The Motherhood Penalty: what banning abortion teaches us about inequity in parenting

A lack of access to safe and legal abortion is the sharp end of an already unequal playing field

Thomas Schenk for Harper's Bazaar

Is there ever a good time to be a woman? This week has reminded us that, no, most probably not, following the Supreme Court's decision to overturn America's Roe v Wade judgement, which granted women in the US the right to terminate a pregnancy. The move will now allow more than half the states to ban or severely restrict abortion, ending a constitutional right that has been in place for 50 years.

Abortion is one of our most contested issues, with battle lines drawn across ethical, religious, political and gendered grounds. However, the unfortunate reality is that, no matter your stance, these battle lines are invariably drawn across a woman’s body.

Much is made about the profound injustice of male lawmakers deciding the future of women’s bodies, but this issue is far broader and, if possible, more insidious, than this audacious act. Without delving into the nuances of abortion, and the arguments for and against it, let us look at it, if we may, simply within the context of the gender parenting gap. For, what an encroachment on abortion rights does, is shine a light on the harshest possible example of an already existing injustice. The unspeakable cruelty of a forced pregnancy is the sharp end of what is known as 'the motherhood penalty' which – whether we like it or not – haunts all women.

The motherhood penalty manifests in more mundane ways than the barbarism of a forced pregnancy. It seeps into the way we are viewed, the way we parent (or choose not to). There is the collective societal pressure to have a baby, the strange form of ostracisation and/or pity if you haven’t or have decided not to. Then, there is the very real impact when and if you decide to procreate. It reveals itself in pregnancy discrimination, where 54,000 women a year lose their job simply for getting pregnant in the UK; where 390,000 working mums experience negative and potentially discriminatory treatment at work each year; where the median weekly pay of those with two children in the household is 26.1% lower than among women with no children (and, in contrast, men with two children have a median weekly pay 21.8% higher than men with no children). All of this occurring within a spiralling cost of living crisis globally. But it is also seen in the simple, yet cruel reality of a total inequity in everyday parenting between men and women, where women are still viewed, both consciously and/or unconsciously, as the primary carer.

Fatherhood is something which happens to men, but motherhood is shaped as a birth-right for women

This is particularly unfair because there is no corresponding fatherhood penalty within a societal framework which still refuses to view men as fathers in the same way it views women as mothers. It is shown in its most blatant form when we discuss abortion. If a man decides he does not wish to be a father, he has the biological liberty of walking away. Not only will he not be unilaterally shamed for this decision, he will not be criminalised for it. Women have neither luxury.

Becoming a mother would be, under legislation which banned safe and legal access to abortions, practically inescapable for many women – not to mention the horror of this for victims of sexual abuse. Yet, whether you wish to be a mother or not, motherhood is knitted into the way we are viewed as women in a way fatherhood is not for men. We have years of this ideology drilled into us, from being handed baby dolls and prams when we are ourselves infants to being lectured on the practices of safe sex as teenagers. At every step of a woman’s life she is reminded that she is not just a woman, she is a mother in waiting – and has every risk of being a single one. It is a bizarre form of destiny; a knotty, one-sided inheritance. For while we shoulder the burden of responsibility for our plastic babies’ upkeep and the prospect of a dreaded teen pregnancy, the same training is nowhere for men. Fatherhood seems to be something which happens to men, but motherhood is shaped as a birth-right for women.

So, how can we possibly unfetter ourselves from a double bind which judges us for not having children and penalises us when we do? If we live in a society which cannot separate ‘mother’ from ‘woman,’ the idea that a woman may wish not to have a child, through the act of abortion, seems unforgivable to so many – no matter what their view may be on when ‘life’ begins. The deconstruction of the motherhood penalty is no easy thing, Unstitching centuries of viewing female purpose as mothering has been a task taken on by millions of us for decades. We have been at this work for so long and it, much like parenting, has been a task disproportionately taken on by women. Removing our bodily autonomy in this way, is the most direct assault on this work yet. It is the ultimate penalty.

We live in a a double bind which judges us for not having children and penalises us when we do

It is for this reason that opposing abortion is seen by so many as a misogynistic act. Because even if we park the monstrous reality of forcing a human being to undergo the dangerous and traumatic experience of pregnancy and labour against their will, we see that it also is, at its core, an act of reducing women to a vessel. We cease to be a human being with autonomy and a life of our own, and become merely a holding cell for an embryo which – should they be female – may one day suffer the same ignominy. It is not without irony one should consider how precious that ‘life’ would be to an anti-abortion advocate, should it grow up to be a woman who may, one day, want an abortion of her own.

Because with or without the banning of abortion, she seems destined to live in a society where women are, in so many ways – both quotidian and systemic – forced to pay the motherhood penalty.

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