This is the mother-love, which is one of the most moving and unforgettable memories of our lives, the mysterious root of all growth and change; the love that means homecoming, shelter, and the long silence from which everything begins and in which everything ends.
—Carl Jung, Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
It was a galvanizing moment for both sides of the abortion debate. On January 5, actress Michelle Williams, winner of the Golden Globe for best actress in a limited TV series for her role in Fosse/Verdon, accepted her award with a speech praising “choice”:
When you put this in someone’s hands, you’re acknowledging the choices they make as an actor. Moment by moment, scene by scene, day by day. But you’re also acknowledging the choices they make as a person. The education they pursued, the training they sought, the hours they put in. I’m grateful for the acknowledgement of the choices I’ve made and I’m also grateful to have lived in a moment in our society where choice exists, because as women and as girls, things can happen to our bodies that are not our choice . . . I’ve tried my very best to live a life of my own making, and not just a series of events that happened to me. But one that I could stand back and look at and recognize my handwriting all over. Sometimes messy and scrawling, sometimes careful and precise. But one that I had carved with my own hand. And I wouldn’t have been able to do this without employing a woman’s right to choose.
. . . To choose when to have my children and with whom, when I felt supported and able to balance our lives as all mothers know that the scales must and will tip towards our children. Now I know my choices might look different than yours, but thank God or whoever you pray to that we live in a country founded on the principles that I am free to live by my faith and you are free to live by yours.
Just a few days earlier, People magazine had broken the news that Williams (whose very brief marriage to songwriter Phil Elverum had recently ended) was engaged to a new beau, Thomas Kail, the director of Fosse/Verdon, and was expecting his child. The New York Post’s Page Six surmised that the revelation was timed so “Williams’ bump doesn’t grab the headlines” at the Globes.
And yet, it did. The fact that Williams was visibly with child as she stood and praised her ability to abort made for a dramatic moment—all the more so, as several on social media quipped, because she was clutching a “golden idol.” Given that she was already a mother to 11-year-old Mathilda, the daughter of Williams’s late partner Heath Ledger, Williams’s remarks seemed to refer to an aborted middle sibling predating the child now resting securely in her womb. (Or maybe not: Perhaps she actually hadn’t undergone an abortion at all, but was seizing the moment to gain attention for her upcoming lead role in the Amazon film This Is Jane, about underground abortion facilitators in the 1960s.)
Reactions to the live event were swift. The “Golden” audience gave her a standing ovation. The cameras immediately panned to frantically cheering Busy Phillips, a minor actress who had garnered fame as Williams’s longtime “BFF.” In the past year or so Phillips has become a poster girl for the Shout Your Abortion movement: She had an abortion at 15, spoke about it on her now-cancelled late-night talk show Busy Tonight, started the hashtag #youknowme to represent the “1 in 4 women who have had an abortion,” and most recently shouted a frenzied, screechy rant outside the Supreme Court that had social media covering its ears: “I will never stop talking about my abortion or my periods or my experiences in childbirth, my episiotomies, my yeast infections, or my ovulation that lines up w/the moon!”
Predictably, the liberal press gushed over their overnight heroine: “Michelle Williams for President!” headlined the New Yorker’s Golden Globes wrap-up. The Washington Post lauded Williams’s “personal, political and poignant” remarks, and CNN noted her “impassioned speech about reproductive rights.”
Interestingly, opposite sides took issue with her avoidance of the word “abortion”: An “abortion storyteller,” Aimee Arrambide, said in Rewire.News, “I wish she had used the word ‘abortion.’ Not using the word abortion—although it’s obvious that’s what she meant—perpetuates unintended stigma by using euphemisms.” National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis, who dismissed the speech as “rote and predictable,” observed: “Far more notable than what Williams said was what she didn’t say: ‘Abortion.’ In a speech of several minutes, Williams didn’t once say the word abortion, even as she asserted that, without having had one, she wouldn’t be where she is today.”
While liberal feminists cheered Williams’s standing up for women in the #MeToo era, pro-life feminists saw it differently. Leah Becker Jacobson, founder and CEO of The Guiding Star project, said it well:
If choosing to have an abortion was indeed what made it possible for Michelle Williams to win a Golden Globe, then the entire point of the Me Too movement has been lost. It means that women in the entertainment industry are obviously still expected to meet the expectations of the male dominated field to be available and appealing to men and therefore force their bodies into submission to perform like men’s bodies for the sake of career.
Arguably one of the most disturbing aspects of the event was highlighted by Amanda Marcotte in Salon: “Just as important, by giving this speech while pregnant, Williams challenged a longstanding stereotype that the anti-choice movement loves to wield: The utter falsehood that having an abortion is incompatible with being a mother.”
Abortion Is Good Mothering
Part of the campaign to end the “stigma” and “shame” of abortion is the assertion that sometimes the best way to be a mother is to abort. Last Mother’s Day, the progressive feminist website Ultraviolet recognized and
. . . celebrated moms who have had abortions. Fifty-nine percent of the women who choose abortion already have one or more children. But when it comes to mainstream conversations about abortion, these moms often go unseen. The stories below represent the resilience of mothers who braved abortion stigma and legislative restrictions in order to do what was best for their families. On this special day, let’s celebrate moms who have had abortions. They, too, should be uplifted and honored on Mother’s Day.
Pro-abortion academics are making the same argument. Consider sociologist (at the City University of New York) Andréa Becker, whose study is titled “‘My Abortion Made Me a Good Mom’: An Analysis of the Use of Motherhood Identity to Dispel Abortion Stigma.” From the study’s Abstract:
Drawing on a sample of 41 abortion stories from women living in Tennessee, I find that women evoke notions of intensive, total, and idealized motherhood in order to manage and challenge the stigma of an abortion. A large proportion of these stories were written by married mothers who emphasized their identities as good mothers and wives. A close qualitative analysis of these trends reveals two dominant forms of recasting abortion. First, abortion is framed as an extension of total mothering to spare an unborn baby from risky health conditions. Part of this includes casting abortion as an often-necessary choice in order for a woman to develop into the perfect mother for the benefit of her children—altruistic self-development. Second, abortion is construed as a form of maternal protection of current children to continue intensively mothering them. Both themes speak to women’s strategies for reframing abortion as a health practice to promote the well-being of children.
Ms. Becker fashioned her study while acting as “research assistant and canvassing trainer” at Planned Parenthood of Tennessee, so one wonders about her pool of subjects; nonetheless, “reframing abortion” as good mothering is a concept besties Michelle Williams and Busy Phillips can get behind.
Besides arguing that abortion can be an act of good mothering, the choice culture also works to reduce motherhood to merely one of several “reproductive choices,” an individual decision fulfilling the particular needs and desires of just that woman. This would be laughable were it not so dangerous. From the beginning of time, civilizations and their belief systems—whether pagan, polytheist, or monotheist—have acknowledged the power of women as mothers, the power of fertility. While qualities of motherhood are overwhelmingly presented as positive (nurturing, giving, protecting), cultures have also recognized the destructive potential of mothering gone wrong or disrespected. Both aspects of motherly qualities are evident in the ways we use the word “mother”: We speak of Mother Earth, a fruitful, nurturing, and beautiful image. Mother Nature shares a similar life-giving image—until a natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane unleashes her terrifying power. The most dangerous non-nuclear bomb in the world has the nickname “Mother of all Bombs.” (Incidentally, Pope Francis objected to that name for the bomb dropped by the U.S. on Islamic militants in Afghanistan in 2017, saying, “A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is going on?”)
But we recognize the truth of this double-edged potential. Where would great literature, poetry or myth, psychology (Freud, Jung), not to mention true-crime stories, be without the mother figure understood for her power to bless or harm the very people—her children—she is meant to protect?
The abortion culture seeks to rob motherhood of its beauty and power, and neutralize its danger, rendering it shallow, depth-less. Ms. Williams, beautiful and serene-looking in a dress reminiscent of a Greek goddess, sweetly proclaims gratitude that she has the choice to kill the unborn child in her womb to better pursue her career, and the crowd and media cheer, all the while complimenting her on the good news of her glowing fertility as she now carries a wanted child. In such a setting, “choice” is a sterilized ideal, not a decision a mother makes that leads to the tearing apart of her own child’s bone and flesh.
The shout-your-abortion culture twists reality by proclaiming that sometimes the best mothering for a child is death. It is true that among women who choose abortion, some seem to sincerely believe they are saving their child from a worse fate. There is a basis for that: In the animal world, mothers will sometimes kill or eat their children if they believe they are threatened. In 1997 the pop evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker wrote an essay, “Why They Kill Their Newborns,” for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The article was a response to the public’s horror at a spate of teenagers hiding their pregnancies and then killing their newborns. Pinker wrote that we should understand this phenomenon of neonaticide as a natural instinct:
Mammals are extreme among animals in the amount of time, energy and food they invest in their young, and humans are extreme among mammals. Parental investment is a limited resource, and mammalian mothers must “decide” whether to allot it to their newborn or to their current and future offspring. If a newborn is sickly, or if its survival is not promising, they may cut their losses and favor the healthiest in the litter or try again later on. . . . In most cultures, neonaticide is a form of this triage.
“Humans are extreme among mammals”: yet the Judeo-Christian tradition (rejected by atheist Pinker), until recently the core of our civilization, teaches us that although we humans have the instincts of animals, we are able to rise above them because we are rational creatures, made to love and serve God and be stewards of Creation. Put simply, we ought not to act like animals, because we are not one species among others but a higher species—this understanding is the basis of human exceptionalism, another concept under attack by some contemporary academics, bioethicists, and environmentalists.
In the Old Testament, motherhood was the most cherished and important role for women, and the qualities of mothering were understood to be, in their humanly unattainable perfection, God-like. The famous lines from Isaiah (Chapter 49, verse 15) speak to both the fierce love of a mother and the terrible possibility that even she might reject her own:
Can a mother forget her infant,/be without tenderness for the child of her womb?/Even should she forget,/I will never forget you.
In the Christian faith, Mary, the Blessed Mother, is our most perfect human example of self-giving and obedience to God. As Pope Francis wrote in his Ave Maria: The Mystery of a Most Beloved Prayer, she is
. . . the universal Mother who gives total attention, care, closeness to each son, to each daughter. In her we see in fact the heart of a woman that beats like that of God . . . wherever a mother is, there is tenderness. And Mary shows us with her motherhood that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak, but of the strong; she teaches us that there is no need to mistreat others in order to feel important. . . . Mothers are the most powerful antidote against our individualistic and selfish tendencies, against our isolation and indifference.
Our current obsession with gender as a “construct” or “assigned at birth,” despite biological sex identity, obviously works against the traditional understanding of motherhood. St. John Paul, in his powerful teaching on the Feminine Genius, identifies four characteristics of women: receptivity, sensitivity, generosity, and maternity. All women, he said, have in their feminine nature an openness to others; they are naturally created to be mothers, whether biological, adoptive, or foster mothers; teachers; or emotional or spiritual mentors. The great philosopher (now saint) Edith Stein (who took the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross when she entered the Carmelite order) put this beautifully: “The woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold.”
I have been talking in this article about how we should understand what makes a good mother, but I should briefly recognize here the Christian view that men are likewise fitted with qualities especially suited to fathers, qualities empowering them as protectors and providers for their families. Unmarried and fatherless men can be called to exercise a non-biological protective and providing role for others; in the case of celibate clergy in the Catholic Church, priests are called to be spiritual “fathers.” Women and men, imperfect humans, are called to aspire to true femininity and true masculinity, to partake in what we can comprehend as ideal mother-ness and father-ness.
Circling Back to the Globes
But this understanding of our natural biological and spiritual roles as women is a far cry from the contemporary culture’s view of womanhood and motherhood. Even Michelle Williams, as hip as she is to the zeitgeist, apparently failed to meet all expectations on the evening of January 5, since she confined herself to talking about girls and women. Another “abortion storyteller” from Rewire, Jordyn Close, commented: “I appreciated that she used her few minutes to speak about the importance of being able to have choices in pregnancy. I do wish that those with such a large platform would use gender-neutral language because anyone that has a uterus can and do [sic] have abortions.” Sounds crazy, right? But Planned Parenthood now uses this language: People become pregnant; people have abortions.
Recall that Williams also stated that “mothers know” the scales “must and will always” tip towards “our children.” But they don’t, and she herself implied that her scale didn’t always do so, that her role in Fosse/Verdon was more important than the life of her child. Thousands of times per day in the U.S., the scales tip against children in the womb, resulting in their deaths. To claim that this represents good mothering is a grotesque—and lethal—fantasy.
I am writing this in the time of the Coronavirus pandemic and quarantine. In circumstances that we could not have imagined a few weeks ago, most American households are required to stay at home; to live, study, play, and work together under one roof. One might say mothering in America has been pushed to its most intense. Mothers who could never imagine homeschooling their children are now required to—as it means assisting their children in adapting to the online learning offered by the schools and keeping them on schedule. There are few escapes—no outings for bowling or movies, no restaurants, no playgrounds or playdates. Housekeeping and cleanliness now can mean the difference between life and death! And a mother’s most crucial job, that of keeping her family safe, involves a constant battle to maintain a level head when the news of the virus seeds terror with each news report.
This is a time, we might say, when the whole world is called to have the attributes of good mothers. We are to sacrifice so we can offer protection, hide our fears to offer comfort. We are asked to put aside our ambitions, our self-actualization, and accept losses in finances and jobs, in order to save human lives. We are all to take care of each other, to mother each other in the best sense of the word. Our heroes are not the Hollywood stars, hunkered down in their mansions, but the ordinary people, especially courageous healthcare workers, who sacrifice each day to save others and bring comfort.