The Problems with the Placenta Analogy

The placenta, of course, is an organ that is entirely invisible until birth, after which it is necessarily expelled in a bloody mess and discarded, valueless.

If a synod of women is like a placenta, what’s the rest of the analogy? Presumably, the synod is an organ in the body of Mother Church. But what’s the baby that this placenta is supposed to be nourishing?

Notice, too, that the ideas merely pass through the women. This is consistent with much of the pro-life, anti-abortion rhetoric that operates from an overly simplified model of human reproduction not far beyond the medieval notion that the man plants the seed and the woman is merely fertile soil.

According to this cartoon model, at the moment that sperm meets ovum, a new person is created, ontologically complete, merely requiring the nutrition it receives through the placenta to mature into a human infant. The pregnant woman is abstracted away: all the focus is on the placenta and uterus, in which the newly created person is entitled to reside.

This is an utterly naive and physiologically incorrect view of human reproduction. In reality, a pregnant woman eats, drinks, and sleeps, metabolizes and gestates, hopes and fears. Her whole body is actively involved, undergoing increasingly significant change throughout pregnancy, actively contributing to the development of what may, if all goes well, become a viable human infant.

It’s always annoying when women are rhetorically objectified as body parts. But this one was particularly bad, because of its coherence with the erasure of women from discourse about pregnancy and childbirth.

Using an analogy that erases women to propose a possible synod of women: the irony is overwhelming.

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4 Responses to The Problems with the Placenta Analogy

  1. Pingback: Better Analogies for a Synod of Women | Gaudete Theology

  2. First off, who is Ken Woodward? Do we know?

    To me, the most frustrating thing about the placenta analogy is the “ideas passing through women.” To me, this goes back to the old idea that women have no intellectual life of their own and have nothing to add to a discussion about any topic. When many conservative Catholics talk about “the feminine genius,” what they really mean is, “We need to provide a space where women can tell men how smart they are and how men are always right.” That’s my experience.

    • A bit of Googling finds a Ken Woodward who is the retired religion editor of Newsweek and a (perhaps occasional?) contributor to First Things.

      Agreed on the intense frustration of ideas merely “passing through” women.

      Interesting take on “feminine genius.” I normally hear it as code for separate spheres, where the woman’s sphere is the usual caretaking, nurturing, and relationship work.

      • ” I normally hear it as code for separate spheres, where the woman’s sphere is the usual caretaking, nurturing, and relationship work.”

        I used to hear it that way, until I started to think about it more carefully. If the women’s sphere is in relationships, then something such as marriage preparation (for example) should rightfully be considered the sphere of women. But if women decided to make suggestions on how pre-Cana classes should be run, or pre-marital counseling should be done, would men (either clergy or laity) naturally bow to these ideas and say, “Well, that’s not how we men would run things, but the women know better than us in this area, so we should implement these ideas and do what they suggest,” and proceed to follow the women’s suggestions? Perhaps I’m just cynical, but I don’t believe for an instant that would happen. Even in the supposed areas of women’s expertise, men still must have the final say. Women must go along with men’s ideas and methods, and of course, praise the men’s cleverness and insight.

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