In 2018 Women Are Still Denied Ownership Of Their Bodies.
WHWH’s work is more urgent than ever.
In 1969, when I was one of a small group of abortion activists, I had an epiphany that was to change my life forever and provide me (and the women in the self-help movement) with a basic understanding of how and why we females are denied ownership of our bodies. This understanding made it possible to take advantage of whatever reforms were available and develop strategies to prepare females to seize the means of controlling our sexuality and reproduction whenever and wherever the circumstances permit.
This epiphany, which took place in a small illegal abortion clinic in Los Angeles inspired me to eventually start a movement to teach vaginal self-examination to women. Here I’ll describe how this came to happen.
At that time, I was a member of the abortion committee of the National Organization for Women in Los Angeles. I had been understudying the chair of the committee, Lana Clarke Phelan, the main author of The Abortion Handbook. I accompanied Lana to take notes when community groups asked NOW to send her to speak to them about why abortion laws needed to be repealed or regulated and decriminalized. During that time, I organized the first abortion demonstration in Los Angeles to support an illegal abortionist, Dr. Harvey Karman, who had been arrested for doing abortions in a clinic. Abortion had been legalized in California two years prior, but it was still unavailable because local hospital and doctors were unwilling to perform them, except to their patients. Harvey wasn’t a medical doctor and he performed the abortions in a tiny illegal clinic on Santa Monica Boulevard. Mary Petrinovich, the third member of our small Abortion Committee (she drove students from the University of Riverside to the clinic weekly) invited me to come to visit with her.
I was knowledgeable about abortion. I had first-hand knowledge from my two abortions, the first illegal and the second legal but painful. But, I learned the history and politics of abortion from listening to Lana’s talks and reading her book. She related that Napoleon had been the first to pass a law outlawing all abortion in France in 1805 in order to build his armies for imperial conquest. I learned abortion was legal in the United States before “quickening”, (about 4 months in pregnancy) until the latter part of the 19th century. Lana and Patricia Maginnis, her co-author, were part of a national abortion reform movement led by clergymen, professors, physicians and attorneys, and they, along with a small number of other pioneer activists founded an organization called the National Association for the Repeal of all Abortion Laws (NARAL). She spoke about how a few states, including California, had recently passed abortion legal reforms. I also heard Lana cite statistics that 5,000 American women were estimated to die each year from illegal abortions.
A few years prior, I had taken a college class in demography. Demographers keep track of the national birth and death rates and study how the sex and marriage customs affect fertility rates. For example, when the people in a society generally delay marriage, the birth rate is lower. Even small cultural changes, especially in the status of females, produce a measurable difference.
Mary and I were standing in the hall between the small waiting room and the equally small procedure room. As we talked, I followed her to check on a patient. We pushed aside a curtain in the doorway. A very young woman was lying facing us on a gynecological table with her feet in stirrups and her legs apart. The blades of a plastic speculum opened up her vaginal walls. I could see 2 or 3 inches within her vagina. At the end of her vagina was a deep pink donut-shaped knob with a small hole, the os, in its middle. This was her cervix, which was the pathway to her uterus. The IUD had just been inserted; the strings from the IUD dangled from her os, and she was in considerable pain. I braced myself on the doorframe, because my knees buckled and my head was swimming. I just stood there and stared, as the meaning of what I was seeing sank in.
My anger pulsed through me in waves when I saw this beautifully simple cervix innocently lying within a couple of inches of the vaginal entrance. No wonder they block our view of what’s going on during examination by draping a sheet over our knees; if we knew how easily abortion is done, we would laugh in their collective face.
I recalled my terror as I walked up the stairs to a second-floor office, unfurnished except for a gynecological table, to get an incredibly painful abortion from a man I had never met to whom I had been referred by a friend at work. I thought about the 5,000 American women who suffered and died each year, simply because male legislators refused to legalize and doctors refused to perform a procedure which is obviously safe and simple when done properly! I was not feeling faint just from seeing an intimate body part or witnessing her suffering. No, I was thunderstruck by the enormity of their utter disregard for women’s lives, coupled with the amazing effectiveness of their simple plan to deprive us of our rights, which only succeeded because they kept females ignorant and ashamed of our bodies.
Shortly thereafter, I realized why policy-makers have an entire branch of science devoted to studying how and why females “choose” to have babies. It so happened that Mary Petrinovich was the local organizer of the first Earth Day which drew attention to the huge increase in world population. The “population explosion” was alarming people, even though the “baby boom” had ended and the birth rate was dropping. Many abortion advocates argued that making abortion legal would reduce the birth rate even faster. We feminists were fighting for a woman’s right to choose either to have a child or an abortion, but the liberals only wanted to allow females to “choose” birth control or abortions. Their birth control clinics didn’t provide pre-natal services or even referrals to birth providers. They didn’t fight for females to be paid equal wages or for the government to provide females with child allowances and free day care so that a woman could choose to keep a child even if she wasn’t married. That said, the liberals did support our demands for birth control and abortion.
The liberals and we feminists identified enemy as the religious right. We had not identified people who sold baby carriages, industrialists and corporations as the enemy, even though they financially backed the “America First” politicians who opposed both birth control and abortion. Putting all this together, I could see that the battle over our reproduction was being fought by two sides-the leaders of the right-wing and the leaders of the left-wing. It was expedient to ally with the liberals (and most of us were ourselves liberals) but I realized, as I compared their rhetoric with their action that both sides have a hidden agenda, and they use propaganda to hide it.
Instead of curtailing our extravagant waste of natural resources, the anti-natalists (advocates for lower birth rates) want individual females to subject their bodies to dangerous drugs or devices to have fewer babies, thus limiting the consumption of working-class people and those in the developing world. Meanwhile, they maintain their privileges in the world order and simultaneously minimize the potential of us revolting against it. The pro-natalists (advocates of higher birth rates) on the other hand, enlist the help of the Catholic Church and evangelical leaders to divert attention from their capitalistic interests. They turn a blind eye to the violence of the anti-abortion movement, which focuses its attack on abortion, meanwhile fighting against providing birth control, which would reduce the need for abortions. The media happily conspires with both sides to hide their motives by failing to report the demographic implications of social and economic public policies, such as maternity leave, and subsidized housing. Instead, they prefer to raise their ratings by providing dramatic scenes of the “abortion wars”.
These moments of clarity that were brought about by seeing the beauty and simplicity of the cervix and my resulting realization of the practical possibility of educating ourselves and collectively to break the medical profession’s stranglehold have proven to be prescient. My awakening from the illusion that the patriarchal system will permit us females to have real and lasting control over our bodies freed me forever from devoting all my energies and money to reform efforts like lawsuits and legislative lobbying. The recognition of the difference between the rhetoric and the actual behavior of both Republicans and Democrats enabled me and my colleagues in the self-help movement with a worldview that has enabled us to predict political trends and explain things that were previously confusing. For example, Ivanka Trump, in her book which otherwise espouses her conservative views, advocates for maternity leave. Many feminists were pleased to note this but wondered why she did so. We know that her position is entirely understandable maternity leave is a pronatalist measure. When females are assured that they will be able to continue to support themselves and their baby while recovering from birth, they are able to continue their pregnancies. I share my epiphany with others to help explain other mysteries, such as the fact that each year for almost 50 years, Congress renews the Hyde Amendment which is tacked on the federal budget to prohibit federal funding to indigent women, even though the Democratic Party, which claims to be the pro-choice party, has dominated not only the presidency but also the legislature many of those years. The demographic impacts of the Hyde Amendment are complicated, but they are suspiciously racist and classist. Many poor women seek sterilization when they can’t afford to risk getting pregnant, and although the U.S. doesn’t need huge armies like Napoleon, but the poverty draft works to maintain the army.
The liberal wing of feminism continues to have faith in the reform strategy of lawsuits, lobbying and protests, even though every nation aggressively pursues its population control policy, and any gains females make must be temporary. We at WhWh give support to continued reform efforts while continuing to work to inspire females to rise up and take back control of our fertility. The recent stirrings of females to stop sexual assaults (indicated by the #MeToo movement and more) give us hope that the time is right for these seeds of independence to take root and grow.
Women’s Health In Women’s Hands provides female-centered analysis of the politics of women’s sexual and reproductive rights; free of racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia.
Carol Downer is an American Feminist and the director of Women’s Health In Women’s Hands a website that provides female-centered analysis of the politics of women’s sexual and reproductive rights; free of racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia.