Last January after Governor Cuomo signed the “reform” abortion bill allowing viable babies that survive abortion to be killed, he had the World Trade Center Freedom Tower lit up in pink, turning the skyscraper into a fey phallic symbol rising over our city to show how much he cares about women. The pink erection was, however, inadvertently truthful, because although women may have the abortions they don’t get pregnant on their own. But not only was such candor not the objective of the celebratory tower lighting, the whole “pink is for girls” motif underscores the idea that abortion is a “women’s issue.” It’s all ours. Worse, it’s what Our Bodies, Ourselves—the 1971 manifesto the New York Times dubbed “a feminist classic”—laid claim to.
Around 2005 or so a friend invited me to join her at an auspicious event. A journalist from a major publication was hosting an evening with Gloria Steinem. It was in a hall, there was a stage, and there would be a short Q&A afterwards. The first 45 minutes was an opportunity for the journalist, a stocky woman in her 40s with long stringy brown hair in need of a shampoo (perhaps she felt that fastidiousness would damage her feminist street cred) to lavish praise on her hero and immerse herself in the smug glory of being the one who was giving us the chance to do likewise. Gloria, in a chic garment of soft flowing cloth, sat cross-legged, one arm casually draped across her thigh with the other elbow balanced on her knee, leaving that hand to flop around on her wrist as she answered the journo’s softball questions in a pose of what I presume to be her idea of humble-icon insouciance. I was eager for the Q&A to start because I had a question to ask.
My question was inspired in part by something I had recently witnessed on the subway. Sitting across from me was a small group of black teenage girls. They were having an animated discussion about something that was in the news, the news being that labs were offering young women $10,000 for donating their eggs. One of the girls’ eyes got as big as saucers, and then, in a world-weary voice, she said: “Hmmph! Ain’t nobody gonna want my D! N! A!” From the mouths of babes.
When the Q&A came the audience members didn’t so much ask questions as they took the moment to thank the great lady and say how thrilled they were to see her in person and so on and so forth. Then the microphone came to me. I stood up and said: “Thirty-five years ago it was Our Bodies, Ourselves, but today we’re selling our eggs on the back pages of newspapers. What happened?” In the front row to my right were four or five women, about my age or a bit older, who looked like they had come to the event together. As soon as I asked my question they sat up, nodded to each other, turned around and nodded at me encouragingly, then leaned forward in anticipation of a discussion with some meat to it. Steinem, momentarily flummoxed, recovered, re-crossed her legs and, using her floppy-wrist hand, pinky up, demurely tucked a stray hair into her chignon and answered with a petite shrug: “Well, maybe she needed the money.”
The ladies in the front row groaned, and I stood there dumbstruck with my mouth hanging open. Steinem cast a furtive glance at the groaners in the front row and decided maybe she should deign to elaborate. So she said something about how any great movement has many aspects blah, blah, blah, then pointed out that if we accept that a woman can do what she wants with her own body, which includes not only choosing abortion but also being a prostitute, then logically we must also accept this. So, when faced with a slippery slope, jump on a ski-lift constructed of ice-cold logic.
From their body language it didn’t look like the gals in the front row were mollified any more than I was. Steinem didn’t admit that her switching things out by saying “maybe she needed the money” had downgraded it to the province of individual whim and sidestepped the larger issue of female dignity and broad-reaching social consequences, and her attitude that needing money is sufficient reason for allowing your body to be used like an ovum ATM was so obvious that a petite shrug from an icon should be argument enough. Meanwhile, the journalist was glaring at me with abject hatred—you could almost see steam coming out of her ears. She acted as if I were some boor at a wedding dinner using the excuse of a toast to smear the bride. But why bill this thing as a Q&A if in fact it’s only a mindless, reverential tribute? Any “movement” that cannot tolerate inquiry isn’t a movement, it’s a cult.
Ironically, the Our Bodies, Ourselves sentiment actually sanctions the idea that the female body and its parts are property, albeit in this era the woman’s property, but property nonetheless. It used to be monarchs and fathers who held the deed, who had the right to arrange a marriage so as to secure a treaty, acquire lands, provide heirs. Today women may hold the deed, but if “Government Hands Off My Womb!” has some merit, why should “Scientists Hands On My Womb” get a free pass simply because they’re willing to pay for it? Are a woman’s eggs nothing more than a product, separate from her essence? Women’s bodies are more objectified than ever, and still used for commercial enterprise, be it prostitution or egg selling or womb renting. The fact that it’s now women ringing up the cash register doesn’t automatically make it noble. And the black girl on the subway was spot on; there’s an ugly racism to egg procuring.
It’s too bad the book wasn’t titled Our Lives, Ourselves, and for a different, more comprehensive consciousness to have evolved around it, rather than simply transferring a property deed. Especially since the slippery slope has now arrived—in New York State anyway, with its radical new law allowing babies who survive abortion to be killed—at a place where a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body extends to what she may to do with someone else’s, even after they’ve vacated the premises.