Now that the birth of Nadya Suleman’s octuplets has become old news, I’ve been thinking about the lessons feminists can learn from the news coverage and blog posts and comments concerning it. Most people come down strongly on one side or the other – either Suleman is irresponsible and self-serving, or we should all just back off and shut up already about what a private citizen chooses to do with her uterus. But to me the polarizing effect that this story had was not its most interesting, or disturbing, feature. What really disturbed me was the plethora of mental health speak surrounding the story. An average of 78% (8 of 11, 7 of 8, and 5 of 7) of the Google news hits on the Suleman story on three different days speculated about Suleman’s mental health, used terms like "crazy," "unstable," and "obsessed" to describe her, and consulted "psychiatric professionals" who conjectured freely about her mental health without ever meeting with Suleman or reviewing her health record. In fact, even in the comment threads on several feminist blogs, commenters referred to Suleman as "crazy" and "obsessed." This is an issue that should be of deep concern to feminists.
The linking of poor mental health with reproductive attitudes that do not align with current societal norms is an old tool in the patriarchal arsenal of controlling and containing women’s reproductive behavior. In Homeric epics, women who didn’t want to reproduce, even during times of war or social unrest leading to scarcity and deprivation, were generally characterized as "unnatural." During the Victorian era, when (white, middle- and upper-class) women had attitudes toward reproduction that were deemed "unwomanly" they were disciplined through the use of extensive and stifling bedrest, having access to all their hobbies or intellectual interests cut off, and losing access to the children they already had, who were whisked away to be raised by nurses and governesses. In the 1950s, women who resisted motherhood were frequently diagnosed as schizophrenic and subsequently drugged and/or institutionalized until they became more compliant. Similarly, pregnant women who wanted abortions were frequently given electric shock therapy based on the doctrine that any woman who did not want a child must be experiencing a mental illness or serious emotional disturbance.
I'm sure there are many other examples of this phenomenon, which I don't have time to research right now. Suffice it to say that basing assessments of women’s mental health on their attitude toward reproduction alone has a long and rich history, but it’s a history that feminists should fight against, not contribute to. Enough with the crazy talk already!