How anti-abortion activists across the country are once again endangering the lives of women everywhere
As best I recall, sex education of any sort was not part of the public school curriculum for either pre-pubescent or fully-pubescent hormonal turbo-charged kids/adolescents in the Columbia, South Carolina of the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
My guess is that most kids and teenagers in my little orbit got what sex education they got via sermons provided by their preachers, lectures provided by their parents, pamphlets provided by the family doctor, stories and tales about the previous Saturday night (in the back row of the Starlite Drive-In), provided with the appropriate embellishment by friends and, well, by hands-on experience.
Some of us were fortunate enough (or unfortunate) to receive bits and pieces of what passed for sex education from all of these sources. Though, because my mother reads these columns, I’m not copping to the “hands-on-experience” source. I would have never been caught on the back row of the Starlite Drive-In on a Saturday night. And, I wasn’t. Caught.
Of the various sources/experiences by which I was thusly educated, the second most memorable was “The Talk” given to my brothers and I by our mother when I was 14 and they were 12 and 9 respectively. Developmental issues were obviously of no concern to her.
“The Talk” was made memorable not by its content, which basically consisted of (1) giving each of us a booklet, with pictures (of what, we did not know) provided by the family pediatrician, (2) ordering us to read it, (3) making available to us her wealth of knowledge should we have any questions about either the text or the pictures and, (4) assuming that biology would be stronger than willpower, offering a reminder that “there are ‘things’ you can use to protect yourselves.” (My middle-brother and I suspected that those “things” were what we had found in a box in the top drawer of my dad’s chest-of-drawers, but we still lacked clarity about what one did with them, from what they protected one and how they protected one from whatever they protected one.)
No, “The Talk” was made memorable by the event which occasioned it; i.e., the whispered announcement that one of our cousins, two years older than me, had “become” pregnant. Clearly, someone (or, both) had forgotten about the “‘things’ you can use to protect yourselves.”
Though my mother’s 15-minutes-from-hell intervention served as both the beginning and end of any formal sex education to which my brothers or I were privy (I don’t think anyone ever asked her questions about the little book’s text or pictures) it was not the end of the story relative to the “event” which occasioned it, i.e., my cousin’s pregnancy.
Being obliviously 14, I immediately forgot about my cousin’s dilemma in favor of beginning my own personal odyssey toward the mysterious experience in which I was expected by my mother to engage but from whose potential harm I could somehow be protected by what heretofore had served either as a workable water balloon or something that, when I pulled it out of my wallet, drew oohs-and-aahs from my buddies at school.
However, the issue of her dilemma was brought to consciousness again when, six years later and a college student, I was asked by my cousin – yes, that cousin! – to be an usher at her upcoming nuptials.
In the days immediately preceding her Big Day, it occurred to me that I was ignorant about the resolution of my cousin’s dilemma. My mother, on the day of “The Talk,” had seemed clear that she was “with child.” So, why had I not ever seen that child? Had the doctor misdiagnosed her pregnancy? Did she have a miscarriage? Did she give the child up for adoption? Where was that child?
I asked my Dad, figuring that, because it was a matter involving my mother’s family and not his, he would be more open about what seemed to have become a closely-kept family secret. He hesitated for a moment, probably deciding whether to answer my question and, if so, how. And then, eyes averted, he carefully said, “It is always good, I suppose, to have a friendly family doctor.”
That’s all he said. But it was 1972, I was slowly but surely becoming more aware of a world much larger, much more demanding and much more complex than my own, the country was lurching toward Roe v. Wade, and my dad’s brief, almost off-hand response not only introduced me to abortion in a personal way but became a touchstone to which I would – and, still do – return time and again as a first principle in my ever-evolving thoughts about the competing, complex, nuanced and contextual moral/ethical issues raised by the voluntary termination of a pregnancy.
Anyone who considers abortion to be a single issue as opposed to being a constellation of entangled, interrelated issues has clearly not given it much consideration. Anyone who considers the debate about this constellation of issues to have clearly-defined “sides” has, again, clearly not given it much consideration. It is less like a dime, having two sides, than a diamond, having innumerable facets.
But settled law has given a measure of certainty and clarity to one issue in the conversation per abortion and/or abortion rights: As provided in Roe v. Wade, a woman, within specified limits, may right-fully and legally choose to terminate a pregnancy.
As any of us knows, however, the passage of Roe did not represent a demarcation line between (1) a time when abortions did not occur because they were illegal and (2) a time when abortions did occur because they were legal. Abortions prior to Roe, though illegal, were relatively common—a fact, both then and now, almost universally known and, more often than not, winked-at or ignored.
In practice, though, the passage of Roe did represent a demarcation line between (1) a time when great disparities existed between the quality of care enjoyed by women of means who were terminating pregnancies and the quality of care – if any – available to women of little means who were terminating pregnancies and (2) a time when the quality of care for women having abortion procedures became, to a relatively significant extent, more equal.
Which is why my father’s comment became a touchstone for me. Prior to Roe, “women of means” could always find a “friendly family doctor” to “take care of our little problem.”
“Women without means,” however, were left to “take care of our little problem” in filthy, one-room, back-alley haunts open only in the deepest dark of night – in the U.S. or in Mexico – and often run by women who served as midwives during the day. Or, they might have had access to one of the hundreds of disgustingly bogus “clinics” like that of the now imprisoned Kermit Gosnell.
Those who couldn’t afford or didn’t even have access to abortion mills were left to their own devices, which generally consisted of “home remedies”; i.e., herbal “potions” or a series of body-blows to the abdomen or coat-hanger D&C’s – you get the point.
Women without means sometimes disappeared following their trips to the back-alley clinics, never to be seen again. Others died from the “potions”; i.e., they died from the poisonous effects. Still others made it home or initially survived the “home remedies” only to fall victim to brutal infections, sepsis and anatomical disfiguring which, if not fatal, as oft as not left them unable to conceive and/or bear a future child.
Post-Roe, “women without means” were able to avail themselves of a variety of credible medical means and facilities heretofore unavailable to them. No longer was “a friendly family doctor” required and no longer was a woman forced to put her life at risk in order to terminate a pregnancy.
Until, of course, anti-abortion activists and conservative state officials began passing laws that, in states such as Idaho, Iowa, Utah, Louisiana, Kansas, Virginia, Mississippi, Indiana, Ohio, South Dakota and Texas, have made or threaten to make access to credible medical means/facilities for abortion procedures almost as difficult to attain as in the dark days prior to Roe.
Their typical argument, offered with a wink, is that they are acting “in the best interests of women’s safety and health.” The fact of the matter is that, as data both statistical and anecdotal indicates, they are openly minimizing access to the freedom offered by settled law – Roe v. Wade – and, in the process, driving “women without means” back to the Kermit Gosnell-like clinics, the back-alley storefronts and the “home remedies.”
At the same time, they have elevated the “friendly family doctor” back to his/her former status so that “women of means” do not have to go “out of their way” to access that for which their poorer sisters risk life and limb.
As seems to be their wont, radical conservatives are working to resurrect yet one more element of the darker side of our past such that it once again becomes our present. And, worse, our future.