Friday, June 5, 2009

Pregnancy is NOT a disability - written 6/5/09

I'm sorry but it's not. I realize that this analogy has given us leave rights under FMLA, financial benefits through Short-Term Disability, and job protections through the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (which relies on this comparison/categorization) and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But that doesn't mean that this is a true or fair analogy.

I realize that as feminist we are advocating for the equality of women. Women can do anything men can do and just as well (and sometimes better). Yes, we can. I have no doubt about that. But, I do not think that comparing a pregnant person to a disabled person is a fair analogy. I realize we may be afraid as feminists to indicate any difference between men and women because it may imply some difference in ability or right to equality. This is a pitfall of my argument and I understand our (feminists') hesitance to defend such an argument because of this.

The reality of the situation is there is no comparison. There is NO male nor non-pregnant equivalent to a pregnant woman and therefore their situation is unique and deserving of laws and protections individual to this temporary condition (and it is temporary). Let's face it: Women can do anything men can do BUT men can't do everything women can. Women have the unique "superpower" to gestate children & lactate to nourish them.

This is not something that makes a woman weaker. We (pregnant women, as I am one at the moment) are no more fragile than any non-pregnant person. If anything we are certainly stronger. Our bodies go through rapid changes during this time (particularly drastic if it is a first pregnancy) and we may be uncomfortable in many instances but still able to continue our usual activities. I am not saying that there aren't physical limitations. There are, but these limitations do not equate to a medical condition or disability. Pregnancy is not a medical condition contrary to popular belief. Pregnancy is a naturally occurring part of a woman's sexual life (if she so chooses to become pregnant).

Cesarean rates and all the medical interventions in prenatal care and a hospital childbirth would have us believe this misconception that birth equates to a medical condition. In fact, these types of mass unnecessary interventions are what cause pregnancy & birth to become a medical condition. This is not to say that there aren't instances when medical intervention and treatment aren't necessary. There are 10-15% of women that do need some type medical treatment/intervention during pregnancy. Even this percentage relates to the state of the mother's health prior to conception (and we must also realize that financial status is directly related to health in many instances). Actually, considering that 20% of Americans are disabled1, this number is relatively low. (I suspect this would be lower in many cases IF we were healthier society at large AND if we had less ART facilitated pregnancies.)

This analogy has been created to convince us that we are weak because of our biology. It has also been created to capitalize on pregnancy. One of the most expensive undertakings one will encounter in their life (if they so choose, that is) is having a child. There are frequent visits to the doctor for check ups, unnecessary medical interventions, a hospital stay... the medical field makes a LOT of money off of pregnant women each year. Health insurance companies play a large role in enabling this to be so. Because most of us must rely on health insurance (if we have it) to cover these expenses, we are also limited in our choices. You more than likely cannot chose a MUCH less expensive home birth with a skilled midwife because the insurance companies will not pay for it. It is an endless cycle.

At work, we are looked at as a liability. It is as if we cannot perform as well as the others. Despite our normal productive abilities, during pregnancy and physical limitation permanently scars your career. It is because we are a "every-man-for-himself" society. And they do mean MAN. Women, of course, are supposed to be at home tending to the men and children, especially with such a debilitating condition as pregnancy. Of course, this patriarchal and capitalist ideology doesn't take into consideration women like myself who cannot afford to stop working and just be pregnant. I have been waiting tables this entire pregnancy and I have refused to be forced out despite my aches, pains and exhaustion. I cannot afford to loose my employers group health benefits nor can I loose my pay. The disability insurance that I pay for every week will not even kick in until the 38th week of pregnancy because I am health and able to work according to the medical field! Quite interesting, isn't it?

Even more puzzling is how this country can offer us 12 weeks of UNPAID leave that ensures us a job when we return but that requires we PAY to keep our health benefits. In what universe is this logical? Certainly not this one.

There are a few people at work who have pitched in to help me. Carrying the heavy things and offering to help get me out after a long day. They do not do so out of belief that pregnancy and birth should be a community experience but out of the belief that I am weak now. They have pity for me because I am poor and can't stop working. If i bought into the ideas and beliefs of my co-workers, managers, doctors, neighbors, and just passers-by, I'd be perpetually depressed and feel trapped in this female biology.

So why are we, as feminists, buying into this patriarchal capitalist idea of pregnancy as a disability? I believe that at the time we were to some extent just trying to get any advancement we could and also somewhat still uneducated about the reality of the circumstances of pregnancy. We feel like we cannot endorse this fundamental difference because it will reinforce ideas of sexual inequality. In many ways, it would but only because of the other ideas society has about economics and worth. It is critical to change not only ideas about pregnancy and women but to change societal beliefs about community and responsibility.

You may think that you shouldn't have to carry the weight when your pregnant co-worker can no longer lift heavy loads because you didn't choose to get pregnant or to be involved but are you really considering that the child she is carrying could be our future president, a congressman, a doctor, or social worker that in 30 years or so might have the power to control your access to health insurance, pension benefits, and even control at what age you are allowed to retire?

Pregnancy is not a disability. It is the single act that keeps humans alive through generations. It is what enables us to progress as a species. It connects us to both the past and the future. Without pregnancy there would be very little future. We would stand as individuals with expiration dates and no concern for what was to come. So why are we trying to trap women by calling this a disability and making them seem weaker because they have taken on this great and unique responsibility to bear children and therefore our future? It's puzzling in the least. But as I sit here, pregnant and trying to navigate in the mess "man" has created, I can only be infuriated, frustrated, and feel the need to do something about it.

1. http://www.census.gov/prod/3/97pubs/cenbr975.pdf

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