Mother’s Day — A Different Perspective

The stifling of reproductive choice carries profound repercussions for women's well-being and autonomy.

6 mins read
Sierra Leone [Photo: Annie Spratt/ Unsplash]

“Youth fades; love droops; the leaves of friendship fall; A mother’s secret hope outlives them all.” – Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

The 12th of May, or the second Sunday in May each year, is recognized across numerous nations worldwide such as the United States, Canada, Australia, India, and Japan, as Mother’s Day. Prominent among these are Anguilla, Aruba, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, China, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, Taiwan, United States, and various others.

It is known that Mother’s Day was founded in the United States in 1908 by Anna Jarvis and spread throughout the world to be celebrated by over 100 countries worldwide. The origins of honoring mothers and motherhood can be found in ancient civilizations like the Greeks and Romans, who dedicated festivals to mother goddesses such as Rhea and Cybele. However, the most direct precursor to modern Mother’s Day is the early Christian observance called “Mothering Sunday.”

Previously a significant tradition in the United Kingdom and certain parts of Europe, this celebration occurred on the fourth Sunday of Lent. Initially, it symbolized a time for believers to return to their “mother church”—the primary church in their local area—for a special service.

Now, Mother’s Day is commercialized more than revered where, apart from the genuine offspring and dutiful husbands,   insouciant children and erring spouses join the bandwagon by camouflaging their perennial neglect with gifts, special dinners and sponsored trips, to name just a few of the spurious gestures.

The Different Perspective Choice

On this significant day, it must be foremost in our minds that every woman should have the inherent right to choose whether or not to become a mother. However, the reality is harsh, with millions of women and girls facing daunting challenges such as sexual violence, limited access to contraceptives, and restrictive laws and social norms that hinder their reproductive autonomy. For these individuals, the most critical reproductive decision they confront isn’t a choice at all.

As Mother’s Day is commemorated in over 100 nations this month, it’s crucial to highlight the importance of having the freedom to choose motherhood—a privilege that remains out of reach for many. Embracing this choice is deeply rooted in human rights and women’s empowerment. Denying individuals this choice not only perpetuates inequality but also has far-reaching consequences on their health and economic well-being. Globally, countless women and girls are unable to make decisions about when, whether, and with whom to conceive, leading to unintended pregnancies that often result in violations of rights, psychological distress, and maternal mortality. Ultimately, depriving individuals of their reproductive autonomy undermines their potential in various aspects of life, from education and career opportunities to their overall mental and physical health.

Equality

The ability to exercise choice in motherhood is inherently tied to achieving gender equality: When individuals, especially women, have agency over their reproductive decisions, they can actively engage in society and uphold their right to bodily self-determination.

However, entrenched gender norms are depriving women of the opportunity to decide whether and when to become mothers. In Jordan, a woman shared her experience of feeling pressured to conceive early in marriage, while in the United Republic of Tanzania, a man highlighted the struggles faced by adolescents and youth due to misinformation and societal pressures.

Moreover, gender-biased norms are compelling women to make agonizing choices between fulfilling their desired family size and pursuing their career aspirations. Data reveals that women often exit the workforce post-childbirth, leading to dependency or financial instability. Even when they remain employed, women disproportionately bear the burden of household chores and childcare responsibilities. Hideko, a 22-year-old office worker in Tokyo, expressed her desire for a future marriage under conditions where she can maintain her career and share domestic duties and childcare responsibilities with her partner.

Furthermore, women are individuals with autonomy, not mere vessels for influencing population dynamics. Yet, due to these inequalities, many women end up having more children than they desire, while others are unable to have as many children as they wish. Unfortunately, in discussions about birth rates and fertility, women’s preferences regarding family size are often disregarded.

The stifling of reproductive choice carries profound repercussions for women’s well-being and autonomy.

Constraints and Empowerment

The right to make decisions about pregnancy is interconnected with various other fundamental rights: the right to autonomy over one’s body and destiny, the right to access healthcare, and the right to nurture children in a secure and healthy environment. However, for many individuals, particularly women, this autonomy remains elusive. It is reported that in Nigeria, a woman lamented the necessity of obtaining consent from partners when seeking family planning services, highlighting how men often exert influence over women’s choices. Similarly, in Uganda, a man noted that contraceptive options are often dictated by availability rather than genuine choice, underscoring the imbalance between supply and demand that can determine a family’s future.

Conversely, advocating for women’s empowerment and choice can lead to progress and prosperity for all. This is evident in the increasing inclusivity of grassroots movements and the emerging alliances between feminist, LGBTQIA+, and racial justice organizations. According to UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem, a diverse coalition of activists, spanning from feminists to indigenous and climate activists, is charting a path towards a more equitable and shared future. She emphasizes that our collective strength lies in our unity and collaboration, highlighting the interconnectedness of our efforts and the promise of working together towards common goals.

Surrogacy

This Mother’s Day we could perhaps reflect on Robert Nozick, renowned for his work “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” published in 1974. Nozick is often associated with the concept of “self-ownership.” What makes Nozick’s stance compelling is his assertion that every individual possesses inherent self-ownership, leading to a firm denial of the notion that one can be morally exploited as a mere tool to achieve another’s objectives. By affirming self-ownership, individuals are held accountable for their actions but are shielded from being manipulated for someone else’s gain, as they inherently belong to themselves.

Motherhood is sacred and is a deeply emotional relationship for the mother. Motherhood cannot be bought or sold, or alienated, even if a woman consents to sell her motherhood or has to succumb to coercion, abuse or intimidation that leads to conception. A good example is the case of Baby M, decided 23 years ago by the New Jersey Supreme Court. 

  William Stern and his spouse, Dr. Elizabeth Stern, faced infertility challenges due to Elizabeth’s multiple sclerosis, which prevented them from conceiving. Turning to the Infertility Center of New York (ICNY), they explored surrogacy as a potential solution. Mary Beth Whitehead, a married woman with two children, agreed to undergo artificial insemination with William Stern’s sperm and carry the child to full term.

The parties entered into a surrogacy agreement, stipulating that Mary Beth would serve as both an egg donor and a surrogate. In exchange for $10,000, Mary Beth consented to relinquish all parental rights to the child, later named Melissa, now famously known as Baby M. However, after giving birth to Baby M without complications, Mary Beth developed second thoughts upon seeing the infant. She subsequently contested the agreement, demanding custody of the child and attempting to nullify the contract.

This sparked a contentious legal battle over the validity of the surrogacy contract and custody rights to Baby M. Ultimately, the court awarded custody to the Sterns and upheld the contract. Critical to the court’s decision was a disturbing conversation between Mary Beth and William Stern, during which she threatened physical harm to Baby M. Despite Mary Beth’s appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the appellate courts maintained Baby M’s custody with the Sterns but nullified the surrogacy contract, reinstating parental and visitation rights to Mary Beth. Additionally, the court deemed paid surrogacy as potentially illegal and degrading to women.

My Take

On this Mother’s Day, let us take a moment to reflect on the profound complexities and ethical dimensions of motherhood, transcending mere commercialization. Originating from ancient civilizations, the celebration of motherhood has evolved into a global phenomenon, yet its essence often gets overshadowed by material gestures. Amidst the festivities, it is crucial to acknowledge the inherent right of every woman to choose her path in motherhood. Too often, this right is marred by daunting challenges—sexual violence, restricted access to contraceptives, and societal norms undermining reproductive autonomy. The sanctity of motherhood cannot be bought or coerced; it rests on the foundational principle of self-ownership, as advocated by Robert Nozick.

Reflecting on the poignant case of Baby M, we confront the intricate web of legal battles and moral dilemmas surrounding surrogacy. While the courts upheld the sanctity of contracts, they also underscored the profound ethical considerations at stake. Motherhood transcends mere contractual agreements; it embodies a profound emotional connection and responsibility. As we commemorate Mother’s Day, let us uphold the dignity and autonomy of every woman, affirming their right to choose and navigate the journey of motherhood on their terms. Together, let us forge a future where equality, empowerment, and compassion guide our collective journey towards a more just and inclusive society.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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