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I've recently been unable to put down The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler. (It's a tough month for my bedside table, which has had to bear the physical and emotional weight of that book, as well as bell hooks' All About Love: New Visions, Jackson Katz's The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, and Susan Griffin's Woman and Nature.)
Even though every single first-person story in it makes my heart hang heavy, even though if I read it at night, I have to fight off the urge to allow myself to cry myself to sleep. It's important. So important.
I was just mentioning today to one of the amazing young women at the All Girl Army, blogging for choice today, that while it is, absolutely, positively vital to talk about backalley abortions, to talk about what abortion was like before Roe vs. Wade (and what it still is like in areas where abortion is illegal or inaccessible), it's equally important to talk about what choice as a whole was like and still IS like, even with the help of Roe and other supports. I think many often forget or simply don't know the combined impact Roe vs. Wade,Title X and other feminist initiatives had when it came to reproductive choice no matter the choice a woman made. More accurately, no matter what a woman did or what was done TO her when she became pregnant before she had any sort of choice.
Before (and in some cases, still well into) the mid-seventies, we all too often forget that most women simply didn't have any real choice. We all too often forget that decisions like Roe vs. Wade protect us because of the choices many of us still don't have, and the world we live in which still threatens or refuses us all or some of those choices.
No choice for a safe, legal abortion.
If a woman was able to access abortion and got very lucky (or was simply very privileged), then she could contact, get to, and pay for a private abortion, done in sanitary conditions, by a doctor or nurse, done under secrecy. Those women were few and far between, to say the least. And even those women, in the "luckiest" conditions, often had to go back home, do all their grieving alone, suffer any side effects in secrecy and silence, and if they became ill due to the abortion, often did not or could not seek out care.
As for the rest who wanted or needed abortions, but who didn't have the connections or the means for a safer illegal abortion, I think by now most of us -- especially those who read women like me -- have a pretty good idea as to what backalley abortions or self-attempted abortions were like. The tools of these abortions were knitting needles, coathangers, scissors, sticks; bleach, whiskey, turpentine or gunpowder douches. Women who got backalley abortions were often blindfolded so as not to be able to identify their abortionist, driven to remote areas, passed person to person. Many women who died from illegal, unsafe abortions slowly bled to death, in terrible physical and emotional pain, utterly alone: many were silently, slowly and painfully dying or becoming seriously ill while going to school, working their jobs, or sitting at the dinner tables with their families. That's pre-Roe abortion history about as condensed as it gets, friends: that's the light summary.
No matter the type of abortion, before Roe, as many as 1.2 million illegally induced abortions occurred annually in the United States and as many as 5,000 to 10,000 women died every single year following illegal abortions. Nearly four times as many women of color died as white women. That figure doesn't even account for injuries, physical as well as psychological. No matter the type of abortion or the type of woman, nearly ALL of those women still suffered alone. They did not have support groups for abortion, nor any cultural sentiment which allowed them to feel any grief (rather than guilt), they did not have sound (if any) aftercare, they did not have any context to talk about their feelings or experiences, they often did not even have the allowance to say, out loud, to anyone, that they had an abortion or had been pregnant.
No choice to safely abort, but also no choice to parent, or no choice not to.
For those who either did not want to or simply could not access any means of abortion... Just in the few decades before Roe, around one and a half million women were sent away to maternity homes and tricked, coerced or outright forced into giving their babies up for adoption.
Some of these homes were okay enough places to stay (however much a place can be "okay" which robs you of a child you gave birth to and wanted), but some were not a far cry from -- nearly identical to -- the Magdalene Launderies. Women staying in them were hidden and isolated from everyone but the other women in the homes, and often during the rare times they could leave the home, they would be easily identified and harassed in the streets: insults and/or vegetables hurled, the works.
Like women who aborted during this time -- and in my eyes, this is all the more painful -- these women had to leave the homes after giving birth and pretend they had never been pregnant, that they were never mothers. Some of them would have contact with their infants for months in the home before having them ripped away from them. Women with postpartum depression had zero support. Women whose whole lives had been shattered were totally unacknowledged. Open adoptions arrangements (however flawed they can sometimes be) were not available: the rights of birth mothers were preciscely nil. If and when they were at all visible, these women were often disdained by their families and communities. But for the most part, they were and are often still, invisible mothers, invisible women. Too, we have plenty of history of mothers giving birth and being forced to give up their children to other women in their families: married sisters or aunts, even their own mothers, after which the mother of the child would be forced to spend her life pretending that she was sibling or cousin to her own child.
Of course, we also have the myriad women who did not want to remain pregnant and parent, but who found themselves forced into parenting, and often, unwanted marriages as well. For whom having to get married, bear a child and parent was ordered as punishment for being wayward (for as well all know, much like HIV is Gods punishment for being a deviant -- even if you get it as the straightest, most vanilla person there is -- pregnancy and parenting is Gods punishment to women for not keeping themselves chaste).
My mother was one of those women. Abused, lambasted, shamed by her family and told she had no other option but this to even attempt to redeem herself in their eyes, that of God and those of the whole world. (As one of "those" children, let me tell you from a child's perspective how much fun it wasn't to grow up looked at by a strict Irish Catholic family as the accidental, half-blood-Dego bastard child who carries the shame of her mother in every pore of her being: to be told, quite incessantly, that you were an accident, a punishment, an extension of sin. Or to reach an age where you're well aware that your mother is working double and sometimes triple shifts, and you're all barely scraping by, all because of you.) This is some of what happens when choice is thought to stop at sex alone, if choice was even an issue WITH sex, especially when you consider how very many of these women were raised with the mutually-exclusive notion that they were both supposed to police men AND somehow also defer to them.
There are vast and varied tales of these scenarios. For women of color, while there were a scant few homes that catered exclusively to them, they just plain weren't white enough for the maternity homes, so however horrendous an option that was, even that one wasn't available; both per finances and connections (as well as due to racism from providers) private, safer illegal abortions weren't optional, either. For the most part, women of color were those whose choices were the most terrifying sort of backalley abortions or parenting, ready or not, wanting or not. Bear in mind, too, given rates of incest, how many women were forced to parent the children of their fathers, brothers, uncles, and how many children grew up in these scenarios.
So, we then also had millions of "fallen" women forced to be mothers, often without the means for prenatal care for themselves or their babies, often pushed into greater poverty than they already lived with, often pushed into marriages that were unwanted, unhealthy or abusive.
And no choice to become pregnant or not.
I feel like what also often gets lost in abortion and choice debates is any address of how much sexual responsibility is and always has been put, disproportionately, on women. This is particularly of import for the youngest women, who obviously, I have great personal concern with. Teen women are blamed for not properly policing their male partners: especially when those male partners are same-age, but even when those partners are full-fledged adults, even sometimes when they are far older and predatory. Last I checked (which was very recently) at least 25% of the youngest teen women report that their first sexual experiences were coerced. The greatest rates of rape are -- and generally always have been -- to women under 18. And in many cases, as with sexual crimes so much of the time, these young women are held partially or even entirely responsible for being victimized. Bear in mind that many of these young women are reared with the same-old antiquated ideas about whose fault it is when they're coerced into sex (theirs), or become pregnant (theirs), and pushed into one choice or another that they wouldn't choose if they really had all the options available to them -- including access to EC, thank you very much -- and told that the person fully responsible for living with whatever "choice" they get is, guess who, them.
Let's also remember that around 32,000 pregnancies as a result of rape occur every year just in the United States right now: I do not know what the rates were in the decades before Roe. Assuming the rates were at least the same or similar, that's 32,000 women a year -- more than die from breast cancer every year; only about half that many people die from drunk driving accidents annually, so where's our PSA and OUR special fundraising wristband, right? -- with NO choice as to whether or not they became pregnant, and no choice as to what to do about it. That's tens of thousands of women every year with NO real reproductive choices whatsoever, and yet, often held responsible, in part if not in full.
Even when we're not talking about rape or strong coercion, let's not pussyfoot: women have intercourse they do not want to have ALL the time, every day. Out of feelings of obligation, out of a need to keep the peace, out of a need to feel, or assure a partner is feeling, "normal" per heteroseixst or gendernormative dictates and ideals, out of a need to keep a partner around so that they and/or their children have some means of survival and shelter.
Often, these same women cave when it comes to birth control due to a partner's urging -- it's okay, you don't have to use the condoms tonight, or okay, you're so sure withdrawal works and you've worn me down arguing, or okay, you want to have intercourse RIGHT THIS MINUTE so I won't go put the cervical cap on, or okay, I ran out of pills because the pharmacist didn't have any this week, but we can do this anyway. Often, these women become pregnant, and these scenarios do not constitute full choice, no matter what spin you put on it.
Mothers STILL tell daughters that it is their duty to acquiesce to their husbands with all things sexual, and to service their "male needs," whatever those may be. I have users at Scarleteen who have been reared with these attitudes with some regularity, and they are incredibly difficult to unlearn, especially when they continue to be surrounded by them in their communities and closest relationships.
Access to birth control, too, we often forget, was still incredibly limited pre Roe, and is a major factor in choice issues. When the pill came into circulation in the 60's, half the states in the US only provided it for married women. Well before then, the Comstock laws made access to other birth control methods illegal. Before 1960, the vast majority of citizens had only condoms -- which, without the male partners support, were useless -- and withdrawal, which we know to be about as close to useless as it gets, and which also relies on male cooperation. And yet, when pregnancy occurred, it was often still thought to be the woman's fault: her fault if she couldn't "control" her male partner's sexual advances, her fault if her male partner refused to use a birth control method, or she couldn't access one that worked for her. This is history that is insanely pertinent right now, as things like the Global Gag Rule, Title X cuts (my clinic here sadly is shutting down this month), limiting access to EC and attacks on choice persist. The same people and forces who seek to limit or remove access to safe legal abortion, and thusly regress all the choices we have, are most often the same people seeking to limit access to contraception or contraception education, especially to those most at risk and with the least agency: the youngest women, the poorest women, the most marginalized women. Access to birth control is STILL a serious issue and a serious problem in this regard: the increased access we see has not by any means fully extended itself -- or anything close -- to the women who need it the most, and for whom even with legal abortion, even with changes in adoption, even with better welfare and treatment of single mothers, have far more limited choices than women with greater privilege.
Let's not forget...
That tied up into all of this is also access to reliable, accurate and unbiased information about birth control, reproduction and sexuality as a whole. That's not just a women's issue, by any means, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that while lack of that information does everyone harm, men and women alike, it ultimately harms women the most. Everyone is harmed by sexual shame, by a lack of understanding of their own bodies and health -- and that of sexual partners -- by purposeful misinformation about sexuality and sexual and reproductive health. NOT everyone will become pregnant because of it, get cervical cancer because of it, wind up in rape or coercion scenarios because they don't know the warning signs or are told to disregard them, or be unable to make a sound reproductive choice when pregnancy occurs that is best for them. (And that's not even touching on issues of intercourse or other sex under obligation, sound counsel, prevention and address of sexual abuse, understanding of how women's sexuality even works, the whole bag.) These things will happen to women, who even just by sheer biology, whether we're talking about pregnancy or cervical cells, bear the greatest burdens when it comes to sex and the opposite sex.
In a culture/community/relationship or under a system which does not support an equality of full reproductive autonomy and agency, it is a given that sexuality and reproductive information will follow suit, and either protest that full autonomy or undermine it, and often quite intentionally.
Choice isn't just about abortion.
Reproductive choice is an octopus of an issue. It's not only an issue of sex and gender, but also one that strongly involves race and class.
Real reproductive choice includes a woman's inarguable right to abort, parent or give a child up for adoption 100% informed, willing and able, as well as support for any and all of those choices, the choice to prevent pregnancy with safe, easily accessible and affordable birth control, the choice to have sex at all, and, by extension, the ability to obtain reproductive healthcare and sound information on reproduction and sexuality and most of all, to be held to sexual responsibility which is fair, sexual mores which are realistic, inclusive and not laden with sexism, and to live in an overarching environment which honors and safeguards a woman's right to real and complete ownership and care of her own body and everything within it.
What you see here is about as abbreviated a take on these issues as it gets. However thick this text, it's a serious condensation of this issue. What Roe vs. Wade did and does, what all the additional laws, policies and initiatives which support its principle do, is far, far greater than allowing access to merely abortion. We allow anyone to take Roe and everything related to it away -- we even give an inch when it comes to this -- we aren't just removing access to abortion: we are removing a critical element of the whole of reproductive choice. Roe is foundational in many, many respects (when you really start to look at how much was built off of it, or arose because of it, it's truly dizzying). You remove that row of bricks at the bottom of a building, you remove the stability and integrity of the building entire, and it will crumble in time. This is an absolute given, not theory or hyperbole.
This is the case whether you have never had an abortion or never intend to have one. This is the case whether you have had or do have the agency to make whatever choices you want, and may even still with regressions to choice policies, be it due to your sex, color or class. This is the case no matter which of those women above your mother was, or even if she was none of those women at all: this is the case no matter how it is you're rearing your daughters. No matter how affected or unaffected you think you'll be if that building built on Roe ever crumbles, you and your sisters will be buried alive in it, most likely just as we were before.
And as far as I'm concerned, if there's even just one woman in the world who doesn't have ALL of these choices, all of these aspects of choice? Then there's no woman in the world who's really got'em. Considering that even with Roe, even with policies that support choice there are still myriad women without them, both globally and right here at home, the fact that anyone still needs to defend or explain the importance of and need for Roe, today or any other day, to anyone at all, boggles the bloody mind.
Blog for Choice: Lots of people are doing it today. I'd encourage you to do so, or to avail yourself of their words, and by all means, as ever, to do all you can to work for choice in every way you can.