Access to Family Planning-A Matter of Global Civil Rights

Over the next few days, thousands of people will be meeting in Indonesia to discuss one of the most common sense yet historically sensitive issues on the planet — at the International Conference on Family Planning. The term “family planning” encompasses a dizzying range of topics — from condoms to birth control pills, from pre-natal care to injectable contraception, from religious objections to male involvement in safe childbirth. People either brandish those two words like a sword or proffer them like ultimate salvation. It may take another generation or so for the rhetoric to ease enough to reach viable consensus about the proper role of family planning in 21st century society and development.

But as a woman who lived through one Civil Rights Era on the North American continent, and who has spent almost the past decade living on the African continent, I process the term through a very unique lens. As the 9th of 10 children born in poverty int0 one family in the Land of Plenty, I consider access to family planning as a Global Civil Rights issue. I believe the right to appropriate family planning methods is absolutely critical for any woman in any corner of the world to reach her full potential, and to contribute to significant development and progress in her local community — and perhaps beyond.

My life is my personal testament. As Jones family legend would have it, my mother Eloise scored so high on an IQ test during her teenage years, one of her teachers came to her North Philadelphia home to try and persuade my grandparents to send her to college.

It was the mid-1940’s, and as the eldest of 9 children born to poor, working class black parents, the idea of going to college likely hadn’t even crossed my mother’s mind. As far as I know, none of my grandparents on either side even reached high school level. Besides, my grandmother Stella Jane Blocker had bigger issues to worry about. She needed Eloise to stick around and help care for the rest of the siblings.

Again, based on family legend, Stella Jane communicated that concern to Mama’s high school teacher by chasing him off the porch with a shotgun. (Trust me, I spent enough time around Stella Jane Blocker before she died to believe that probably happened.) But even after that potentially dream-killing incident, my mother still managed to craft a vision for her future. She said that after graduating from high school, she had hoped to move to Washington, DC, where she’d heard there was plenty of work for would-be teletype operators.

But young Eloise Blocker didn’t know her fate would be permanently sealed during a World War Two USO dance. That was where a hat filled with the names of lonely soldiers was passed around, and she drew the name of one Lewis Jones. The girls who picked those scraps of paper were supposed to be pen pals for those brave patriots, giving them something to look forward to during the downtime between dodging bullets and bombs. Apparently, young Eloise put a little too much spin on her fanciful missives to Lewis, who was about 10 years her senior. Next thing you know, World War Two was over, and by the following year Lewis had gone to Philadelphia to claim that witty, eloquent if a bit melodramatic young woman — who was all of age 19 at the time — as his bride.

Here’s the thing….I believe my mother’s budding intellect and voracious appetite for reading and learning could have taken her around the world. I know this because I have the same brain, flaws and all. I have the same sarcastic tongue, the same curious mind, the same flights of fancy and folly, the same passion for words and writing. Granted, I was 19 years old in 1980 versus 1946, which gave me the distinct advantage of being a smart-mouthed black American woman during a time when that was less likely to get me lynched as a result.

But I have often thought that if my mother had NOT boarded that train to Cairo, Illinois in 1946 after marrying a man she didn’t know, if she had rejected her parents’ warnings to accept the proposal because “it might be the only one she ever got,” if she had somehow made it to DC and found a job and saved her money and gone to night school and earned a college degree….

I probably never would have been born. In fact, Eloise Jones may have never had any of the 10 children she began birthing in 1947, or she may have only had one or two. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely grateful for the incredibly interesting, creatively fulfilling life I’ve led. Put more simply, I’m glad she and Lewis kept on going. Still, I’ve often wondered what an unleashing of Eloise Blocker’s creative and intellectual powers might have yielded for the world. Now that I’ve reached an age when my mother was a grandmother who’d survived 10 pregnancies, I can fully confront the possibility that the limited time for her body to recover between births — and the inability to negotiate and control the number of children she bore — must have created significant psychological trauma for my mother.

And if I’m honest with myself, witnessing that impact undoubtedly contributed to my own decision to never give birth.

But the biggest difference between my life and my mother’s is the comparatively astonishing range of choices I had, on so many different levels. Throughout my journey, I’ve been able to choose where I wanted to live, from America’s capital, where young Eloise Blocker had dreamed about having a career, to a village in Northern Uganda. and then to Kenya’s capital. I’ve been able to choose between job offers, and between men I wanted to date or enter relationships with. I’ve been able to consider different contraceptive methods to prevent pregnancy — and even had the choice to stop using those methods after meeting a few men I considered potential co-parents at the time. (Hindsight being what it is, I made the right choice to not entwine my life with theirs.)

And that’s the key to the issue — CHOICE. Yet another word that can spark a fistfight in the blink of an eye, depending on the setting. Again, it’s either wielded like the torch of truth or condemned like Satan’s sickle, and when the dust settles it’s always, always poor women who suffer.

It has been truly fascinating for me to compare this mindset that I so blithely took for granted these past 3 decades to the lives of powerless women around the world. And as someone who specializes in development issues, and who often tends to be almost clinically analytical about them, it confounds me that any society would prioritize control and patriarchy over the demographic equation of “available resources versus numbers of people who need them.” In Rachella Land, it is folly to equate quality of health for mothers and children to religious compliance. And it is societally crippling to deny any woman with a supple mind and a vision for a meaningful future the ability to realize those things in her own time and at her own pace.

So that’s why a woman who never gave birth and who never will is so all-fired opinionated about access to family planning. My mother died 10 years ago last February, so she never knew that I wound up living halfway around the world, having fantastic journeys and seeing things she only imagined or read about in some of the thousands of books she devoured during 79 years of life. Eloise Blocker Jones was my first feminist role model, and her insistence on independence and career literally fueled my life.

Though her own life was scarred by poverty and struggle, Mama retrieved her dreams for adventure and independence from the ashcan of despair, polished them up and planted them in all five of her daughters. Because after her own 4th or 5th pregnancy, I suspect part of her soul must have been snuffed out like a candle — the part where she was free to be who she truly was and explore just how far her mind could take her. Through that veil of pain and regret, Mama was somehow able to vow that her own daughters would not repeat the cycle.

Of the 220 million women worldwide who want access to family planning but don’t have it, I believe there are hundreds of thousands of young Eloise Blockers who have the potential to change the world — and who will still bear plenty of children, never fear. I just pray that in my lifetime, we can end the paralysis of bombast and control and unlock an incredible revolution in communities, cultures and economies by giving more women what I consider the basic civil right to realize the fullness of their humanity.

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