abortion/reproduction

Last year I posted a table showing the dramatic rise in the birth of twins among women 45-49 (from less than 25 per 1,000 to almost 200 per 1,000 in 2002).  The graphic below, included alongside a New York Times article on the topic, shows the increased risk of preterm birth and low birth weight that comes with multiple births and the cost of taking care of premature babies (almost $51,000 versus under $5,000 for a baby born at term):

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Given that the U.S. is discussing health care reform at the moment, it might be worth while to consider whether having a biological child is “worth” it.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The other day I snapped a photo of this lotion I saw for sale at the grocery store:

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We’ve often posted on pointlessly gendered products. This, as far as I can tell, is a pointlessly pregnancy-related product. I couldn’t see a thing about it that was different than other versions of the same brand except that it says it’s for the life stage “pregnancy & motherhood.” If it at least said something about stretch marks that would make some sense, but it didn’t. On the back it just referred to dry skin and being formulated for a pregnant woman’s “special needs,” which were entirely unspecified, as was the way in which this bottle of lotion could address them.

I went to the Curél website to see what other life stages they identify. The website at least mentions stretch marks for the pregnancy/motherhood formula, so that’s an effort to pretend there’s a point to it. There were two more types: “first signs of aging” and “menopause and beyond.” A chart showing the effectiveness of the anti-aging lotion:

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Of course, we have no idea what the baseline is, and while I presume the y-axis is %, it doesn’t actually say that. And apparently all women were going through a reverse-aging process that week, since even the untreated ones had a positive change.

So apparently women get to look forward to three stages, all of which have unique hydration needs: you have a baby, you notice signs of aging, and then you’re old. I have so much to look forward to.

Putting into stark contrast today’s push to look fashionable while pregnant (as well as the fact that pregnancy is in fashion), this vintage ad markets the ability of maternity wear to conceal your pregnancy:

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Selected text:

Maternity clothes help to conceal your condition and keep you smart throughout your pregnancy. Adjust easily to your changing figure.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Using maternal mortality, Hans Rosling illustrates the uncertainty in different ways of measuring variables:

Found at GapMinder.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

I saw this footage of flatworm reproduction years ago on PBS and I was so excited when Robin H. sent it in!

Flatworms are hermaphroditic.  All flatworms can inseminate and be inseminated.  These flatworms also have two penises each. Flatworms are sexual.  That is, they reproduce sexually by finding a partner with which to trade genetic material.  (Asexual creatures do not trade genetic material, they reproduce by making copies of themselves.)

A flatworm reveals its two penises (in white):

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What is interesting about this clip sociologically (in case you’re not already intrigued enough) is how the narrator describes what the flatworms are doing.

Let’s first suppose that it makes little sense to attribute human emotions and motivations to flatworms.  Let’s also suppose that narrations of animal behavior are often going to tell us a lot about how we think and only a little, if anything, about what’s going on with the  social lives of invertebrates.

As you watch the clip below, notice that they explain the behavior not descriptively, but metaphorically.  Flatworm mating behavior is like war and wars have winners and losers:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fx-YgcP8Gg[/youtube]

So the narrator explains that flatworm “sex is more like war than love.”  Worms are “swordsmen” who are “penis fencing.” (Mix metaphors much?)  They carry “double daggers” (penises).  And “the first one to make a successful jab, delivers its sperm.”

Notice how the narrator genders the hermaphroditic flatworms.  Because they have penises they are “swordsmen.”  Apparently their equally functional capacity to be inseminated is eclipsed by their dangerous daggers!

And notice, too, how they describe the flatworm who becomes inseminated as the “loser.”  The “losing flatworm,” the narrator explains, “bears the burden of motherhood, committing valuable resources to having offspring.”

Wow.

Sperm on the “loser”:

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Now it may be true that being the “mother” involves the use of resources. [Note: And this is a nod to the evolutionary logic involved.]  But even so, we would never call the females of non-hermaphroditic sexual species “losers” would we?  I mean, they both get to pass on their genetic material, and doesn’t that make them both winners from an evolutionary perspective?

No doubt it seems reasonable to call the functional female of the pair a loser in a sexist world in which childbearing is defined as a disability (according to the Americans with Disabilities Act) and childraising is defined as non-productive (it garners no wages or benefits and cannot be put on a resume).  Gosh, being non-hermaphroditic, human females are losers by default.  They don’t even get to play the game.

So sexism is one way to explain the wildly offensive characterization of the inseminated flatworm as a “loser.”  But it also may just be that, in choosing a war/sports metaphor to describe flatworm behavior, they inevitably had to characterize one or the other as a loser.  This is a great example of the folly of metaphor.  Metaphors can be used to make something unfamiliar make sense by comparing it to something familiar, but it also runs the risk of forcing the thing being explained to mirror the thing you use to explain it with.

It’s simply sloppy.  And, all too often, it results in projecting ugly realities with which we are all too familiar onto those things we don’t really understand.

For another example of the projection of socially constructed human relations onto the body, see our post on sperm, eggs, and fertilization.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The past and the future can be presented as either threatening or appealing. The past can be “traditional” (good) or “old-fashioned” (bad but kinda nice) or “backwards” (definitely bad).   And the future can be “progressive” (good) or “radical” (maybe good but certainly scary, often very bad) or threatening (“new-fangled” or “going to hell in a handbasket”).

In the this tampon ads from the 1940s, being “too old to follow the modern ideas” is framed as an unfortunate state that women should overcome.  Not trying the new product is “holding [yourself] back.”

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picture15Similarly, in this ad, a daughter instructs her mother on advances in managing “intimate problem[s]”:

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The ads reveal how ideas related to change (this time the promise of modernity) can be mobilized strategically (this time for marketing purposes). Here is another great example related to gay marriage.

Ads found here and here.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Dmitriy sent us a link to the Candies Foundation, a non-profit organization that wants teenage girls to avoid pregnancy by abstaining from sex.  So they’re going to make abstinence as sexy as possible!  The slogan: “I’m SEXY enough… to keep you waiting”:

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I noticed also that the message is aimed exclusively at girls. “You” is implicitly a guy.

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The responsibility for keeping teens abstinent and for preventing teen pregnancy, then, falls solely on girls.

Dmitriy also points out that the campaign promotes abstinence, but not the use of birth control. He adds: “we do not combat auto accidents by not driving. we prevent them through driving and safety ed.”

See also this post featuring sweatpants that say “true love waits” across the ass.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Headlines across the country recently noted that more Americans now consider themselves “pro-life” than ”pro-choice”. In the last month many polls have focused on Americans’ views on abortion, yet the Gallup poll released on May 15, 2009, got the most attention. President Obama was just about to give the commencement address at Notre Dame where a controversy had erupted; critics complained that a pro-choice politician should not have been granted an honorary degree at a Catholic institution.

The Gallup poll graphs below show the new divergence of opinion. Looking at the pattern over time, it is clear that opinions of pro-choice versus pro-life have been changing, although the trend between 1998 and 2008 is not remarkable in its variety. The change that the news signaled is that last switch in the apparent prevalence of pro-life opinions.

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Sociologically, let’s look at this issue more closely. Opinions on abortion, its availability, one’s identification with the issue, and its legality are sensitive and controversial because they involve religious, political, and cultural values and very personal, often difficult situations.

Polls show a variety of support depending on the wording of the questions. Look at the poll results from the last month:

Gallup Poll (May 7-10, 2009. N=1,015 adults nationwide. Margin of Error ± 3).

“Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?”

Legal Under any Circumstance Legal only under Certain Circumstances Illegal in all Circumstances Unsure
22% 53% 23% 2%

Quinnipiac University Poll (April 21-27, 2009. N=2,041 registered voters nationwide. Margin of Error ± 2.2).
“Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases or illegal in all cases?”

Always Legal Usually Legal Usually Illegal Always Illegal Unsure
15% 37% 27% 14% 7%

The wording of the questions are only slightly different (circumstances versus cases) yet the results are quite different. Note that a only a minority hold that abortions should always be illegal. “Identity” issues also frame the debate. As the following polls show, when asked whether they consider themselves pro-life or pro-choice, respondents offered slightly different results.

Here’s something sociologists need to consider: We don’t know whether these differences are statistically significant. This rather important issue is not addressed in news reports on the Gallup Poll. It may be that we have equal percents of people in each category and the oscillations over time are not statistically significant. At the very least, the reported margin of error (MoE) shows that the percent of people in these groups may not be so different after all.

FOX News/Opinion Dynamics Poll (May 12-13, 2009. N=900 registered voters nationwide. MoE ± 3).

“On the issue of abortion, would you say you are more pro-life or more pro-choice?”

Pro-life Pro-Choice Both/Mix Unsure
49% 43% 6% 2%

Gallup Poll (May 7-10, 2009. N=1,015 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3).

“With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?”

Pro-choice Pro-life Mixed/Neither Don’t Know What Terms Mean Unsure
42% 51% 2% 4% 1%

CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll (April 23-26, 2009. N=2,019 adults nationwide. MoE ± 2).

“With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?”

Pro-choice Pro-life Unsure about Terms Mixed/Both/Neither Unsure
49% 45% 1% 3% 1%

Another way to look at abortion opinions is to ask about people’s legal opinions as this poll does. The CNN poll below asked specifically about the Roe v. Wade decision. Even if more people might identify themselves as pro-life, there is still a preponderance of support for the Supreme Court decision.

CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll (May 14-17, 2009. N=1,010 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3).

“The 1973 Roe versus Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Would you like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe versus Wade decision, or not?”

Yes, Overturn No, Not Overturn Unsure
30% 68% 1%

Here’s another piece of data to consider – the actual trends in abortions. Since the 1980s, the rates have leveled off thus abortion has not increased in use. The fact that it is has been decreasing and not increasing might lessen opinions about its availability.

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To better understand how the pro-life and pro-choice opinions may be changing; take a look at these graphs from the Gallup poll and notice which lines are moving in which direction.

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It seems pretty clear that more conservative, moderate, and Republican people are leaning more pro-life than they were in years past. How might we explain this? Republican leaders have stressed this issue in their attempt to solidify opposition to the Obama administration and the gains made by Democrats in the House and Senate.

From a sociological perspective, we can see that this issue is much more complex than a single headline. Before we can conclude that social change is happening, we need to examine the data available and whether our findings are statistically significant. What other methodological questions do you think we need to ask to better understand trends in public opinion?

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Sally Raskoff is a blogger at the Everyday Sociology Blog and is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Los Angeles Valley College. One of her main goals in life is to demystify society through the use of sociology.

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