After my wife’s home-pregnancy test came up positive, we made an appointment at our university’s student clinic to get professional confirmation. Eager for the news, when the receptionist showed us to the exam room I accompanied my wife inside. I thought this was a supportive gesture, so you can imagine my surprise when, after a wait of several minutes, the door reopened and a graying female PA in scrubs entered, only to stop dead in her tracks and icily flash me a look of profound perturbation, as if she identified my features as those of a hitchhiker who once brutally violated her in a Mulholland Drive shaggin’ wagon.
Thus, I found myself a barbarian interloper in the Magikal World of Womyn.
She greeted and introduced herself to my wife, ignoring me completely and avoiding so much as casting a second glance in my direction throughout the appointment. When I asked a question undeterred, she was less than curt.
Though I was never affronted with quite that level of naked hostility at subsequent checkups, over the next nine months I encountered a remarkably similar approach toward expectant fathers at nearly all of our appointments—apparently a scripted protocol.
We were assigned to an obstetrician who saw us periodically, but because we were being seen at affiliated clinics of a public university hospital (and, later on, at the hospital itself), we mostly saw a cross-section of residents, interns, medical students, nurses, PAs and ultrasound techs, the kinds of personnel bound most tightly by protocol.
The script went like this: the practitioner enters the exam room, greets only the patient, addresses only the patient and entirely ignores the expectant father, answering him only very tersely should he venture a question and avoiding looking in his direction at all. This was the treatment I received from about two-thirds of the practitioners we were seen by. The other 1/3 were low-ranking nurse-assistants and phlebotomists who apparently had not gotten the memo, and green intern MDs who lacked the self-confidence to enforce the protocol when they found themselves nudged by a gregarious enough father.
Even our main obstetrician, a med school emeritus and chief of the OB department, got in on the act. I’m no Ward Cleaver and I never harbored a preference for a doc with a firm handshake who would examine my wife lackadaisically while tapping ash off a Winston and chatting me up about the local college football team. But this guy palpably resented the prospect of conferring in any manner with a white male of lower formal educational attainment than himself, even about so pertinent a matter as the progress of that man’s wife’s pregnancy. It became difficult to escape the impression that he regarded my presence in the exam room as a kind of impudent pressure to confer with me, and that he therefore intended to make me feel like a fly on the wall, because he never once asked me whether I had any questions or concerns and never once shook my hand nor looked me in the eye, sticking as much as possible to the protocol I’ve described.
Of course, among doctors of every speciality, the human touch is rarer than ever, but this peculiar routine felt eerily political. If I am correct in assuming that it is, then at the largest and most lavishly funded public hospital in a state with one of the highest rates of endemic poverty and single motherhood in the country, the official approach to a father’s involvement in a woman’s pregnancy is to discourage it. It’s unclear to me what this approach restores to a woman’s care that would otherwise be lacking, but by denying a supportive father the most elementary courtesy as a matter of policy, this ostensibly woman-first regime deliberately obscures the greatest resource an expectant mother has other than the majesty of her own physiology and the advanced techniques of modern medicine.
Perhaps because we were being seen at a public university hospital attached to a medical school where government-subsidized research that precipitates public policy is conducted, there was a nagging emphasis throughout the system on access to free services and other condescending ministration to the hapless peasantry—Spanish-language pamphlets on nutrition and parenting, informational handouts on how to apply for benefits available only to select minorities, and other such expressions of a top-down, managerial impulse in si se puede guise. Of course, when a sober, hygienic and articulate white couple arrived fully capable of discerning and advocating for our own interests without such coaching, something gave us the feeling that, despite our pitiably low income, we were disrupting the regularly scheduled power dynamic and its humanitarian pretenses. A lot of little health decisions about our baby seemed to get taken without prior consultation by doctors who would then be genuinely taken aback when we declined or asked for further information.
In the eyes of a lawyer, an academic or a successful entrepreneur, a doctor cuts only negligibly more powerful a figure than a traffic cop. But for most people, a hospital, like public school, jail, the civil service or the military, is just another labyrinthine holding tank of retrograde humanity staffed by apathetic functionaries and run by self-important middle-managers who had better be avoided, or treated with obsequiousness. Indeed, the discretion society awards a single doctor over an innocent prenate, it grants no fewer than twelve citizens to snuff a guilty adult. (I realize that analogy is inexact, because in the case of abortion the choice is ostensibly the mother’s, not the doctor’s, but an expectant mother can no more have her offspring prenatally exterminated without a doctor’s approval than twelve citizens can elect to have a convict snuffed without the oversight of a judge.)
Now, if the public health system is moving toward the deputization of doctors in a decreasingly circuitous population control regime, I won’t argue that there aren’t good reasons. But of the reasons we can deduce that an individual physician would accept that role, I suspect a lot of them are obscured by some shitty little combination of altruistic rationalizing and punting of moral responsibility, which is what you always see from people who want power in a democracy. And I can accept that, almost exactly to the point where such power tries to extend itself over my cock and balls. But from the third trimester on, including every post-natal checkup of our son, my wife and I were affronted with the same question in identical wording from each new clinician we encountered: “What birth control are you two going to be using?” Uh…. get your public policy rosaries off my ovaries?
Considering the alternatives (throughout the animal kingdom as well as human history), the passivity of this aggression is not unappreciated. It’s the motives that creeped us out. The query succinctly delineated the choices the system condones from those it disapproves of, implied authoritative judgment in matters of the utmost private conscience and bodily exigency, and was phrased to compel information that ought to be volunteered only, because replying without providing it would’ve been tricky to do without coming across as acrimonious. The clear implication was that our private lives merit unsolicited concern from those who know better than us how to manage them. This invasiveness struck me as rather like a divorce lawyer asking a new client, “Who are you going to be sleeping with?”
When finally I summoned the gall to very gingerly confront one of the residents who performed a post-natal checkup on our son about the impropriety of the question, she replied, “Yeah, we’re required to ask that. But you guys look reliable.” Although I can’t be entirely certain, I understood “reliable” to mean: white; past our early-twenties; irreligious (or at least not Catholic); hygienic; literate; untattooed. Not like the wretched refuse we typically see here, whose reproductive prerogatives our high station requires us to usurp.
Meanwhile—in case you haven’t noticed—more and more affluent couples who’ve spent decades willfully forgoing parenthood for material and status reasons are availing themselves—relatively late in life—of frankenfertility processes that often entail selective destruction of embryos(=human beings), as well as outsized risk of birth defects and lethal complications of pregnancy—lethal, that is, to the prenate alone (in most cases). Destitute third-worlders and broke college students are paid cut-rates to risk horrendous reproductive health maladies so that wealthy, infertile couples can harvest their eggs or rent out their wombs while perfectly lovable children languish and are abused in cold, indifferent foster homes and orphanages at home and abroad. Every time I see a silverback New Yorker subscriber with a Thule rack picking up a kindergartner from my son’s elementary school, I’m reminded of Elmyra from Tiny Toons.
Although there’s no place for the hand of the downtrodden on this coin-op lever of life, murder is cut-rate, publicly subsidized and easier to arrange than an EBT card. As is well known, the vast majority of abortions in this country are performed on poor and minority women, while the uncomprehending Thule rack owners at Slate and the Atlantic scratch their heads and do more mental gymnastics. The 21st-century variant of noblesse oblige is the initiation of the teeming unsophisticated into infanticide by their educated betters, most of whom support these coercive practices in trance-like self-deception about the socioeconomic self-interest that guides them, at least as paternalistically self-assured as any priest or patriarch that they know what’s best for the ignorant, downtrodden and unexpectedly pregnant young woman, “staring terrified and alone into the abyss of mother nature’s unknowable prerogatives for her body.” Their remorseless approach to her dilemma proceeds as much from the impulse to control female sexuality, from our species’ irrational revulsion for the slimy imperfection of our origins, as any religion ever has. The ethos of the age proclaims, “To thine own self be true!”, but its best exponent is not Hester Prynne. It’s Reverend Dimmesdale.