Quiverfull and reproductive choice: it’s complicated

Just a warning that this post is on the rambling side. It’s unedited and, well, I’m kind of upset.

Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar announced today that they are expecting their 20th child. Naturally this has sparked all sorts of reactions from the internets, some of which are really problematic.

I’ll just get it out of the way that calling Michelle Duggar’s uterus a clown car is pretty misogynistic, calling her and her husband crazy is ableist, and saying they’re stupid is narrow-minded. There’s no need to denigrate Michelle Duggar’s body or reproductive capacity to critique Quiverfull teaching, people live with mental illness and don’t have 10 or 20 children, and plenty of intelligent people end up in high control communities like Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy.

With that said: another response that comes up every time the Duggars announce they’re expecting another child, one that’s been bothering me all day, is the response from many that believing in reproductive choice means that we can’t possibly critique the Duggars’ continual expansion of their family.

I have a lot of reactions to this. Mostly it makes me feel like ranting. A lot.

Yes, people have a right to choose to have more children, regardless of the opinions of others on whether or not they’ve reproduced enough, regardless of how distasteful or wrong-headed others might find their personal beliefs or lifestyles. This is true.

But here’s the thing. The Duggars don’t believe in choice. I don’t mean only reproductive choice. Any kind of personal choice at all. There’s finding and following God’s will, or rejecting it. That’s it. This is true in terms of how they worship, how they court and marry, how they choose vocations, how they educate their children, in every aspect of their lives. And it’s true in how they approach reproduction, too.

As my friend Sae put it, “autonomy is not a factor in why [Michelle Duggar] is giving birth again.” This is rather clear in what Michelle Duggar herself has said about having more children, e.g.:

  • “Many years ago, Jim Bob & I gave this area of our lives to God, allowing Him to grant life as He saw fit.” (their announcement today, via NLQ.)
  • “God is the one who gives life…We would welcome another [child] if He saw fit, but we’ll wait and see.” (Last year.)

So when people talk about the need to respect Michelle Duggar’s reproductive choices I can’t help but feel they either don’t know much about what the Duggars believe, or they’ve decided to ignore it. Because what they’re doing is describing Michelle Duggar’s pregnancy in terms she would find morally abhorrent. She hasn’t made a choice to have a child, in her view. She’s been given a child by God. The only choice she claims is the choice to be happy with whatever God gives her and when. Reproductive choice is an utterly meaningless concept in this worldview.

Another problem: even if Michelle Duggar did understand her pregnancies in terms of choice, that wouldn’t necessarily mean she’s exercising it.

Here’s a parallel: Many believers in Christian patriarchy hold to teachings that married women are not permitted to ever refuse their husbands sex. There’s even a segment of the movement that considers it a sin for a couple to not have sex when the wife is ovulating – i.e., sex during ovulation is religiously mandated. I doubt many feminists would claim that sex that a woman literally can’t turn down without sinning is fully consensual. So why would we claim that a pregnancy conceived in a context where women are outside of God’s will if they take any sort of action (including avoiding potentially procreative sex) to prevent or manage reproduction? If the sex that produces the pregnancy isn’t quite consensual, how can the pregnancy that results be entirely a choice? I’m puzzled by this.

It seems to me that part of the problem is that choice feminism is often too simplistic in its assumptions about people’s actions and the possibilities available to them. There’s often no recognition of the fact that people’s choices can be severely constrained by the circumstances around them. When people say they respect Michele Duggar’s choice they either don’t see or don’t recognize the ways in which her hands are tied by the culture she’s part of.

‘Cause here’s the other thing. Christian patriarchy is a high control culture. It’s a cult. And people in cults often claim, often quite sincerely, that they’re making free choices even as they repeatedly “choose” the same things everyone else in the group does. They often honestly believe that they really truly want and independently choose things that they really have no choice but to accept as members of a high control group.

Cults are real. Brainwashing is real. Mind control is real. People can be manipulated and controlled. People can think they’re making “free” choices and not really be doing so. I know. It happened to me. It’s happened to many, many people who ultimately leave high control groups and realize, in retrospect, that they were had.

I don’t know if this idea scares people, and that’s why they resist it, or if people just don’t believe it because they haven’t experienced it. But these things are real. It doesn’t mean people are stupid. It doesn’t mean people are incapable of making decisions. It just means that free will and personal autonomy get really complicated when you mix them up with bullying, manipulation, and spiritual abuse.

More thoughts on this coming.

14 Comments

  1. I don’t think evangelicals would be bothered by the fact that Michelle Duggar is not exercising choice. Choice is just not important. After all, God chose you to be saved, he chose your husband/wife for you, he chose what church you would go to, how many kids you would have, where you would go to college, when you WILL and WILL NOT have sex, etc etc etc. Why do YOU ever need to make a choice? Making a choice is an act of rebellion against the God who has already planned out your life for you.

    And then they stand up and say that “Love isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice.” BS. Nothing is a choice for them. Nothing can be a choice when everything is either mandatory or forbidden.

    And here I was thinking for years that the guilt-tripping would end after I got married. So much for the evangelical fantasy of following the rules and living happily ever after.

    • Jeremy – welcome to the blog, and thanks for the comment. You said exactly what I was trying to say, but more clearly. The whole philosophy is about finding God’s “perfect plan” for you and bringing your life in line with it. The whole point is to minimize personal choice as much as possible.

      And even the “love is a choice” line is a twisted way of getting people to settle for whomever happens to come along and seems to be who God has “chosen” for them, even if they aren’t attracted to or interested in them. It’s a “choice” to surrender your freedom to choose.

      So true that the guilt-tripping never ends. I thought it would be over after getting married, too. Nope!

  2. The idea of being a woman so entrenched in the Quiverfull mindset is frightening. I worry that the next pregnancy could take a dangerous toll on her health.

    • She could die. Her child could die. Her 19th child had to be delivered very premature and had serious, life-threatening health problems. I struggle to understand how anyone could talk about choice under circumstances where someone is being taught that they are obligated to die in order to have as many children as possible. I also don’t quite understand how much a philosophy is pro-life, but that kind of hypocrisy and double talk is par for the course for fundamentalists.

  3. dj pomegranate says:

    Thank you for what is the most thoughtful response to this story that I’ve read yet. So many of the responses are far too simplistic and don’t adequately address this issue of choice.

    “It seems to me that part of the problem is that choice feminism is often too simplistic in its assumptions about people’s actions and the possibilities available to them.” This! We (feminists) often assume that everyone wants the same type of choice that we want, or dismiss external factors like religion by saying simply that it’s oppressive, or it’s silly, or “Well my religion isn’t like that, so probably hers isn’t either.”

    I am an avid follower of your blog and I really appreciate your consistent thoughtfulness and complexity.

    Jeremy, I agree with your comment too – growing up evangelical, the choice was always Listen to God vs. Don’t Listen to God. There was a lot of time spent discussing the various ways of “discerning God’s plan for your life.” I’m still a Christian, but my walk away from evangelicalism started when I decided that God’s plan for my life was to love my neighbor as myself, however that needed to happen, and discernment is not about knowing God’s will but in deciding FOR MYSELF in MY LIFE how it is best for ME to implement love. When I realized this, that burden was lifted from me, but I know *so well* what that burden is, and that’s why I really appreciate this post and your comment.

    • Thanks for the encouragement, dj! I agree that there’s a mistaken assumption that people all want the same kind of choice. I also feel there’s an erasure of the very real experience of being trapped by one’s circumstances. I wonder if part of it is that it’s easier to believe that others have “freely” chosen to be in a culture that people find baffling and frightening (with good reason). And perhaps also confusing “choice” with happiness or satisfaction. When I say Michelle Duggar doesn’t have a choice but to have more kids, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for her to feel happy or content with it. Human psychology is more complicated than that, too. She doesn’t have to be crying herself to sleep every night to still be in a cult.

  4. Well I think what’s so tricky here is that the Duggars get folded into the larger pro-life camp because their story seems to validate the pro-life responses to questions about the economic realities of having children in this country: children are a joy; even with little, you can have a rich life, etc etc. And certainly, the Duggars would see themselves as pro-lifers. But really, that’s not the fight they’re fighting. Pro-life is the most mainstream aspect of their ideologies and so people pick up on it and bang on about choice etc.

    But ultimately, it’s as you say: this is a different package of beliefs. It’s the belief that you do literally nothing that can be construed as blocking God’s offering to you. It’s the belief that by having so many children, they can overtake America numerically, as God would wish. And it’s dangerous to fold Quiverfull uncritically into the camp of evangelicals. I know many a pro-life evangelical that use birth control and see no prescription against it in the Bible.

    • dj pomegranate says:

      Honestly, I think this is one of the main problems with the abortion debate. It’s so polarized that the each side rushes to adopt anyone that could be on their side, no matter what the baggage. So ardent pro-lifers condone the Duggar lifestyle never wondering how to deal with the religious baggage because the baggage doesn’t matter to their end goal. Ardent pro-choicers can do the same, but with an opposite objective. The result is that there is no discussion about nuance unless you are on a blog like this one!

      • I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that’s a really good point. I guess that’s one of the major reasons this response bothers me – it’s more about saying, look, we really believe in choice, than about thinking about what choice means in the first place for people like the Duggars. Choice is contextual.

    • FP and dj – Definitely true that overlooking what the Duggars really believe happens on both sides of the abortion debate.

      I think you’re right that QF is its own package of beliefs, but a I think a further complicating factor is that there are continuities between QF and conservative evangelicalism/fundamentalism. Many quiverfull ideas are in more mainstream evangelicalism in some form, but QF pushes them to their absolute logical extreme. Like the idea that obedience is the ideal, not choice – that’s definitely present in many evangelical communities, but there’s a lot more room for interpretation re: what constitutes “obedience” than in quiverfull. Same with evangelical ideas about being “open to life” and not “selfishly” limiting family size to few or none or widely spaced out children because of financial or lifestyle considerations…that thinking is continuous with the idea that limiting the size of your family is always selfish, period. Of course the day to day implications of the two for how people actually live are dramatically different, like you point out.

      Kathryn Joyce’s book on Quiverfull is a good read about this – she digs up some of the concrete connections between the really extreme Christian patriarchy people and the more moderate complementarianism crowd. There are definitely shared influences (actually CJ Mahaney and John Piper come up a few times :p).

      • I’ve read part of Joyce’s book on Quiverfull so I’m definitely familiar with many of her arguments. I think you’re right that Quiverfulls push these arguments to their extreme, but I actually don’t think there’s widespread buy-in to the idea that limiting the size of your family is selfish, at least not in the more mainstream but still highly evangelical Baptist denominations. At my old church (which was/is full-on standard Southern Baptist), families were rarely larger than two or three children. I’m now struggling to think of a family with more than three children and the church congregation was around 3-5000. Certainly, that’s anecdotal evidence at best, but nonetheless, I think these people do have a belief about being “open to life” that is open to the heavy and routine use of methods to prevent pregnancy.

        • I don’t think there’s buy in to the idea that limiting the size of family in and of itself is selfish – there’s definitely the idea that having too many can be irresponsible, too. But I think there is a lot of buy-in to the idea that having only one is selfish and that having none at all is just weird. I guess what I’m saying is that that mentality is significantly different from the quiverfull mentality, but still on a spectrum with it, if that makes sense.

          I wonder if class factors into this as well. Having money is a pretty significant predictor of smaller family size, so it would make sense to me if the ability to balance “openness to life” with significant contraceptive use is somewhat correlated with geography and socioeconomic status.

  5. Aside: my username didn’t link to my blog correctly in my first post. This one should.

  6. Cartoon bear says:

    I grew up around fundies, and I continually brought up this paradox which none of the, could explain:

    If all that happens, good and bad, is God’s will, then why are we accountable for sinning?

    Either we have free will or we don’t. If we do not, then our sin is not a choice and we should be absolved. I am no theologian and I suspect the answer to this question cites Original Sin. My fundie family believed we were all fallen, inevitably and without recourse, so we all required the same medicine… Christ’s eternal guidance. I get the argument but it doesn’t make the paradox less paradoxical.

    Re: duggars, aw heather Michelle believes she has choices/free will or not, no matter how circumscribed her environment, she surely knows that it is possible to harmlessly and within her religious worldview to limit her reproduction even minimally. Even qui refill women, even women she probably admires in her circle and her church, do not have twenty babies, or even ten. She is lucky(?) enough and healthy enough that her body hasn’t given out from the births yet, but even without that, even the fundies have some limits. She doesn’t and it makes me think this is a very deliberate choice, she and jay bob want these kids, however misguided and pathological that might be.

    I get the point of the post, that it is impossible to understand the way that people can be manipulated and their ability to exercise their free will absolutely choked down. At the same time, I believe there is some moment in these women’s lives where they consciously jump off that cliff: the “I give in” moment of utter submission, because they are fundamentally weak people who cannot take responsibility for their lives and decisions. Over time ey may forget they ever made tht choice, but make it they did.