Thursday, December 6, 2007

Dying for a Good Woman


There's something singularly pleasurable about getting smacked upside the head with a new idea. When I started reading A Death in the Family (NYT, 12/2), an article about a former governor of Washington campaigning for the right to die, I thought I had an excellent grasp of the issue. I've long been gung-ho about the right to die: as articulated by Booth Gardner, the former governor diagnosed with Parkinson's, "my life, my death, my control." The idea of someone else laying claim to control of my body -or any woman's body- be it via anti-abortion legislation, opposition to assisted suicide, or domestic abuse, made (and still makes) me apoplectic.

(Think back to when you were three. How frustrating was it that adults, if they so desired, could pick you up and bodily remove you from the merry-go-round or the cookie jar or wherever else it was you wanted to be? How agonizing was it that all or your routines -eating, napping, pretending to be a three-legged woodchuck- were predicated on someone else's schedule? An ex-boyfriend once told me a story about how, in Kindergarten, he stood up on top of his desk and exhorted his classmates to mutiny. "There's nineteen of us and only one of her!" he declared before the Kindergarten teacher hauled him from the room. Apparently he hadn't accounted for the fact that, even though there was only one of her, she was a whole lot bigger.)

But then there's Susan Wolf. As reported in A Death in the Family, Susan Wolf, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Minnesota, argues that legalizing assisted suicide is inherently problematic for women and minorities. Women and minorities, according to Wolf, receive subtle social signals about their value that render them vulnerable to unconscious pressure on the part of their -frequently male- doctors.

If women are expected, above all, to care for others, for children, parents, husbands, she asked, aren’t they particularly likely to view their own lives as without value when they become so sick or disabled that they are the ones who must be cared for? Might they be especially likely, at that point, to see themselves as burdens and, if assisted suicide were legal, to request that their deaths come right away?


Wolf marshals some moderately dubious statistics and then breaks out her big gun: human irrationality.

Even while we debate physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia rationally, we may be animated by unacknowledged images that give the practices a certain gendered logic.


We human beings, according to Wolf, are not, and will never be, our own masters, and to pretend otherwise is to invite repercussions. Moreover, the degree to which we lack autonomy varies from person to person and from group to group, thereby opening the door to overt and covert discrimination.

(I'm not sure I buy this argument, but DAMN it feels good to get blindsided every now and then. If you know everything there is to know about life, why bother living?)

Coincidentally, I've been reading Joan Didion's 1972 essay on the Women's Movement. Didion rails bitterly against the movement's construction of a passive, put-upon everywoman, "everyone's victim but her own:"

She was persecuted by her gynecologist, who made her beg in vain for contraceptives. She particularly needed contraceptives because she was raped on every date, raped by her husband, and raped finally on the abortionist's table...she was so intimidated by cosmetics advertising that she would sleep "huge portions" of her day in order to forestall wrinkling, and when awake she was enslaved by detergent commercials on television...To ask the obvious -why she did not get herself another gynecologist, another job, why she did not get out of bed and turn off the television set...was to join this argument at its own spooky level...nobody forces women to buy the package.

In Didion's view, women are trading autonomy for victimhood, refusing to acknowledge what control they do have over themselves and their lives. One gets the sense that Didion wants women to stop whining, suck it up, and take charge; that for women to lay the blame for the shape of there lives at the feet of anyone but themselves is in itself an act of disempowerment. The Women's Movement, by this logic, insofar as it encourages anyone to believe she is not her own mistress, is carrying women backward.

So which is it? Are we, or are we not, in charge of ourselves? It's scary to believe we aren't, but it's in many ways scarier to believe we are. Either way I need a cookie.

2 comments:

Kivie said...

ooooh wow ---- my first appearance in your blog! this is tremendously exciting.

jonathan said...

That's maybe my least favorite essay in the book. I love the one on O'Keeffe that comes just after it, though...