I recently read that in the seventies, one Robert Byrn, a forty year old professor of criminal law at Fordham University, took it upon himself to represent in court all human fetuses between the fourth and twenty-fourth week of gestation scheduled to be aborted in New York City municipal hospitals. Byrn’s attorney, Thomas Ford, made the following amazing statement: “The fetus might well be described as an astronaut in a uterine spaceship.”
Writing in “Vaginal Politics,” Ellen Frankfort made the following apt comment:
It takes a certain kind of imagination to assume guardianship for something lodged within another’s body – a rather acquisitive proprietary imagination that fits right in with the conception of a woman as a spaceship and the contents of her womb as astronaut.
Mary Daly analyzes this concept in “Gyn/Ecology.” Since an astronaut is perceived as the captain of a “vessel,” there is a desire to see the fetus as controlling the woman. In this astronaut/spaceship imagery, the “captain” of a spaceship is very much controlled by males outside the spaceship (for example, politicians, economists, scientists, flight surgeons, and engineers). Similarly, the fetus is maintained in control of the woman by males outside (for example, politicians, legislators, priests, doctors, social workers, counselors, husbands, and lovers).
Notice too that a woman’s biological event is imagined – by these men – as “like” a technological event, specifically like the results of the overwhelmingly male space program (do note that at the time of that particular statement comparing fetuses to astronauts, only men had actually been astronauts).
The Neo-Freudian Karen Horney, bewildered by psychiatrists’ tendency to place so much emphasis on the penis, proposed something interesting:
Like many who held opposing views with Freud, Horney felt that sex and aggression were not the primary constituents for determining personality. Also Freud’s notion of “penis envy“ in particular was subject to general criticism by Horney. She thought Freud had merely stumbled upon women’s jealousy of men’s generic power in the world. Horney accepted that penis envy might occur occasionally in neurotic women, but stated that “womb envy” occurs just as much in men: Horney felt that men were envious of a woman’s ability to bear children. The degree to which men are driven to success may be merely a substitute for the fact that they cannot carry, nurture and bear children.
We have all heard of a man’s project being called “his baby” and of texts being “pregnant with meaning.”
There is evidence that the condition of being unable to bear children is experienced as disturbing to those who are obsessed with reproduction of the self (which must not be confused with any actual desire to care for another being). Some men have been surprisingly candid about this – the fact of their inability to bear children and their identification with the fetus. For example, Phillip Slater writes the following in “The Glory of Hera:”
…this vulnerability of the male in the sphere of worldly immortality which gives rise to the concept of the “external soul,” so prominent in magic and mythology…
According to Slater, a woman need not guess whether something of herself continues on in a new organism, for she can see the child emerge from her own body. He continues:
Thus if one translates “soul” in these stories as “that part of me which will live on after I die,” the woman initially holds her “soul” within herself. It is only the man whose “soul” always resides outside of himself…Thus, as men have been lamenting for centuries, his immortality is out of his own control.
Note here that the grave punishments of woman throughout the Judeo-Christian world up to the twentieth century and arguably beyond grew from the notion that Eve’s “original sin” had ended the immortality believed to have pre-existed the “fall from grace.” Thus, woman’s ultimate crime, as endlessly pounded home from the pulpit for roughly two thousand years, was in causing the fact that, in Slater’s words, man’s “immortality is out of his own control,” “as men have been lamenting” / blaming woman “for centuries.”
According to Slater’s view, then, males identify the “immortal” soul with biological offspring, and women should feel fortunate in their role as incubators, biologically predestined hatcheries for human souls.
Writing in “Being and Nothingness,” Jean-Paul Sartre makes an admission of male identification with the fetus:
We can conceive of the ontological meaning of this shocking solidarity with the fetus, a solidarity which we neither deny nor understand.
Mary Daly warns against too readily accepting Horney’s “womb envy” theory, which has been readily adopted by some liberal men such as Slater. As I understand it, Daly worries that “womb envy” points right back to an essentialist / functionalist view of woman as childbearer, which has always been problematic when women have dared to dream of doing other things. She reminds us of Andrea Dworkin’s call to “double-double unthink” the patriarchy. First, Daly says that “womb envy” theories trick women into fixating on the womb, female genitalia, and the breasts as our most valuable endowments. “Not only disparagement,” she says, “but also glorification of women’s procreative organs are expressions of male fixation and fetishism.” Women must resist the “derivative fetishism” of simple “womb envy.” Instead, women must see through to the true heart of the matter, focusing upon “the real ‘object’ of male envy, which is female creative energy in all of its dimensions.” For Daly, the procreative power which is really envied is in the realm of “mind/spirit/creativity.” But this envy is not necessarily a desire to be creative. It is rather a desire to draw – like fetuses – upon another’s (the mother’s) energy as a source. Says Daly:
Thus men who identify as mothers (that is, supermothers controlling biological mothers) are really protecting their fetal selves. They wish to be the fetuses/astronauts and the supermothers/ground commanders, but not the biological vessels/spaceships, which they relegate to the role of controlled containers, and later discard as trash. Ultimately these two roles – male fetus and male supermother – are connected (even identical), since both roles are contingent on a parasitic relationship to women….
Males do indeed deeply identify with “unwanted fetal tissue,” for they sense as their own condition the role of controller, possessor, inhabitor of women. Draining female energy, they feel “fetal.” Since this perpetual fetal state is fatal to the Self of the eternal mother (Hostess), males fear women’s recognition of this real condition, which would render them infinitely “unwanted.”
I think Daly presents a most interesting theory regarding the men of the anti-abortion movement, the “supermothers” who can not themselves bear children yet openly and so loudly, too often even violently, express their desire to exert control over those of us who can, for if woman strays too far from an essentialist / functionalist role as childbearer / caretaker, where does that leave those men? Possibly without female caretakers? Do they on some level intuit how much they actually rely upon women in those roles? Is that why they, in Daly’s words, “feel fetal?” Of course, they would have to deny to themselves any such reliance on woman, since a pivotal developmental task for the male child within patriarchy is the separation from the first love, the caregiving mother of early childhood the vast majority of us have had, and then re-identification with other males. Woe to the son who hasn’t “cut the apron strings” or who is judged, particularly by other males, a “Mamma’s boy,” right?