Babies and Being Human
“I want a god
as my accomplice . . .
for a change
in the order
—from “Prayer/Oracion,” Francisco X. Alarcón
I don’t think I have ever been so behind in everything I am obligated to do except for the six months to a year after I had a premature baby with delicate health who spent his first month of life in neonatal intensive care. That was such a long time ago I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be so utterly overwhelmed. I keep wanting to write about the garden, and compost and soil, and how the friend who’s helping us transform it from a haven for thistles and knapweed into a place where food grows said that everyone around here has clay soil (true) but you could actually throw pots with ours. I haven’t purely because I’ve been so busy that the ideas just pile up in my head like the walking photos in my phone and the unread magazines in my email inbox.
I am reminded that when my son was born, my doctor had to choose between an emergency C-section for me or one for the young woman who’d come into the emergency room with an ectopic pregnancy because we were both dying and she had to decide which one of us had long enough to make it to different hospital. I’ve always wondered if that woman got the surgery she needed in time.*
Speaking of babies . . . actually, let’s not. There is nothing I can add that hasn’t already been said by someone else, and it’s up to those who actually have power to use it.
A month or so ago I shared a section from No Trespassing, my book on ownership that I will be writing and publishing here on this newsletter over the next couple years. That excerpt was from the summary of the chapter on ownership of people, a subject that I wrote about a bit more expansively in the Overview section. I’ll be sharing the full Overview next month as I prepare to move this newsletter to a paid version,** but it seems like the right time to share a larger snippet:
“Does being human require ownership over oneself—over freedom of movement, of thought, of affection? Or is it innate to us—is humanity a construct or an immobile fact? Philosophers have been debating questions like these for hundreds of years and will still be doing so hundreds of years from now. I doubt anyone reading this lets that debate detract from their own feelings of being human. At least, I hope not.
For slavery to function and to last it has to make people non-human and therefore own-able. When you are in a position of being owned, a feeling of humanity might be hard to retain, and the problem isn’t limited to our common conception of slavery. For women, this is an ongoing struggle reimagined in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale and its more recent adaptation for television: in Gilead, the post-America country she imagined, women and the babies they bear are once again property, as they have been many times throughout human history.
The power of reproduction has been central to the discussion of women’s bodies as property for as long as civilization has existed. The right to privacy underpinning the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade is contained within a woman’s own body: I, as a woman, have a right to choose what happens within the confines of my own skin, and personally, as the mother of a daughter who will someday be a grown woman, I’ll fight tooth and nail to ensure she has the same right of choice. And I’ll have to fight tooth and nail because there will always be those who seek to remove that right. That question may shift dramatically in the future, though, as medical science is able to keep babies alive ever-earlier in their fetal development.”
(I started writing this proposal in the summer of 2019, and it was turned down by the final publisher my agent submitted it to in January 2021, so these lines aren’t a direct response to current events, just to what anyone could see was coming.)
Those medical advancements are already happening—my 32-week preemie baby shared a NICU with babies as little as 22 weeks and that was 15 years ago—so the question of a woman’s ownership and sovereignty over her own body will actually become more important, as well as transforming focus.
Reading the Supreme Court’s opinion yesterday declaring that the U.S. grants no right to abortion, I was taken with the intensive focus on the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution and what seems like pretty forthright language bringing the entire concept of individual liberty up for future debate:
“The underlying theory on which Casey [Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 Supreme Court case that reaffirmed the right to an abortion] rested—that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause provides substantive, as well as procedural, protection for ‘liberty’—has long been controversial.”
I have no idea whether substantive protection for liberty has long been controversial in legal circles or not, but the focus on it seems understated in conversations about this decision, especially when taken with repeated references to the (absurd) idea that Americans have no rights that weren’t originally enumerated in the original Constitution (as a reminder, when it was written not only was slavery legal but the only people with a right to vote were white landowning men over the age of 21) as well as language given in the next paragraph, that
“In interpreting what is meant by ‘liberty,’ the Court must guard against the natural human tendency to confuse what the Fourteenth Amendment protects with the Court’s own ardent views about the liberty that Americans should enjoy. For this reason, the Court has been ‘reluctant’ to recognize rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution.”
What is meant by “liberty”? This is a conversation every single one of our human societies needs to have, and fast.
One of the questions that keeps me writing about ownership, private property, and the commons is the question of ownership over oneself—what it means, what its parameters are, and why, frankly, it doesn’t seem to exist. Rights, the Supreme Court opinion made clear, apply to property and those who hold it. “‘Cases involving property and contract rights’” have “concrete reliance interests,” whereas cases involving women’s control of our own bodies don’t. And there’s no reason to think that throwing the question of liberty out into a society with massive built-in injustices and power imbalances won’t have much broader implications for everyone.
Does being human require ownership over oneself? It’s a question that would seem to live in philosophy forever, but as I write about in my book proposal, laws are born from the stories we tell one another about how to live together. Laws are stories. Who is considered human is one of those stories that has very real, concrete effects on real people, and those stories change across time.
I recently read Arkady Martine’s science fiction book A Desolation Called Peace, the sequel to A Memory Called Empire, and among its other excellent qualities is forthright grappling with this question of who is considered human. Citizens of the empire Teixcalaan are, but that same empire—modeled I think on the Roman Empire—gets to define who else is considered a person, a human, because Teixcalaan is in control of the galactic story. The Murderbot Diaries similarly have a constant posing of the question “Who is a person?” because in corporate-controlled space, organic-computer constructs like SecUnit are not. The same question came up for Data in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man.” And in Lois McMaster Bujold’s 1988 book Falling Free, the “quaddies” genetically engineered to serve a galactic corporation are considered property, not people.
Science fiction in general has a talent for making the implications of philosophical questions-turned-laws real and visceral, one of its many strengths when done well.
But you don’t have to be into science fiction to start facing these questions and interrogating accepted narratives. The consequences of values-turned-stories-turned-laws are everywhere—including, in many iterations, contained within our own bodies.
Bonus photo: I’ve been wanting to share this, cross-stitches done by two of my closest and extremely talented friends who know how deeply my family feels the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sometimes your feelings need to get a little stabby. Thank you guys 🧡
*I came down with a very rare pregnancy condition called HELLP Syndrome, for which the only treatment is delivery. I wrote about it for BuzzFeed several years ago, and another essay for Full Grown People about the time in the NICU, still the most terrifying month of my life.
**There are many new subscribers here—welcome to all of you! And if it’s not your thing, no hard feelings. I mean that truly. This post from January describes a bit more of the book project I’ll be doing when this newsletter shifts to a paid version. “Who Owns the Earth?” an essay published with Aeon in 2016, gives a good overview of the private property vs. the commons question the book project was born from. This first On the Commons post explains more about this newsletter.
For everyone: After a bunch of research and asking helpful others, here are the rates I’ve decided on for the newsletter: $6/month discounted to $60/year for an annual subscription and a $100/year “founding member” option. Walking compositions and book chapters will be subscriber-only, with other regular essays open to everyone. REMEMBER: If you want to read but can’t pay, when the time comes email me with the code word “tribble” and I’ll enable a subscription, no explanation needed. Hopefully I can offer that forever.
Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:
It’s been frustrating how little English-language news there is about Ukraine and Russia. I know this is our reality and media ecosystem and it always happens but still. I did appreciate historian (and author of On Tyranny) Timothy Snyder’s short essay about the misguided thinking that Putin needs compromise and an “off-ramp.”
In my recent series on community, I wrote about the importance of trust in Part 3, so appreciated that David Roberts and Chris Hayes highlighted trust in their conversation about politics in America: “Social trust is the coin of the realm without which nothing else is possible—no good media, no good politics, no good policing. And what creates social trust? . . . No one knows. . . . It’s like the mystery juice that makes everything run but no one knows how it works or how to create it or how to stop it from leaching away.” (I don’t usually listen to mainstream podcasts, especially about current events, but this one was worthwhile.)
Sherri Spelic, a physical education teacher who writes the Edified Listener blog, sent me this Matthew Cheney essay “Difficult Peace,” which I found incredibly well written and painful to read in part because it was hard to disagree with some of his conclusions about guns in America.
Speaking of Sherri Spelic, I keep going back to her recent post with the text of a keynote presentation she gave on kids and resistance in education: “Elementary PE can bring up really awful things for some folks, I know. I regret that but it is a frighteningly common reality: humiliation, physical injury, significant emotional damage. At the same time, it also illustrates a teaching and learning dynamic characterized by deliberate power imbalances, a frequent focus on competition and ranking, and a potentially widespread dismissal of students who do not conform to a specific athletic norm.”
Atlas of Conflict Reduction is a fascinating project focused on working with ranchers to coexist with wildlife (like wolves and grizzly bears) that I learned about by chance. The website has an overview of several collaboration stories, and it looks like a book will be coming out next year. It reminded me that I interviewed someone from Blackfoot Challenge—which does similar work—years ago but never managed to get that story placed for publication.
Montana recently commemorated 50 years of the Montana constitution, which not only guarantees everyone a “clean and healthful environment” but also a right to privacy. For This and Future Generations is a one-hour documentary about the shaping of that constitution in 1972, which came about in large part due to decades of abuse and corruption from the copper mining industry.
A two-part interview on Talking Headways with professor of organizational studies and sociology Jeremy Levine got into a very nuts-and-bolts policy-wonky but crucial conversation about what community means and who gets to define it. Part 2 in particular delved into what a slippery concept “community” can be and how important it is to know what—and who—you’re talking about.
Thanks to Lee for sending me “Promised Lands,” an article in Seven Days magazine about landowners in Vermont who open their land to the public hiking. (That is an Issu link, and if you haven’t used Issu before, be patient. It’s a visually appealing but difficult to navigate platform for magazines.)
Max Haiven was on Last Born in the Wilderness talking about his book Palm Oil: palm oil, colonialism, and the kinds of human sacrifice required to create, enable, and maintain empire.
I thought the “Home and Away” episode of Pondercast was going to be about becoming a refugee, but it was about radical responses to scarce affordable housing. AND Laurie Brown does a fantastic job of summarizing Henry George’s case for a land value tax and how his book Progress & Poverty informed the original Monopoly game, originally called Landlord’s Game and designed to demonstrate the benefits of socialism. Brown explained a vital Georgist point I keep forgetting to mention, which is that property increases in value in large part not due to actions of its “owners” but due to work and investment by the surrounding community. (Economist Kate Raworth wrote a short essay on Aeon explaining the history of the Monopoly game.)
“Character Count” was also a fun Pondercast—I cannot remember my high school locker combination, but do have a weird superpower of instantly memorizing the number of every hotel room I’ve ever checked into!
I'm so behind too. Ugh.
"I don’t think I have ever been so behind in everything I am obligated to do"
Oh, god, tell me about it. My old friend 'nagging physical injury' is slowing me down.
"how the friend who’s helping us transform it from a haven for thistles and knapweed into a place where food grows said that everyone around here has clay soil (true) but you could actually throw pots with ours."
Mine is red clay and practically mortar when it dries. The only way to dig it is to go after it with a pick axe and then shovel. Unless there's a heavy rain, and then maybe you could throw a kind of crumbly pot with it. (Also the source of my 'nagging physical injury'.)
"I have no idea whether substantive protection for liberty has long been controversial in legal circles or not, but the focus on it seems understated in conversations about this decision"
It is when you are talking about that and Jim Crow and the Federalist Society. The entire argument that segregation was constitutionally legit was based on the argument that state governments in the South need only meet formal procedural requirements, and then they could racially segregate away. That understanding went way out of fashion in the 50's and 60's and racial conservatives hated that. So they created the Federalist Society to plant lots of judges who would work to reverse that and here we are. The fighting (and the lying about it) has been constant and intense my entire life (and was obviously the same during Jim Crow). Normal Americans think that means, coarsely, that the government cannot go after you on the basis of race, as the obvious reading of what a Lincoln Republican Congress was intending to do, and Neo-Confederate Americans think that they just need to come up with a way to manage a de facto nullification the amendment because racism is awesome. 'Equal treatment' arguments are the underlying basis for pretty much all the opinions that came out of the 'rights revolution', so nuking the basis for those decisions would allow all those state governments to go back to their previous shitty laws and the shitty and oppressive behaviour they used to engage in.
sorry for mansplaining