The two cases that I presented show how sexual and reproductive issues are still in many ways under the control of a patriarchal system. In the first situation Michelle wanted to have a baby but her husband did not. I recall the circumstances that a friend encountered when she was pregnant for her fourth child. She was very excited but her husband when not. When she declined to end the pregnancy her husband ultimately left her. The baby turned out to be a beautiful girl who now makes her living as an actress in Holly wood. Of course, it could go the other way. A woman wants to terminate the pregnancy but her husband does not.
The treatment of Michelle presents an example of the ways in which cultural scripts become templates for the roles that men and women play out in our society. In her case a very traditional picture emerges in which the male is the more powerful in terms of money and prestige and the woman, subordinate. Her role is to please her man, accommodate his wishes, and shore up his self-esteem—very much the comfort woman. But when Michelle decides that she wants to have a child and her time is running out, the balance of power threatens to change. She is calling the shots—compelling him to have his sperm count checked, directing him toward a diet that might enhance fertility, scheduling doctor appointments to accommodate her schedule, not his. The ultimate threat is that she might use another man’s sperm to have a baby. Her husband has excuses that seem reasonable—he is too old; he already has children; it would change their relationship. Among their friends the patient indicated that men were more sympathetic to her husband and women, to her. Each had points of view that seemed reasonable to their own sex.
How then should it be decided if one partner wants a child and the other does not, as in the case of my patient, Michelle? Her husband, Jake, could not tolerate leaving the decision in her hands. With another patient the choices were reversed. My female patient related to me that her husband had hidden her birth control pills. She was threatening to leave him and he wanted to tie her to him by having another child with her. What if she had become pregnant? Who should decide the fate of the pregnancy? What happens in those countries where there are limits to the number of children a family may have? Are there women involved in making those laws or regulating the exceptions? Can we even imagine a world where women are the deciders about birth control, abortion, pregnancy, number of children? Women would emerge from the shadows as the powerful beings that they are—essential and, in many ways, in charge, of our survival as a species. As it is, however, they are far too often the unwilling victims of their biology, codified within the prevailing system that is patriarchy.
Ellen Toronto, PhD is a clinical psychologist in Ann Arbor, MI. She co-authored A Womb of Her Own: Women’s Struggle for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy available on Amazon. See additional information about Ellen and her practice on her website; to schedule an appointment email etoronto@umich.edu or call her at 734.761.5501.

Photo by Yuchao.L