Abortion, Wagnerian heroes, and the body of the Other

Siegmund and Sieglinde (illustration by Arthur Rackham)

The House of Commons voted this week to reject an amendment by Nadine Dorries MP to the Health and Social Care Bill 2011, which could have had the effect of limiting women’s right to abortion by redoubling the social pressure against their decision. It is only one news story this week in which people’s decisions about what to do with themselves bodily was brought into focus. It has two unlikely bedfellows in the Scottish newspapers:

  1. A declaration by the Catholic archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, that gay marriage is ‘meaningless’ because it doesn’t produce a ‘natural family’ (reported in the Herald)
  2. A brother and sister being caught on CCTV having sex in a train station lift (reported in the Scottish Sun)

All liberal-minded people can be expected to find the first story a reprehensible and all too familiar example of ultramontane priestly prudery, a sex-abstaining man telling people how to live their sex lives. But nobody in their right mind would defend the second, would they? Well, I think Wagner might, and while I don’t condone having sex in a public lift, on CCTV, I suggest both that we might do well to listen to him, and to reflect on the connexion between these three disparate stories.

What unifies these stories is the way people tend to respond psychologically to the terrifying and disgusting Other, whose difference they are willing to tolerate only insofar as it is sanitized, controlled, regulated, normally at the level of what it does with its body. Social liberals tolerate their ethnic and cultural others as long as the others remain (or become) as liberal as the liberals (so, no forced marriage, no ‘honour killings’); tolerate homosexuals as long as they are essentially heteronormative (be monogamous; settle down into relatively normative couples, even getting married or civilly partnered); and so on. But even in the most progressive and understanding, kindest and most reflective people, an urge towards irrational control of the bodies of others asserts itself from time to time, and from case to case, in response to horror and/or disgust.

Wagner is good on this. The centrally spotlighted tragedy of the Ring (not its central thrust, but a vital component) is the betrayal and death of Siegfried, the great German hero. He is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, pictured above, who get together in the first act of the opera before his own (Die Walküre, the second of the four-part cycle). Theirs is a wonderful love, set to some of Wagner’s most sumptuous and erotic music. Siegmund rescues Sieglinde from a loveless and violent marriage to the monstrous Hunding. When, in a supernatural moment, Siegmund is offered a death of a thousand luxuries (including the familiar offer of all the virgins he can cope with) he rejects the offer for continued life and love with Sieglinde. I think it might be psychologically impossible for anyone listening to Wagner’s music not to take Siegmund’s and Sieglinde’s side, to love their love. And that is despite the fact, which I’ve suppressed, that they are brother and sister (and know it). Fricka, the goddess of love, is irked by this and confronts her husband Wotan, asking ‘when was it ever known that brother and sister should love each other erotically?’ He shrugs and utters the exemplary Wagnerian jocular rebuff: ‘Well, you’ve seen it today’ (‘Heut’ hast du’s erlebt’). Incest is an important minor theme in the Ring, always with people for whom the radical Wagner has his greatest sympathy. So, when Siegfried comes to have his own sexual relationship, the revolutionary love that will found a new world (it is Wagner’s vision, in nuce, of a communist society), it is with his aunt, Brünnhilde.

It’s clear that Wagner is inviting us, if not to embrace incest (who could do that in one move, even under the sway of this music?), then at least to reflect on our opposition to it. Who, in response to the story of the Scottish siblings having sex in the lift, could think ‘good for them’? More people would, of course, say ‘good for them’ if they heard of a gay wedding or a woman feeling relieved from the disastrous effects of having a baby by aborting before 12 weeks. But I want to suggest that things aren’t so very different from the question of incest, because ultimately the question always hinges on the disgusting and terrifying Other.

What are the arguments against incest? Perhaps the most obvious are:

  1. It’s icky
  2. It’s immoral
  3. It’s biologically dangerous (for any children)

On closer inspection, none of these arguments really holds water. I find lots of things icky, like kissing Tories, but I realize that my icky feeling is no sane argument against other people doing it. No law can be based on ickiness. Morality seems a better bet, and has a religious and non-religious basis. Religions tell us that it is against the will of the deity that a brother and sister, or nephew and aunt, etc., should marry (or have sex). For the non-religious this carries no force whatever, and can by them be dismissed. But what about the non-religious argument, which is that since sexual relationships have a tendency to break down and in many (though of course by no means all) cases there is a lasting or permanent tension between the two former members of the sexual relationship, the beginning of a incestuous sexual relationship poses a real hazard for family relations. If two siblings start having sex then a third sibling or a cousin or a mother is put at risk both of the social consequences and of the potential emotional fallout from a breakup (a breakup which, because of the social pressure against the match, is even more likely than normal). But many things cause tensions in families. In fact I’m not sure that a good definition of family is not ‘a grouping of human beings, based on power imbalances and a more or less begrudging sense of debt that binds people in grim closeness to one another, without positive ties to bind them, and with a guilty inability to admit, even to themselves, that this is the case’. So the non-religious opposition is dubious too.

It’s the biological objection that interests me most. Siblings, we are to understand, should not have sexual relationships because their children stand an increased chance of inheriting genetic problems. We need immediately to stand back here. Why is it that children are both presumed and used as a basis for moral judgement? We rub up immediately against Archbishop Conti’s traditionally Catholic position here, that the ‘natural’ union of two people is intended for the purpose of procreation. This makes homosexuals, and for reasons of consistency should also make sterile couples, ‘unnatural’ and even ‘immoral’ unions, since no children can result. (Ditto the union of old, post-menopausal women and young men, though not – god bless patriarchy – old men and nubile young women.) Any love relationship, between whichever two people are involved, may or may not result in procreation. Procreation and love are separate issues, and any moral system that fails to understand this has no serious claims to intellectual value.

Is fear of producing a genetically ‘defective’ child really a good reason for two people not to have sex? Very quickly this line of argument takes on uncomfortably eugenicist colourings. Furthermore, it is not only sexually active siblings who are at risk of creating genetically problematic children. Two completely unrelated people stand a risk of producing a haemophiliac child, for instance. If we’re being consistent here we should require everyone to undergo sophisticated genetic screening before the age of 12 or so, and to be put into a database so that, before having sex with any member of the opposite sex they can determine whether they are ‘morally’ allowed on grounds of the likelihood of genetic interactions between them producing ‘wrong’ children.

There may be other arguments against incest that I haven’t mentioned, and dismissing these three main ones is no encouragement for siblings to mate. (Obvious arguments against, for instance, intergenerational incest, are not unique to incest: power relations between old and young figure too in non-incestuous relationships.) Given the social pressures against it, it is a phenomenally difficult life choice to consider, though people do take hard life choices for love: ‘interracial marriages’ in early 20th-century America, for instance.

But how does this all relate to Nadine Dorries’s barely concealed war on abortion? I wouldn’t take more than the time it takes to write this blogpost (or to discuss the Siegmund/Sieglinde relationship in my Wagner seminars) to stand up for incest, but would make concerted and loud efforts to protect a woman’s right to abortion. Yet they are, despite the difference of scale (all women potentially need the right to abortion; probably very few people want incestuous relationships) broadly parallel situations. The arguments from ick, (non-)religious morality, and biology all come into play. Aborting a ‘baby’ or an ‘unborn child’ (rather than a clump of cells) is icky, for starters: the thing will clutch your hand as it comes out, dying, according to one particularly vivid myth. The holiness and sanctity of ‘life’ (here, a thing that cells have but women do not) makes it an affront to any particular god to ‘kill’ it. (Killing spiders, or microbes, alike god’s creations, carries of course no such moral opprobrium, but by now we should not expect consistency.) The non-biological moral argument is the argument for the unborn child or for the father: why don’t they get a say, the question goes. And on biological grounds, it is a woman’s ‘natural’ function, the reason why she ‘lacks’ a penis, that she should gestate and suckle a contribution to the next generation. Taken separately or rolled together, those reasons justify, in the minds of anti-abortionists, the restriction of the freedom of the Other to have abortions. Icky, (non-)religious morality, or biological prejudice makes people feel justified in preventing others from undertaking behaviour that they themselves do not want to perform: like me preventing people eating mushrooms just because I despise them. The Other must be sanitized and controlled so that it is like me.

The disgust most people feel at the decisions that some other people take, for all we know in conditions of real, if difficult to comprehend, love (incestuous, gay, intergenerational, interracial, whatever), is a structural parallel of the disgust and horror that anti-abortionists feel at the Other’s performance of this fundamental human freedom. That is why as a force the war on abortion, only one manifestation of psychological horror in the face of the Other, is unlikely to go away. Of course I’m making a deliberately spectacular comparison of abortion to gay marriage and incest. They’re radically different things, but they share the ineradicable and vital element of the universal human urge to control other people’s bodies. They are cases where the moral question is not ‘What should I do for the general good?’ but ‘What should I legislate to prevent other people from doing, simply because it disgusts me?’ And while that is psychologically comprehensible, it is a moral error.



  1. With almost a slight of hand you put aside the genetic risks of incest by saying that any counion can produce a child with a genetic defect. You seem not to understand the biology here. In the end its down to probability. (At its simplest , the probability of two parents sharing copies of the same mutation.) One could argue that its safe to cross any road, because a quiet country road gives almost no risk of being knocked down, whilst in fact the equivalent of incest would be trying to cross a motorway and this would clearly not safe. So its not really logical to argue any union should require genetic testing if we are worried about genetic consequences of breeding. The consequences of incest will have made themselves apparent, so perhaps the rules are the result of learning, although clearly other things may be relevant here.

    • I’m not persuaded that probability explains the incest prohibition. The probability of an incestuous union producing a genetic ‘defect’ is less than 1, yet all such unions are prohibited. The probability of unrelated partners producing a genetic ‘defect’ is greater than 0, yet no such unions are prohibited. (I’m setting aside for the moment, just to answer this specific point, the dubiousness of (a) presuming that lovers necessarily want to have children, which is a pre-contraceptive presumption, and (b) the assumption that some non-normative genetic or bodily presentation in a child is necessarily ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, or ‘defective’.) There is no measure in between those extremes (0.75? 0.95?) that triggers the prohibition, so probability alone does not explain it. The argument from probability merely attempts to provide some kind of objective justification for the disgust which is the real motivation.

      If a woman knowingly carries a gene which greatly increases the risk of breast cancer, there is no prohibition on her having a child. Even if the risk of her transmitting the gene to her daughter is greater than the risk of siblings producing a genetic ‘defect’ in their children, there is no prohibition. If such a woman develops breast cancer herself, or transmits the gene to her daughter, our response would be sympathetic, even if it seemed virtually certain that she would do so. Again, something separates the incest relation from the realm of probability, and I suggest that it is disgust that is the real motivation, with biological and moral arguments used as a smokescreen.

  2. Greetings, Paul, from Bloomington! You probably already knew that James and I are Catholic, and, as a thoughtful Catholic, I feel obliged to take up the important issue you raise–not to disagree straightforwardly with your post, but to say that the Church’s position, thought through in all its complexity, raises further questions and is, perhaps, not as easily resolved as you suggest. To say, as you do, that the Church’s position involves positing some kind of structural relation between love and procreation seems like a reasonable assumption, but I feel that there are parts of the Church’s own teaching and my own conscience, informed by prayer, which would not allow me to end the analysis there. As a Catholic, I am called to strive continually to make sense of the immensely challenging and sometimes seemingly enigmatic parts of the Church’s teaching (just as I feel I am called to make sense of the many challenging and seemingly enigmatic aspects of our lives in general), and this issue is one that has given me much pause for thought, especially since we attended a civil partnership party of two Catholic men a couple of years back. So, I reached an initial point in my thinking where it seems as if the Church had collapsed love into procreation, but gut instinct and the fact that involuntary infertility is not a bar to marriage in the Church led me to find this analysis unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory with any intellectual activity, it seems to me, to stop short and accept a verdict of inconsistency without probing further.

    If the Church’s rejection of same-sex marriage is not to be incompatible with its welcoming of sterile couples, wherein lies the logic of her analytic of love and procreation? The crucial word that you omit from Archbishop Conti’s declaration is surely ‘capacity’–an idea that the Church elsewhere refers to an ‘openness to life’. And, when I seek an answer to this difficulty, I am drawn to a line of reasoning that takes seriously the Aristoteleian subtractive gesture from act to potentiality. To my mind, it is this closure–the eclipse of potentiality–that seemingly takes place in the passage from potentiality to act, that the Church has consistently railed against in many of her teachings. Life must not become a ‘fact’ (in Agamben’s analysis, it is Heidegger’s grave error to allow facticity to be subsumed into fact): it is not to be seen merely as what it is, but as what it can be. It is against the reduction of life to necessity and impossibility that the Church aims to stand firm. And to love someone means to release them from this unfreedom: to let them be in love is to see in them not simply the characteristics and properties of their factual existence, but the fullness of potentiality. This means loving them not simply for what is proper to them, but for all the potentiality of generic humanity. This, it seems to me, is where the procreative capacity fits in: it is a generic potential of human life to generate life that, as with every other potential of human existence, the Church asks people to preserve and not to close off. I don’t believe that I have yet been able to resolve these issues to my complete satisfaction, but it is the fact that couples who are involuntarily infertile have not chosen to effect this closure of the potential for new life that distinguishes them from same-sex unions. You say that ‘Any love relationship…may or may not result in procreation’. But, if potentiality is not to descend into necessity/impossibility, the contingency of this pair must be preserved: it must be possible in every union that life may and at the same time may not result. The Church is repeatedly hostile to the logic of the ‘or’ (as it is to the logic of the ‘als ob’) and seeks to replace it with the ‘and’.

    To many, the Church’s advocating of this kind of letting go, of abdicating a certain sovereignty over our lives appears not only to go against human nature, but also to result in unfreedom. Her message is surely unpalatable, but the thought it demands is not without intellectual value: it is not that the Church inhibits my choices through her rigid teaching, but that I imprison myself by excluding certain choices from my life and denying myself the fullness of who I may be. These are not simple questions and do not beget simple answers. I consider that I am still trying…

    • Thanks for this thoughtful reply. I think there are problems with the notion of ‘openness to life’, at least as a way of distinguishing a sterile heterosexual couple (which the Church would approve) and a male or female gay couple (which the Church would not approve). The question of knowledge is surely relevant. If a sterile couple know that they cannot conceive, why does God let them off? Why is their sex OK, when it is certain that they will not conceive? The obvious answer seems to be because their sex doesn’t disgust a homophobe. They are certainly not, it seems to me, ‘open to life’ in the sense that they think a miraculous intervention might bring forth children. On the other hand, if they are awaiting such a miracle, such a reversal of the biological possibilities of the interaction of their two bodies, then why not allow that a gay couple might also await a divinely enabled gay birth, a reversal of the biological possibilities of two women or men having sex? If ‘openness to life’ is the criterion, then what is the level of intelligence or information that is presumed here? If sterile couples are allowed to have sex even in full knowledge that they cannot have children, then why not gay couples? In both cases the scientific advice will be ‘you cannot have children’, yet the Church says that one couple is ‘open to life’ and the other is not. This seems like special treatment, and I cannot think of any explanation for this difference other than a distaste for gay sex. I agree with you that the Church’s teaching is not simple, but disagree on the cause of the complexity, which I think is a desire to obfuscate an underlying homophobia.

      I also find the assumption that the only (or best) way that life can be ‘what it can be’ rather than simply ‘what it is’ is for more life to be added to the pot. First, it mildly suggests a relationship of ownership over children (any children I have get added on the credit side of the ledger of my life and are not separable from me, not autonomous in any way), and second it seems to defer the question. ‘What’s the meaning of my life? To have a child. OK, what’s the meaning of my child’s life? To have a child. OK, and my grandchild? To have a child…’ A million other, less circular possibilities for life to be more than it is can be imagined. Creative rather than procreative activity is one (Wagner’s operas make the individual W. R. Wagner ‘more than he was’ in a more significant way than his offspring did), but so too is economic or political emancipation. A woman who has the vote is more than one without; a child who grows up in poverty is more, with a secure and above-average income, than he or she was before; and so on. Why, again, focus on children? An equally strong argument could be made that procreation is the worst enemy of life exceeding its current definition and becoming ‘more’, since procreation is the normal function of all life on earth. If that is our goal, then we are no different from ants, and we might as well abandon the political, ethical, religious, educational, artistic, and scientific pastimes we’ve built up around ourselves. What makes us more than the animals, than the bare life (to reinvoke Agamben) we are, is not necessarily procreation at all. And again, when the recommended action seems not to bring about the outcome that the Church is ostensibly supporting (becoming more) we must ask why it insists on that action and its connexion with the outcome. Once more my answer will be: because gay men and women cannot biologically have children, and arising from a disgust at their behaviour and a desire to discountenance it, the Church can spin a theory of ‘becoming more’ that is tightly delimited in a way calculated to exclude its despised Other. It all seems like match fixing to me.

  3. A very interesting and thoughtful post from Naomi (if I may use a first name?). A couple of points…

    First, the obvious answer to “it is a generic potential of human life to generate life” is “it’s not a generic potential of ALL human life, because gay and lesbian couples cannot generate life in this sense.” That obviously will not be accepted, because it is precisely in order to remove gay and lesbian couples (or transsexual threesomes, or whatever) from the nexus of normally functioning humanity that the claim is being made. It seems to me interesting that arguments against non-heterosexual/procreational sex are being presented, when non-heterosexual/procreational people and acts have already been subtly removed from the very terms of the argument. Paul uses the phrase “match fixing” (above), and I see what he means.

    Second, the world’s population tripled in the last century, and is continuing to rise in a very scary way. If, in a context such as this one, the church indeed “asks people to preserve and not to close off” their capacity for generating new life (to the point where refusing to perform this act of ‘preservation’ is understood as a betrayal of what is criterial and core to a person), then it seems to me that the church is quite astonishingly irresponsible, not to mention terrifying. The future of the human world lies, if not in non-heterosexuality, sterility and celibacy, then at least in the willingness to see sexual activity as an end in itself, not as something that is only valuable if it introduces yet more life onto our wretched and struggling planet.

  4. Most incestual trelationships result from power relationships within the family , where “consent”, if any, is compromised. So maybe that’s an angle thru which to think of the incest in Wagner. No power games, but the free play of instinct (admittedly an instinct not many share).

  5. I must say, with respect to Naomi’s post, that I’ve never seen Agamben write of potentiality in relation to procreation – or read anything by him that even begins to hint that he would. The bedrock of his philosophy, I would tend to say, is the vocationless man in Aristotle (I prefer to translate inoperativitá as vocationlessness, rather than inoperativity), a figure that definitely doesn’t have baby-making on the agenda in any determinate way. When he writes of whatever being in The Coming Community, he uses pornography as an example. I’m left a little baffled that his work would be called on to defend the homophobia of an institution that, historically, has often very poorly exemplified the more promising aspects of the discourse it preaches.

  6. I think what you fail to address with the issue of incest is the psychopathology behind being attracted to a sibling and you certainly avoid the far thornier issue of incest between parent and child which we all (I hope) agree is abuse. If you condone and allow the one, you have to therefore condone and allow the other – if we use your same argument.

    One has to draw the line somewhere and instead of getting into the deep waters as to why incest between siblings is acceptable and between parent and child is not .. it is simpler and better to just say that families are not where one gets one’s sexual gratification. For healthy family, for healthy individuals both psychologically and genetically one must look outside the family unit.

  7. I do not think that the logical conclusion of J.P.E’s argument was that that if you ‘allow the one, you have to therefore condone and allow the other.’ This post is not an endorsement of incestuous relationships, it is encouraging us to rethink the legislation against it. Of course, power relations between fathers and daughters or even brothers and sisters are open to abuse but no-one is condoning this abuse here. I really don’t think we have the right to object to a consensual relationship between two adults on religious, biological or moral grounds.

    In any case, most consensual incestuous relationships occur from re-united siblings or family members who feel an intense sexual attraction towards each other. And yet, if these re-united adults engage in sexual activity, they can be prosecuted. Such familial tensions are likely to be absent from such a union, so on what basis can we object here?

    The biological argument, I feel, leads us to rethink our attitude towards disabled people. How many disabled people would say that they would rather not have been born? The language surrounding the biological argument makes me feel uneasy – ‘biological defects’, ‘undesirable traits’ – as J.P.E points out, it’s a step along the road to eugenics.

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