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.