October 20, 2006

Maternal Instincts and Stuff

This is a bit of a ramble, so apologies up front. I mentioned recently that abortion opponents around the country have shifted tactics recently, and are now trying to frame the pro-life position as one that "empowers" women. That strategy has played a major role in South Dakota. But here's another, related angle. This (very) old Policy Review essay on "pregnancy crisis centers" suggests that pro-lifers should try to dissuade women from having abortions by "awakening the maternal instinct." Ah yes, the "maternal instinct". The concept seems to make so many appearances these days in various parenting debates—and, now, abortion debates—that it's worth, I think, an exploration.

I'm obviously not, nor will I ever be a mother, so I'll defer to what others have written on this point. In her new book, Laura Kipnis points to a related concept—the idea that mothers and infants "bond" at birth. According to Diane Eyer, the whole notion is actually something of a scientific fiction, first pushed in the 1970s, when a large number of women where entering the labor market for the first time and messing up cultural conceptions of a woman's place in society. Many people still believe that mother-infant "bonding" exists—articles are still cropping up in the news about how painkillers and the like affect the process—but to a large extent it appears to be invented.

So what about the "maternal instinct"? Social conservatives such as Suzanne Fields sometimes invoke the notion to suggest that it's only "natural" that women would want to leave the workplace to take care of their kids. Biology is driving the opt-out revolution, in other words, rather than sexist policy structures. Others lament the decline of the maternal instinct thanks to feminism. But Kipnis points out, to provide some useful context, that the entire concept sprung up at a very particular point in history and isn't exactly "natural":
With the industrial revolution, children's economic value declined: they weren't necessary additions to the household labor force, and once children started costing more to raise than they contributed economically to the household, there had to be some justification for having them. Ironically, it was only when children lost economic worth that they become the priceless little treasures we know them as today. On the emotional side, it also took a decline in infant-mortality rates for parents to start treating their offspring with much affection—when infant deaths were high (in England prior to 1800 they ran between 15 and 30 percent for a child's first year), maternal attachment ran low. With smaller family size… the emotional value of each child increased; so did sentimentality about children and the deeply felt emotional need to acquire them.
That's all quite fascinating. It's also worth noting that back in the old days, when one child died at birth, parents would often give the next child the exact same name—children were, it certainly seemed, replaceable parts rather than distinct individuals. Now obviously that doesn't mean that emotional attachment isn't real. Of course it's real—even someone who isn't a parent but merely has parents can see that. But the idea was to some extent socially constructed, and put in the service of an economic order in which men worked and women stayed at home. It could presumably be constructed differently.

Anyway, this is an old debate and I'm not saying much that's new (or very coherent for that matter). Moving on, though, Nancy Campbell wrote an essay some time ago arguing that congressional drug policy during the 1980s was often primarily aimed at, curiously enough, regulating maternal instincts. Policymakers, mostly male, were especially horrified by the fact that crack caused mothers to lose interest in their kids—a supposedly unprecedented problem that required drastic action, since not even wars, concentration camps, or alcoholism had "eroded" the maternal instinct in the past. Or so the story went.

Sen. Chris Dodd said on the Senate floor that solutions should involve "capitalizing on the profound maternal instincts of many of these mothers." Sen. Pete Wilson argued for legislation that offered pregnant drug users the "opportunity to voluntarily rid themselves of their addiction" before moving onto punitive measures, arguing that some women have "sufficient strength of maternal instinct" to do so. And so on. I don't know what solutions were proffered in this context (the related hysteria over "crack babies" led to some extremely destructive policies), but it's quite interesting that this is the way the debate was framed.
-- Brad Plumer 4:55 PM || ||