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Right-wing memes ahoy – “pregnancy is not a disease”

At Religion Dispatches , Sarah Morice-Brubacker traced the emergence of a new right-wing anti-contraception meme, “pregnancy is not a disease” which has recently been deployed in response to the recent announcement that insurance plans in the US will be required to cover contraception without co-pay.  Morice-Brubacker quotes rightwinger Bob Laird,”a fellow at Human Life International and a board member for the Couple to Couple League, an organization that promotes Natural Family Planning based on Roman Catholic principles,” giving a quote that seems fairly indicative of the new ostensibly pro-woman right-wing meme.

Contraception does not fall within the category of preventative health services. These drugs, devices, and procedures prevent the bringing of children into the world. Contraception only prevents disease or serious illness if one considers pregnancy to be a disease or serious illness. Pregnancy is not an illness or disease, nor are children the side effect or the unintended by-product of disease.

While Maurice-Brubacker’s piece ably traces the roots of this meme and why it appears to work, I felt it was a bit lacking in terms of political strategy.  So in lieu of a well-written post response to this piece, I present the following conversation thread from Facebook (“now with less Farmville”), with the amazing Arwyn from Raising My Boychick:

Arwyn: ARGH

Emily: I see your ARGH and raise you a BLURG

Arwyn: ‎”Some women get sick(er) in pregnancy” is no more a support for “pregnancy is a disease” than “some people get sick(er) eating bread” is an argument for “gluten is a poison”. I wanna see feminists PISSED THE FUCK OFF that right wing folk are using “pregnancy is not a disease” to deny contraceptive coverage, not, therefore, argue that it IS a disease. How about “women have the right to control our bodies”? How about challenging the idea that we have to prove a “disease” in order to get appropriate medical care in the first place (and yes, this absolutely related directly to transness and the tools of transitioning)? How about we push back at the concept of “normal” that positions only an able, cis, male body as “healthy”, and any variations as “unhealthy” requiring “treatment”? WHY ARE WE GIVING IN ON THE FUNDAMENTAL PREMISES OF THE CONVERSATION?
*wanders away grumbling and ranting*

Emily: Yeah, to respond to right-wing framings is in some ways to accept it – and this was definitely NOT a strong political response (My Little Pony reference aside). There’s this quote attributed to Gilles Deleuze: “If you’re trapped in the dream of the other, you’re fucked.”

Arwyn: All around me I see people arguing positions I want to see succeed try to argue within the other side’s delusion, and it sends me around the bend. Why are we so damn bad at reclaiming the conversation? Why do we let right wingers be so damn GOOD at it?

Emily: I’ve been thinking about that for a long time and I’m still not sure I have the answer. I think that the Left is terrible at strategy and some of the reason is that we don’t attack ourselves.

When the last anti-abortion bill was defeated here in La the group fighting it were like, ok time for a rest. And I was like NO, time to attack! Time to think about ways to create systemic change, to aim to achieve something rather than prevent (so what do we want? state-sponsored contraception, or more funding for PP, or something – and preferably something really big). Stop playing defense. And they were like wow, we never thought of that.

At worst you take away the energy of the Right, at best you succeed – it’s win/win. There’s very people on the Left that do this consistently… whereas I think the Right does this constantly, they launch a million bloody REALLY AMBITIOUS bills and sooner or later some of them hit the target.

Arwyn: That’s not even attacking, that’s just doing something. Acting, rather than reacting.

Emily: Right. Widespread inertia, hugely diminished expectations. I think part of it is related in a broader sense to the collapse of the Communist alternative – the Left no longer has that as a threat to achieve the compromises needed for a functioning social democracy.

*later, discussing posting this*

Emily: do you have anything you wish to add to this conversation after my thing about the Communist alternative?

Arwyn:  I dunno, that’s getting too into the political realm for me to feel I can speak coherently.

Emily:  I would accept “let’s get tacos.”

Arwyn:  “In Communist Russia, baby births YOU. And tacos.”

I dunno, my mind is going off into how as long as we’re allowing the right to control the conversation, we’ll be caught in double binds.  Pregnancy is not a disease = don’t cover contraception which strips uterus bearers of autonomy. Pregnancy is a disease = you must submit yourself to hospital procedures which strip you of all autonomy. Until we center women’s autonomy — in contraceptives, in pregnancy and birth, in transitioning — we’re going to lose, because kyriarchy (commonly but not exclusively via “the Right”) will always twist the message to one that serves them.  Instead of serving us tacos, as they should.

There, add that whole exchange. Including the tacos.



  1. Em wrote:

    So… if only medicine to treat diseases can be covered, does that mean they don’t want to cover pre-natal care? After all, there’s no disease, so no treatment is medically necessary, right? I’d really like to see someone ask them why they want the babies to die. That’s the way to go on the offensive – don’t concede the “we care about life” point to them, point out all the ways they are anti-baby, anti-family, and anti-life. Chip away at the very foundations of their platform.

    Not covering anything treating a definite disease? Well, yearly checkups are out, as are mammogram screenings and prostate exams; if you turn out to be healthy, then you’ve just wasted money on a not-disease. You’ll just have to wait until you KNOW you have cancer to get your medical expenses covered. Of course that means you have much higher odds of dying, but… look, over there, a flying squirrel!

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  2. Samantha Jane wrote:

    Drat now I want tacos … I mean I wanted an IUD before mainly because my darling little boy has proven to me how much sickness can come home from daycare … ok not really its more about my bank balance and how ill that makes me … now to find tacos … Kogi Truck anyone?


    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  3. Sarah TX wrote:

    A quote from my employer’s Operating Policies and Procedures (in reference to allowable reasons to take sick leave): “Illness includes pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum care as approved by a physician.”

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink
  4. Sarah TX wrote:

    Umm… not that I think pregnancy is a disease, I just thought that this was serendipitous, considering this policy has been in place longer than I’ve been working here.

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink
  5. Psst… Morice, not Maurice.

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink
  6. Emily Manuel wrote:

    Ack, thanks Sweet Machine! My brain, where is it?

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  7. SSH wrote:

    Isn’t this beside the point? Contraception prevents HIV and Hepatitis which definitely ARE diseases.

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Dana wrote:

    Wow, don’t tell the military pregnancy’s not a disease. I worked in patient administration when I was in the Army, and when you admitted a patient to the hospital, you had to classify them as suffering from either a disease or an injury. Guess how all the OB patients were classified.

    These right-wing wackos ought to at least consider that traditional peoples usually insisted on spacing children at least two years apart because, any closer than that and nutritional deficiencies started happening. Some of those are *really* obvious from childbirth onward. It’s scary. But considering the right-wingers are where the Quiverfull movement is happening, I guess they haven’t stopped to think about that.

    By the way, I think the term “kyriarchy” sucks. I get why it was coined, but it’s based on a translation error. “Patriarchy” does not mean “rule by men.” It means “rule by the fathers.” If we’re going to invent fancy new pseudo-Greek words it’d probably help if we’d find out what the real ones actually mean. Just sayin’.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 2:51 am | Permalink
  9. S. Morice Brubaker wrote:

    (I’m doing one of those excited-yippy-dog-on-kitchen-tile dances to have gotten a TBD mention, even one with plenty criticism!) Yeah, I think I see your points. Honestly, part of why I never got there — to a point of saying “And this is what we should DO” — was because I’m just so discouraged at how effectively a perfectly lovely sentiment like “Maybe women AREN’T actually defective grody unmales fit for nothing but propagating the species” can be pressed into the service of racist and misogynist ideas. So I’d get as far as the point where it sounded in my mind like the “strategy” piece would naturally go, but then all I could come up with was: “SIGH. WHAT’S THE USE ANYMORE, I SWEAR.”

    I dunno, maybe that would have been a better closer.

    On arguing that pregnancy IS a disease when I ought instead to have been pissed off that people were using “Pregnancy is not a disease” as a means to deny contraception… well, I suppose I understood myself to be saying that pregnancy CAN be a disease. Or at least that I’m not in the position to declare that it isn’t. In my own case I experienced pregnancy as an affliction. (I cringe at the Job-like language, but wev, there it is.) And seeing how a category called “disease” is sometimes a little bit arbitrary… well, I don’t know but that pregnancy might absolutely be a disease for someone with HELLP, for example. I mean, I see (I think?) what’s gained by saying, emphatically, NO, pregnancy is NOT a disease. I just don’t know how to say that, while not also making it harder for someone to say “Um, I really thought pregnancy was hell on earth, and I never once found it blissful, and I hated every minute of it, and it made my life worse.”

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  10. aravind wrote:

    By the way, I think the term “kyriarchy” sucks. I get why it was coined, but it’s based on a translation error. “Patriarchy” does not mean “rule by men.” It means “rule by the fathers.” If we’re going to invent fancy new pseudo-Greek words it’d probably help if we’d find out what the real ones actually mean. Just sayin’.

    So, the term that’s accused of having too narrow of a meaning has an even narrower meaning, but we should still keep using it because neologisms suck? Color me confused.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink
  11. aravind wrote:

    Also, “medical condition” anyone? Since all those sources seem to be defining diseases as pathogen-related infections, this isn’t just about pregnancy. An allergy isn’t a “disease” (in that sense). Asthma isn’t a “disease”. Scoliosis isn’t a “disease”. Arguably this could be applied to mental health conditions, orthodental conditions, even congenital disorders like Marfan’s syndrome or Blue Baby syndrome. Hell, even diabetes falls under this category.

    If we shouldn’t have insurance companies cover procedures or medical supplies used to prevent pregnancy since it’s not caused by an infectious disease, well, all of those other diseases technically shouldn’t be covered either. This is tantamount to eugenics for the congenital disorders. Factor in how this is being expressed in terms of requiring insurance companies to cover this medical conditions, and hey, there’s the class war.

    So, yes, absolutely, this is about a war on female-bodied agency with analogues for trans bodily agency, but it’s also about economic inequalities and a whole mountain of abilism.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  12. Emily Manuel wrote:

    Hi Sarah, good to have you here!

    I really liked the piece as far as it goes, so I should point out that it was definitely more of a departure point to talk about a much, much deeper malaise in feminist response to right-wing frames (one that I include myself in, of course). WHAT THE USE ANYMORE, I SWEAR could probably be the motto of the pro-choice movement nowadays, almost.

    I can see that pointing out pregnancies can be life-threatening has really stopped being politically effective – health clause exemptions to abortion bans now more than ever are under attack.

    So yeah, it’s definitely worth pointing out, but incomplete… or at least needs a lot more traction, and a better frame to fit in (I think “pro choice,” as accurate as it is, is exhausted). I dunno.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  13. Emily Manuel wrote:

    And yes, absolutely Aravind. The biopolitics of the “pro life” movement are frightening in their eugenist implications.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  14. Hayley B wrote:

    I just have to say, Go Aravind. With all those on the table, there is just no defense for this inanity.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  15. Erin wrote:

    I think part of the problem feminists (just to pick one example from the Left) have had in responding to the right is that they tend to look at isolated aspects of the problem. So they fixate on abortion, but don’t see how women are stripped of their autonomy and human rights in hospitals while giving birth, because birth talk seems not-very-feminist somehow. Or we react to this “pregnancy is not a disease” business thinking it’s just a thread-jack from the natural child birth movement without understanding that we should have seen this argument coming, because it’s the EXACT SAME ARGUMENT that has been refused to grant people insurance coverage for infertility. But because infertility treatments don’t matter to a lot of us, it seemed like a side issue. So we’re not looking at the big picture and figuring out a strategy for mobilizing ourselves.

    And SMB makes a good point too – those of us who were almost killed by our pregnancies might react in a visceral way to the statement that pregnancy is not a disease. I almost had to go on disability for the condition I developed while pregnant. For the right wingers to say pregnancy is not a disease is problematic for all the reasons that have been discussed, but also because it erases the actual life-threatened problems that women have (and for which they are often untreated or undertreated).

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  16. Arwyn wrote:

    I’d argue that pregnancy is a life-state or a condition which, like many life-states or conditions, might come with diseases (or dis-eases), but is not, itself, inherently, a pathological state. To say “pregnancy is not a disease” doesn’t negate the problems some people DO have, any more than saying “fatness is not a disease” negates that some conditions or risks are aggravated by higher weights.

    I’m 39 weeks pregnant right now (and fat, and have perfect blood pressure, thus defying social stereotypes galore), and while some conditions I have (back and muscular problems) are aggravated by it, others (migraines and mood disorder) are actually alleviated. But the pregnancy itself doesn’t make me sick. If I had HELLP, it would be HELLP that made me sick — which, while a condition that only occurs in pregnancy, isn’t a sign of pregnancy qua pregnancy being a disease state.

    I deserve access to prenatal care because it’s preventive care and screens for the conditions of pregnancy that ARE diseases; when I’m not pregnant and wish to remain not pregnant, I deserve access to contraceptives because I have the right to avoid a life-state/condition that I don’t wish to enter into any more, and because no one, not even an embryo or fetus, has the right to use my body without my permission.

    Call me an optimist, but I truly believe we CAN (and should, and must) construct an argument that: supports full reproductive choice (including choices around birth and transitioning); supports access to contraception; doesn’t pathologize pregnancy or uterus-bearing; and honors the full range of experiences in pregnancy, from transcendent bliss to life-threatening agony. And that if we don’t, we lose.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink
  17. I couldn’t remember where I’d seen this post yesterday, glad I found it again. And yeah, for me the “pregnancy is not a disease” thing is setting off something pretty visceral, because my Sister in Law, despite having had a pregnancy in which she did everything “right” and everything proceeded like she was an illustration in a textbook, suddenly developed a placental abruption that required an emergency C-section or she and my new nephew would both have died. (They’re both doing fine now.)

    The meme I want to get into everybody’s head: Child-bearing is kindof a big deal in a person’s life. If you’re not pro-choice you’re trivializing what your own mother (or in some cases father) went through to bring you into existence.

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  18. Helen wrote:

    To me, the shit cherry on the shit icing of this is the fact that “pregnancy isn’t a disease” was a meme coined by midwives and antenatal professionals back in the day, to try to get some self-determination and sanity into birthing and de-medicalise births without complications. I remember it clearly from my pregnancies in the 1990s. This rightwing campaign has co-opted and stolen the language of feminism.

    Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink
  19. S. Morice Brubaker wrote:

    @Arwyn – Well, shoot. I’m convinced. Beautifully put. 🙂 And thanks (all) for the helpful clarification.

    Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  20. yes, you are right Helen! The term “Pregnancy is not a disease” was coined by feminist midwives who had been fighting against the patriarchal ob/gyn profession in their desire to prevent male doctors from carrying out episiotomies and C-sections with wanton abandoment.
    The Ob.Gyn profession appears to attract men who believe women’s bodies are inherently faulty and simply cannot give birth without male intervention.
    Statistically, in countries with high medical intervention rates, such as C-section, the maternal death rate is higher (the US has an astronomically high maternal death rate), whereas homebirths are statistically far safer.

    Not to mention the serious matter of human dignity and autonomy, which men strip from women as soon as they enter those patriarchal, male-run, institutions known an hospitals.

    Monday, August 29, 2011 at 2:41 am | Permalink
  21. TM wrote:

    Also important to note that contraceptives are used to treat non-pregnancy medical issues (hormone imbalances etc) in some cases, and to prevent/treat serious pregnancy-related problems by preventing the pregnancy itself (like ectopic pregnancy for example?)Some conditions or medications are incompatible with pregnancy, and so for medical reasons you might need to avoid pregnancy…medically there’s a whole spectrum of things going on out there. So no, pregnancy isn’t a disease per se, but…generally speaking, it improves your health to have control over uterus. And really, who are these politicians who refuse to listen to health experts and women on this issue? They’re all like “no, silly ladies (and silly dudes), we know you don’t really NEED this for your “health,” we know what you’re really up to…”

    Sunday, September 4, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink