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In Memoriam

Harper’s Magazine is deeply saddened by the death of our dear friend and longtime contributing editor Barbara Ehrenreich (1941–2022). Her classic book Nickel and Dimed, which chronicles the harsh realities of working for minimum wage, began with two pieces of undercover reporting published in the January 1999 and April 2000 issues. She will be missed.

 

 

Body Language

Like many women, I am sympathetic to Charlotte Shane’s thesis that females should enjoy a right not to carry unwanted pregnancies to term [“The Right to Not Be Pregnant,” Revision, October]. But I fear that by elaborately avoiding the word “women” she detracts from her purpose and alienates a large portion of her audience. “Impregnatable people” is an overtly dehumanizing term; progressives’ trendy linguistic effacement of the entire childbearing sex amounts to a form of willful matricide. I do not offend easily, and often find that laughing off such excesses of would-be sensitivity is the best response. I surprise myself on this one. I don’t find the elimination of the word “women” even faintly funny. It aggrieves me, as it aggrieves scores of women I know.

I also take issue with the notion that “coding all impregnatable people as women” is a “right-wing project” because “enforcement of gender and bioessentialism do a great deal for social control.” Biology, not Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis, is essentialist. Among humans, only females bear young. If, keen to be “inclusive,” Shane felt obliged to add “and trans men” when referring to women, I could have lived with the awkwardness. But an essay defending the rights of women while erasing us as a category is beyond ironic. In straining to be sensitive to a small minority, the author is crudely insensitive to the feelings of half the human race.

Lionel Shriver
London

 

Shane’s essay is a bracing call to arms in the post-Dobbs moment, unapologetically affirming the right of pregnant people to terminate their pregnancies. Shane is correct that this is a fundamental human right. How much more powerful her argument would have been, then, if it had acknowledged the movement that has explicitly asserted this principle for nearly three decades: the reproductive justice movement. When Shane writes that “no mass movement of its citizens has ever expressly demanded” the right to not be pregnant, she erases these long-standing struggles.

A group of black women coined “reproductive justice” in 1994, responding to the Clinton Administration’s removal of reproductive health care from its platform. As defined by the flagship reproductive justice organization SisterSong, the term encompasses the rights to “maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Reproductive justice thus demands not only abortion access, but housing, nutritious food, contraception, quality education, pregnancy and birth care, gender-affirming care for trans youth, domestic violence assistance, and living wages, among other things. In her piece, Shane observes that “policies that conscript people into pregnancy may seem contrary to regulations that have subjected black, indigenous, disabled, and poor Americans to forced or coercive sterilization and the removal of children from birth parents.” The reproductive justice movement and its precursors have always understood the links between different forms of reproductive coercion.

Reproductive justice connects abortion access to many other struggles. It links the rage of the moment to visions of a just and abundant world—one that includes, but reaches far beyond, the right to not be pregnant.

Annie Menzel
Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison

 

Charlotte Shane responds:

Lionel Shriver is welcome to tailor her own writing on abortion to a transphobic audience, but I have no interest in doing so with mine. Not every woman can get pregnant, and pregnant children are not women. If “impregnatable person” is actually synonymous with “female” then there is no real objection to be made that I’ve somehow misrepresented the situation; however, trans men and non-binary people get pregnant, too, which is why a more inclusive term is necessary. They also fight on the front lines of abortion access, where, as Annie Menzel points out, women of color have been doing vital work for decades. I’d be happy to see Shriver there with us.

 

 

Won’t You Be My Galactic Neighbor?

For six decades, scientists have tried to eavesdrop on radio signals from extraterrestrial societies. These experiments pose no danger to humans because we’re merely listening, not transmitting messages. The “Beacon in the Galaxy” project, which Joe Kloc describes in his report [“Come and Get It,” Annotation, October], is different. It would entail broadcasting a message to aliens which could, in the view of some in the SETI community, endanger the human race. Alerting aggressive extraterrestrials of our existence and location could potentially provoke some bad boy aliens to fire up their interstellar missiles and train them on Earth.

Obviously, we don’t know whether other galactic societies would find it interesting to undertake such a nefarious project. But despite being a SETI scientist, I don’t lose sleep over this. That’s because the horse has already left the barn. We have been transmitting high-power, high-frequency radio waves into space since World War II. Any society as technically competent as ours (and within about seventy-five light-years) could pick them up. In other words, the “Beacon in the Galaxy” project would simply add additional programming to the existing cacophony. That might be a bad thing if our patch of the galaxy houses aggressive beings with big budgets. But there may be an upside. We could conceivably learn important lessons from our galactic neighbors, assuming they exist and wish to get in touch.

Seth Shostak
Mountain View, Calif.