Wednesday, April 18, 2007

War Between the Sexes

Today’s news reported that the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, upheld the so-called "Partial Birth Abortion Law." Though anti-abortion advocates like to pretend that this law is meant to preserve "life," in fact, it and the decision just announced represent new attacks by male-dominated institutions (both the Supreme Court majority and the Congress that passed the law are male preserves) in the continuing war between the sexes.

"War" in this context may seem a bit old-fashioned, but consider some of the scientific evidence in Robert Sapolsky’s book, Monkeyluv. First, fruit flies exemplify one of the most extreme forms of this war, a war that turns on the knotty fact that the genetic interest of males in reproduction differs from that of females. Fruit flies, that is, mate serially and with multiple partners. This being the case, males have no interest in the well-being of the female fruit fly, except to get their genes passed on to her offspring. Thus, male fruit flies deposit their semen in the female, and fly off. This would be fine, except for the fact that the male fruit fly has a ruthless way of protecting his investment: his semen contains a component that is toxic to the sperm of any other fruit fly. So when another fruit fly tries to mate with the same female, its sperm is killed, allowing the first male’s sperm to bear fruit. Not a bad system if you’re male. The problem is that the toxic element in male semen is also eventually toxic to the female, and she will die from it. As Sapolsky wryly comments at his conclusion: "Caveat emptor, baby."

Of course, one might take comfort from the fact that insects are, thankfully, not mammals, except for the fact that mammals, specifically humans, have evolved a somewhat comparable system. It concerns the placenta. Scientists now understand that the placenta is only partly related to the mother, that, indeed, it can be seen as on some level "invading" her body like an octopus. It actually dispatches tentacles to the mother’s blood vessels so that they can divert nutrients from her body to her growing fetus. More than that, the placenta is described as the locus of a battle between paternal genes, driving it to invade more thoroughly, and maternal genes attempting to inhibit placental development. In fact, in abnormal cases where paternal genes are absent, female genes inhibit placental growth so much that the fetus cannot grow. Contrarily, where maternal genes are absent, the paternal genes create such exuberant growth that they result in a cancer called choriocarcinoma. The point here, again, is that males have an interest in a larger, healthier fetus, even at the expense of the mother, whereas females necessarily are keen to keep fetus size down, and their own bodies healthy.

It would seem, then, that women in our time should recognize that beneath the rhetoric and religious pretense, the abortion battle is simply another instance of the continuing genetic war between the sexes. Men—at least those in fundamentalist communities—can be seen as having an interest in continuing high rates of birth. Nations run by men have an interest in keeping the birth rate high, both to provide fodder for armies, and to keep replenishing the ranks of workers, consumers, and so on. Hence, the male-sponsored laws to outlaw or regulate abortion. Females, contrarily, seek to maintain control over their bodies, both to maintain bodily health, and to increase their life choices beyond the restrictive one of bearing children. Hence, the freer use of abortion as a method of control would be of greater moment to women.

Whether most members of the opposing sexes are aware of these biological battles taking place at the genetic level is not the issue. The issue is realizing that the battles are real, they are serious, and women, especially, need to become educated about the critical and life-threatening dynamics that are in play.

Lawrence DiStasi

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