No Motherhood without the ‘Matria Potestas’

Many young women insist on having the power of life or death over their offspring

The patria potestas was a legal power held by fathers in the Roman Empire. If you think that Tiberius was just dad in a toga, think again. In Roman law, a father had rights over his family, including the right of who could bear his name. If, therefore, a child was deformed or he had more daughters than dowries, no problem: the child could be abandoned. It was perfectly legal. A father could also sell a child into slavery.

No doubt looking at these practices from the vantage point of the 21st century, we might abhor what was taken for granted by the “indispensable nation” of the era.

There’s a saying about people living in glass houses and stones…

The June 10 New York Times carried an opinion piece by Anastasia Berg and Rachel Wiseman, “The Success Narratives of Liberal Life Leave Little Room for Having Children” (link here). It’s an attempt to explain — and even refute — some of the rationales liberal, elite opinion marshals against parenthood.

The primary argument is that the things our elite culture values – professional attainment and personal autonomy – don’t square readily with the sacrificial nature of parenthood. “The standards of readiness for family are at once so high and so vague that it’s hardly a surprise when people fail to reach them.” It’s a nice way of saying what Timothy Carney already got at in the subtitle of his brand new book, Family Unfriendly (link here): “How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be.”

There’s also something to be said for a thesis probed by Brad Wilcox of the National Marriage Project. Wilcox argues that today there are two competing approaches to marriage. One is the “cornerstone” marriage, which sees marriage as part of the natural growth of adulthood by which two people commit to a life together and begin to build that life in common. The other is “capstone” marriage, which sees marriage as a kind of advanced achievement, to be pursued after “everything else” — schooling, employment, professionally establishing oneself, financial security — is attained. Cornerstone marriage is the foundation; capstone marriage is the roof. Cornerstone marriage may happen earlier; capstone marriage by definition is going to be delayed. Now, I don’t deny some degree of life stability is important, but capstone marriage seems to conceptualize life stability primarily as professional or career achievements into which a family can at some vague, magic moment be squeezed.

What all these ideas have in common is that the “liberal life narrative” — intentionally or not — devalues family at the expense of professional career and personal autonomy. Those ideas and their consequences merit exploration, but I’m not going to do that here. Rather, I want to pull one other idea buried deep in the Berg-Wiseman piece that deserves explicit examination: parenthood and abortion.

According to the authors, one reason no small number of contemporary women eschew motherhood is the possibility post-Dobbs for limits on abortion. There are women who refuse to entertain the possibility of becoming mothers absent an absolute-and-unlimited right to abort that child at any point prior to birth. The fig leaf justifying this claim is that in “a recent study, 34 per cent of women ages 18 to 39 reported they or someone they know had ‘decided not to get pregnant due to concerns about managing pregnancy-related medical emergencies.’”

Consider that claim. The abortion establishment managed to convince one-third of women of prime childbearing age that pregnancy in 21st century America is an inherently dangerous and life-threatening act. That the natural processes of conception, gestation, and birth — processes for which evolution has been preparing human beings from their beginnings — are so dangerous that artificial surgical interventions are equally necessary. That naturally resultant birth and artificially procured abortion are medical equals (with the scale sometimes tipping in favor of the latter).

Post-Dobbs fearmongering, like similar tactics in the late 1960s, is again using a few, rare hard cases to piggyback abortion-on-demand. Except that perhaps today that fearmongering is intensified amidst a generation raised by helicopter parenting and antiseptic expectations. It is striking to me — or just a weird coincidence — that no small plurality of people still walking around in masks four years after COVID are twenty- and thirty-something women, the same age cohort Berg and Wiseman claim fear pregnancy. While I am tempted to ask Dr. Fauci whether “science” thinks there is some particular documentable pathological susceptibility stalking that demographic cohort, the truth is I’d suggest the problem is a culture afraid of life and living.

But, just as I argue that fearmongering employs relatively rare hard cases to piggyback a bigger abortion agenda, so I’d suggest that the flight from parenthood because of Dobbs reflects a deeper cultural deformation that is the heritage of nearly a half-century of Roe. Roe ingrained a mindset that transformed mother and child into mother versus child. The abortionists, of course, would deny the child but, wanting to “follow the science,” I’ll ignore pseudo-scientific mythologies. Whether people admit it or not, Roe created an adversarial model of the mother-child relationship, one that the elite or mainstream culture imbibed and prizes, perhaps without even consciously examining its implications.

Its implications, however, are profound: Maternity has been turned into the matria potestas, a 21st century American version of legal rights over offspring, not just to give them a name but even an acknowledged existence. Berg and Wiseman claim that one-third of women in the prime years of becoming mothers insist they must have a matria potestas, the power of life or death, over their offspring. Let’s also be honest about the slavery part: a mother can sell her offspring (though prices might be regulated) to another person through surrogacy, a trafficking-in-persons most recently legalized in Michigan.

We have only begun superficially to plumb the corrosive cultural metastasis Roe bequeathed us. This is why the Catholic Church in the United States must undertake an aggressively proactive response, in keeping with the teaching of Vatican II, to reading and responding to the signs of the times. Building a culture of life will not be the job of a week or a year, and it will not be built on auto-pilot, particularly when certain anti-values are so deeply entrenched in “mainstream” culture. But that project is particularly vital in today’s “indispensable nation” which, like Rome, proudly preens about its “rule of law.” It’s time to get to work.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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