Reproductive Rights & Female Status

The dialogue about women has not been flattering lately. Officially, it’s centered around reproductive rights, but in between the lines the brutal tactics convey something else. Most recently we’ve been confronted with callous hospital policy. One hospital risks a mother’s death from complications of pregnancy. The other keeps a dead woman on life support against her wishes. Supposedly the abortion debate is about protecting life, however these extreme cases represent a clear statement of low female status. How did it come to this?

Status is the value of one person in relation to another. There is evidence that female status was high at one time. The belief in the gigantic size of the Amazons was probably based on a misunderstanding—they were depicted that way to indicate high status. By contrast, pictures of Hindu gods with their consorts, indicate low status for females.

Lakshmi Narayan

Unfortunately, because hospital policy is premised on the absolute equality of a woman’s life with the life of her fetus, women in the United States would have to be drawn no taller than a man’s ankle. This doesn’t seem consistent with our ideals, but we don’t realize what it means when the issue of status is built into the world’s three main religions. The Bible wastes no time in ranking the first two humans in relation to each other.

We don’t know what factors were behind the high status of the Amazons. However, there is evidence in the custom of bride wealth that it had something to do with the female role in procreation. Defenders of patriarchy claim that this changed after the discovery of the male’s part in conception. However, that’s not supported by the evidence. In any case, the male part is minuscule compared to the female part, and this was recognized in the custom of bridewealth.

The value of the female role in procreation can be framed in the form of a cost analysis. Costs to the female include physical hazards as well as the time required for each pregnancy—9 months, not counting 2 or more years of breast feeding. Costs to males are non-existent.

Consider also what bridewealth says about the value of females to their families. Bridewealth was a form of compensation to the bride’s family, especially to her mother, for the loss of her companionship and help. it was also compensation to the bride’s parents for the loss of her offspring. If not for the payment of bridewealth, her children would keep their name and remain with them.

It was not the discovery of the male role in procreation that began the loss of female status. It was a philosophical attack on the relative contribution of the female. We know that Aristotle asserted the superior contribution of the male in the creation of life, and much later, Aquinas concurred. They claimed the father was the active agent and that the man’s sperm and the physical motion of intercourse ‘organized’ the lifeless matter in the menstrual blood. Further, both Aristotle and Aquinas said the ‘sensitive soul’ was entirely produced by the male. The semen is an instrumental cause, while the soul of the male parent is the principal cause.

Aquinas added to Aristotle’s scheme by saying that the human soul was directly created by God. Nevertheless, he didn’t alter the superiority of the male’s contribution over the female’s. Theologians in the Middle Ages thought the spiritual soul was not present until after the first few weeks.

Later, Thomas Fieinus (1567-1631) argued that the soul is present from conception. The development of the fetus consists of successively emergent functions attributable to a single original principle brought to life by the motion of intercourse. Following Fieinus, Paulo Zacchia (1584-1659) argued that the soul which organizes the development of the ‘conceptus’ is internal to it.

Finally, an 1879 article argued that the principle of formative development is ‘immanent’. [ref]John Haldane and Patrick Lee (from: Philosophy 78 (2003, 255-278). Aquinas on Human Ensoulment, Abortion and the Value of Life. Available:[/ref]

With the development of embryology, you might think the female role would be vindicated, but that was never in the cards. On the contrary, the fetus is now said to be a separate individual whose right to life rivals the mother’s.

But what about the physical costs of each pregnancy? They can’t explain that away, can they? You will recall that in Eve’s case, marriage was a punishment, and according to Christianity, there is no value attributed to the female for her role in procreation. At best, it might redeem her from her wretched state! The strange thing is that we see the practice of bride wealth, or rather bride service, in the Old Testament. Jacob worked 7 years for each of his wives. Jacob and Adam seem to represent two entirely different cultures.

We can’t improve things for women if we don’t understand the problem. The female role in procreation was the basis of female status, but the protections and privileges associated with it have been systematically removed.

The President is currently talking about higher wages for certain groups of people. This would be an improvement, but the lower wage paid to women is a special case. It is a conscious statement of lower status. On the other hand, if you think that your becoming a priest will improve the status of women, you don’t understand your own religion. And the abortion debate? It’s simply the effort to close the last loophole available to the world’s perennial subject class. In the process, its extreme nature masks the attack on female status. Those who are fighting Roe v. Wade may not realize how this draws women into the debate who would never consider an abortion for themselves.

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