My friend Kathryn Joyce has a new book out about the Quiverfull movement.The book grew out of a Nation article on the Quiverfulls, a conservative Christian movement dedicated to "building God's army" by having as many children as possible. My review copy in the mail and I can't wait to read it.
Nadya Suleman has recently become a household name after giving birth to octuplets as a single mother of seven. Suleman has been singled out for some pretty vicious criticism. Even her publicists got death threats. Consumers threatened to boycott companies that offered her free stuff.
I expected a lot of vitriol from conservatives. Predictably, they seized on Suleman as the epitome of a "welfare queen," an unemployed woman who sought infertility treatment to have a huge family she was manifestly unable to support.
It's hard to imagine anyone more demonstrably committed to pro-life ideology than Suleman, who told an interviewer that she insisted on having her doctor implant 6 embryos at once because considered them to be little people who deserved a chance at life outside the clinic freezer.
You could characterize Suleman's motives in two ways: i) She was the selfish baby-hoarding equivalent of a crazy cat lady; ii) she was so convinced of the intrinsic worth of children and motherhood that reproduction trumped all other concerns. Both are accurate. No doubt Suleman was surprised and disappointed when she was disqualified for the mantle of pro-life martyr for being unmarried and biracial.
I didn't expect such a strong feminist backlash. Katha Pollitt described Suleman as "the woman we love to hate." Liberal criticism of Suleman has usually been couched in terms of the well-being of her children, or the well-being of the planet.
Unless she's mentally ill, Suleman was wrong to seek IVF when she knew she couldn't provide for the children she already had. She should have known that she was diminishing the chances that her existing children would have a decent life.
But the highly personal eco-criticism rings false. In the grand scheme of things, the resources consumed by 14 extra poor kids in California is (sadly) negligible compared to other conspicuous consumption that is accepted as normal. We may look askance executives who earn and spend thousands of times as much as the average worker, but they don't usually get accosted by angry mobs at gas stations like Suleman was.
I doubt many self-identified feminists are issuing threats or joining mobs, but the nastiness is striking. Check out the comments on this post on Echidne of the Snakes, a well-known feminist blog. (I hasten to add that the post itself isn't nasty at all, but some of the comments are really ugly.)
It's easy for liberals to hate on Suleman and the Quiverfulls. They ostentatiously reject our values and our conception of the good life by defining their entire lives in terms of unchecked reproduction. They're trying to provoke us.
Ultimately it's counterproductive for feminists to single out individual reproductive choices for criticism after the fact.
First off, it reinforces the general assumption that women's reproductive choices should be under constant scrutiny by strangers.
Second, moralizing about having too many kids isn't going to change anybody's mind. If we think people's otherwise legal behavior needs to change, we should be advocating for policies and social structures that make it easy and pleasant for people to choose to do what we think they ought to do.
If you want people to recycle, you don't browbeat non-recyclers for failing to sort their trash, you design new trash bins that make sorting easy and distribute them for free.
If you want people to have smaller families, you don't shame people who have lots of kids. You provide birth control for everyone who wants it, keep women in control of their own sexuality and reproduction, and expand opportunities so that most women have something they'd rather be doing than raising a huge brood of children.
The Quiverfulls and Nadya Sulemans of the world aren't going to stop because we disapprove. In fact, every time we criticize them, we reinforce the idea that having lots of kids is a big "Fuck You" to all those moralizing feminists and secular liberals.
My great grandmother had eight children but it wasn't a statement, it was just a biological and social reality of living on a farm in Alberta in the 1920s. She probably disapproved of those libertine Flappers in Toronto, but having eight kids wasn't a reproach to them.
I don't think Quiverfull would have made any sense to my great grandmother as a social movement. Of course you had as many children as God saw fit. Sure,
there were folk remedies and probably even abortions, but they weren't all that reliable, either. Basically, your choice as a woman was wife or spinster. After that, fertility was like the weather, everyone dealt with it as it came.
Nowadays, thanks to science and feminism, choice has become implicit in understanding of reproduction. The default assumption is that families of nine don't just happen, even if you don't do anything to stop it, you really should have. Practically speaking, a woman on public assistance in the Mississippi Delta today may not have a lot more control over her fertility than my great grandmother did. But if she has a lot of kids, conservatives will judge her as if she made a fully autonomous choice.
Nadya Suleman had a lot of choices, which is why we feel okay judging her so harshly. I'm not a moral relativist. Of course we can fairly criticize her for shirking her responsibilities to her seven older children.
However, I'd like to see a day when reproduction ceases to be a public moral battleground. In an ideal world having too many children would be in the same category as making a disastrously irresponsible business decision. Sure, people who make reckless or selfish business decisions get judged and rightly so. If only a small number of people are directly affected, society at large is not going to get too excercised about some dime store in Iowa that goes out of business because of the owner was too disorganized to pay his suppliers. Some people may well end up on welfare as a result of his irresponsible decisions, but it's not considered a national moral emergency like those octuplets.
Small-scale bad business practices are accepted as bad, even wrong, but not as abominations that Must Never Be Allowed to Happen. Why can't we have the same equanimity about people who make unwise reproductive choices?