Hrdy on Santorum

In prepping for my new gender studies course this spring I’m rereading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mother Nature for the first time in about ten years. Well, aside from looking at the pictures and glancing over my underlines that is. So it came as somewhat of a surprise to find that Hrdy, twelve years out from publication, had something to say about now top-tier presidential candidate, Rick Santorum.

The story she’s referencing has already been trotted out by websites like Jezebel, about how late in Santorum’s wife’s fourth pregnancy something went catastrophically wrong, her body went into septic shock and doctors recommend an abortion. Because the procedure collided with “their” worldview (I’m assuming that her beliefs coincide with his) the mother risked her life despite the fact that doctors predicted her child would die regardless. In the end the mother survived but the baby died.

What really stands out to me in the passage is the great wit that Hrdy marshals in her description of Santorum on the senate floor, not easy to do given the circumstances, recontextualizing the abortion debate as something older than politics itself. It’s a testament to what a talented writer can do with words and how one anthropologist contributed to the discourse by deconstructing it.

Hrdy. 1999. Mother Nature. (pp.5-6)

The abortion issue is notorious for generating so much “heat” and so little “light.” On this particular occasion, one of the senators debating the issue (Rick Santorum, Republican from Pennsylvania) became “so emotional” that the blood vessels leading to his stomach constricted, while those leading to his heart and brain dilated. Responding to signals from the most ancient portions of his brain, his pounding heart caused the face of this deeply threatened mammal to flush “crimson” in preparation for a fight. His voice rose to such a pitch that colleagues had to intervene.

The abortion debate is ultimately about what it means to be a mother; and the senator, like many humans before him, had his own unusually clear notion of what mothers were for. The couple already had three young children, but this fourth birth was given clear priority over his wife’s well-being as well as that of her other children. Fortunately, the mother survived. But, as doctors predicted, the new baby died shortly after birth.

As the debate unfolded, the rush of blood and pounding heart beneath the senator’s coat and tie spoke volumes about motivations far deeper, far older, then members of Congress ordinarily consider. Like all humans, and indeed as is typical of the entire Primate order, the senator exhibited an intense, even obsessive, interest in the reproductive condition of other group members. Like other high-status male primates before him, he was intent on controlling when, where, and how females belonging to his group reproduced. One former member of the House of Representatives, however, sensed that there was more at stake than just the issues under debate. “It’s very interesting the issues they select,” observed Patricia Schroeder of Colorado. “They don’t want to intervene in the bodily functions of men.”

Schroeder’s quip goes to the heart of the matter. Passionate debates about abortion derive from motivations to control female reproduction that are far older than any particular system of government, older than patriarchy, older even than recorded history. Male fascination with the reproductive affairs of female group members predates our species.

I’m pretty sure I had a quote from Hrdy about Newt Gingrich too. If I find it again I’ll add it to the comments. Finally, the ‘90s are going retro! That’s good. I was getting sick of all this ‘80s crap: Ronald Regan, Don Henley. Bring back the culture wars and A Tribe Called Quest.

Matt Thompson is adjunct assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University and a Masters student in the School of Information Science at the University of Tennessee. He was once cast as a soldier in Andrew Jackson's army in a theatrical production on an Indian reservation.

6 thoughts on “Hrdy on Santorum

  1. Very good point.

    “It’s very interesting the issues they select,” observed Patricia Schroeder of Colorado. “They don’t want to intervene in the bodily functions of men.”

  2. “It’s very interesting the issues they select,” observed Patricia Schroeder of Colorado. “They don’t want to intervene in the bodily functions of men.”

    Selective Service Act?

  3. Interesting suggestion, but I don’t think you could show that turning 18 is a biological event.

    I was trying to think of an analogy too. What about the scheduling of testosterone as a controlled substance?

  4. It’s less the mailing in of the paperwork than it is the hypothetical Johnny Got His Gun scenario that is the biological event (or in the words of Brackette Williams, “bleeding for the nation”).

  5. I don’t have any deep knowledge of this account, though this particular analysis of Hrdy strikes me as somewhat scientistic. I certainly respect her work, however this passage highlights some of the weaknesses of evolutionary psychology. In other words, her account regarding the senator’s motivations may or may not be true; her description of the extent to which motivations manifest themselves as physiological effects isn’t causally informative regarding the just what those motivations are. Consider that there are other human males who disagree with the senator. Presumably, some process of ratiocination over-rides the ancient primal impulse allegedly evinced in the senator’s physiological expressions. Should we concede that some conscious cognitive processes may be determinate, we do not know to what extent the senator’s expressions reflect a priori instinct or a posteriori considerations. In other words, why don’t all males agree with the senator? If the capacity exists to contextualize the functions of those ancient areas of the brain, how are we certain of what we are observing? The degree of physiological reaction may be a clue, but it’s hardly conclusive. (Further, if Hrdy’s account is true, Schroeder’s comment is meaningless insofar as issues aren’t selected at all, at least not by the senator.)

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