortion conclude that personhood begins at conception. But I can't accept that. The small clump of blood I would have grieved over at seven weeks is not the same as this person who reacts to his father's voice and moves around to get more comfortable at thirty-seven weeks.
All of these joys that properly belong to a wanted (even if, like half of American pregnancies, unplanned) pregnancy are sometimes used as techniques to convince women who don't want their pregnancies that they shouldn't have abortions. Federally funded crisis pregnancy centers offer little booties, or insist that women refer to the fetus with a name, or convince uncertain women to have sonograms. While I find these to be distastefully manipulative strategies, if someone's actually so wavery that seeing her fetus move in her uterus is enough to decide her against an abortion, that seems to me a good thing. Without it, she'd probably be the type to later have a wanted pregnancy, get a sonogram for it and only then realize, why yes, that's a living thing inside! and then become part of the "post traumatic" movement and harass other women. Besides, apparently ultrasounds are part of getting an abortion; I assume Planned Parenthood just does them without pushing guilt. I'm fine with the bias being in favor of completing pregnancy when one is in 50/50 doubt. The operation of the human mind is such that most people are more likely to regret the Maybe represented by abortion than the Certainty of a real, screaming baby coming out their nether regions (as will be other things). Sonograms, though they can be emotionally loaded, at least are more truthful than the breast cancer bull and sevenfold suicide shit handed out as gospel in South Dakota.
The territory of the pregnancy whose fate is undecided, therefore, to me is the no (wo)man's land of language. If I refer to someone as carrying a fetus, that puts it into the realm of the medical present; if I refer to someone as carrying a baby, that puts him/ her into the realm of the emotional future. Obviously, the norms of etiquette demand that the language a specific person uses for herself are the ones I probably ought to use while speaking to her, if not necessarily about her. If Sue had had an abortion but felt just as strongly about having aborted a baby, then I would respect that and refer to him as a baby; if a woman who intended to complete her pregnancy made the unusual choice of referring to the being pummeling her uterus as a fetus, I'd respect that too. (I confess that I'd be a little troubled if she used either unrealistic or abusive** terms.)
* Which is part of why I'm strongly in favor of organ donation, and am OK with having my plug pulled upon definite higher brain death. My body isn't me, though that may have something to do with occasionally looking at myself these days and thinking, "Wait, when did I get this body?"
** That BB felt resentment toward the fetus she was carrying makes me sad. The anger rightfully directed at the tinpot dictator doctors, Henry Hydes, clinic protestors and mail bombers is pushed onto a creature that didn't ask for this either. I don't think something without a functional higher brain can have much interest in whether it lives or dies, but by the same token it isn't out to get the woman in whose uterus it dwells. Her post on why she feels the resentment is an amazing response to the conservatives who shake their heads over how awful and horrible pro-choicers are to be anything more than a sorrowful, near-silent army. It is the opposition that makes women marching for abortion rights mock the counter-protestors; the daily demand that they deal with people who keep denying that their lives, health and the existences they have built are worth enough that they can be permitted to end pregnancies. But that I appreciate her explanation of her anger doesn't make me feel that it's well-placed.