Three of my four grandparents were only children. Born early in the 20th century, in the period betwixt the great wars, coming of age in the Great Depression. Only children, in spite of having parents married for decades. Three of them. In all likelihood, their own parents, my great-grandparents--and I knew all of my great-grandmothers--consciously chose not to have more children because, well--it was the Great Depression.
The Great Depression was a hallmark of sorts in American history beyond the economics of the era. It also marked the first time in U.S. history that the population failed to achieve replacement levels of reproduction--the level required to replace existing people. Indeed, the birth rate fell by 15% during that period. It's true that many people delayed marriage--they couldn't afford it. But it's also true that divorce rates dropped, too, as couples couldn't afford either another child or maintaining separate households. How did my great-grandparents and the others who contributed to this 15% drop in population do it, especially in an age without 99% effective birth control?
I can't speak for my great-grandparents, but the realistic explanation for having one child over decades of marriage is either contraceptives or abortifacents. Make no mistake about it: In spite of efforts to quash women's right to control what happens with their bodies, women have always known about and used both for millennia. Outside the purview of men were the feminine oral histories of how to prevent pregnancy or induce abortion, either chemically or mechanically, and it's something women did. It wasn't considered an issue for discussion with anyone but the women. It was just something women knew, something they did, to maintain control over what happened with their bodies and their families.
One reason they did it, in addition to economics, was fear. Pregnancy has always been a killer of women. Since serious record keeping began in the Western world, in England and Wales, for example, maternal mortality peaked in the late 19th century at almost 700 women per 100,000 births. In the United States, the peak occurred in the early 20th century--in fact, about the time some of my grandparents were born--at over 900 women per 100,000 births. Nature, in the absence of cultural and technological assistance, is an indifferent actor, you see, but a great mathematician: As long as births are at replacement, all those deaths don't matter. But we're more emotional about our math: If something were killing 900 women per 100,000 births today in the United States, we'd consider it a plague. Is it any wonder that women, facing both a life-threatening event and economic straits, might turn to age-old contraceptives or abortifacents to ward off both?
Of course, some of this mortality had to do with medicine itself, the waves of childbed fever passing from childbirth attendant to mothers, sometimes like the plague itself killing 70 to 80% of infected women. If a woman didn't die from the pregnancy or birth--pre-eclampsia, pre- or post-partum bleeding, pelvic disproportion--the infections that followed could easily carry her off, a threat that lingered in Western society well into the 20th century.
In the midst of all this pain and death, all related to reproduction, women had their own remedies and felt no shame in that knowledge or its application among other women. After Charlotte Bronte died from hyperemesis of early pregnancy, her friend and biographer, Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, wrote that had she known, she could have given her friend something that would have cured the problem--in other words, an abortifacent.
The pharmacoepia of abortifacents stretches back into the ancient literature. Hippocrates (he of the oath) documented them. Soranus, ancient gynecologist, did, as well. Even in the absence of a clear understanding of physiology, they knew that there were ways to prevent pregnancy--contraceptives--and ways to end one--abortifacents. Sometimes, they arose from the same preventative.
The dual weapons against unwanted pregnancy even made their way into ancient Western mythology in the form of Myrrha. Myrrha was raped by her father (or tricked him into sex with her, depending on your source), the king. To escape her father's attacks (or her lust for her father, again depending on the source), she submitted to being transformed into the myrrh tree, which has long been used as a contraceptive and abortifacent. From this first myrrh tree, Myrrha's son, Adonis, was born. Her reputation is as a rescuer of female victims of incest.
Incest, rape, the repeated and intense pain of childbirth, death from birth or childbed fever...these have been the realities for women since women existed. Sex and reproduction were often necessary but sometimes deadly. There is no absence among women of an ability to grasp these realities and do what is necessary to deal with the potential consequences, even if addressing the reality was sometimes fatal, too.
A recent highly publicized report tried to link abortion and mental health issues with women. It is a review/meta-analysis that suffers accusations of having ignored literature finding no link. It also ignores the fact that abortion isn't a new phenomenon, that women have managed contraception, abortion, and pregnancy for thousands of years, on their own, among themselves. If deprived of safe, modern mechanisms for doing so, they will continue with the dangerous versions with benefits that, for women who turn to them, don't outweigh their risks. Make no mistake about it.
The headlines arising from that study, "Abortion increases mental health problems" and "Women who have abortions face double the risk of mental health problems," leave out the fact that the review in question failed to address whether or not mental health problems (and known risk factors for such, including abuse and addiction) instead are linked to increases in abortion. Actual population-based studies have found no link between induced first-trimester abortion and mental health. Having a baby, on the other hand, is a huge stress inducer and can adversely affect mental health. I know that all those politicians and others out there who are so concerned about women's mental health will take these findings to heart and act accordingly.
Snark aside, contrary to popular and persistent belief, women as a population can handle and have always handled stress with resilience, often thanks to the same network that was the female reproductive brain trust: other women. In the light of that, it's time to trash the canard that women are mental weaklings who can't decide things for themselves or deal with the consequences of their decisions. Having sex may be an outcome of a moment's heat for both men and women, but women don't make reproductive choices with the same shallowness of decisionmaking they might use to order at a fast-food drive through. Shockingly, they think about it deeply and are capable of managing the consequences. In fact, most women who have abortions in the U.S. already have children, so they are fully aware of that outcome.
Before women could read, before books were printed, women had among them their own version of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a real book that just passed its 40th birthday. Like the centuries-old oral version, Our Bodies, Ourselves was the product of a group of women, the Boston Women's Health Collective. By the time of its birth, it had become necessary as the collective of women's knowledge had become separated and isolated, as women's bodies had become not their own but political tools.
Women's bodies--you know, their very own bodies--continue to be under political and religious assault today both on the contraception and the abortifacent front. GOP candidate Mitt Romney has expressed support for a constitutional amendment stating that life begins at conception (does he think sperm are dead? Eggs?). Such amendments are receiving support in some states in a horrific and terrifying effort to erode any control women have over their own reproduction. By the way, when women have control over their reproductive health, the benefits to society are immeasurable. When the Taliban--or politicians--have control over women's reproductive health, the negative effects are bottomless.
Romney received a question from a woman a few days ago, asking if the former governor realized that because some forms of hormonal birth control act to prevent either implantation or conception, that such an amendment would, in effect, outlaw hormonal birth control, the most effective form of contraception available. His response showed a clear lack of understanding about how women's bodies function and about how birth control functions, compelling Rachel Maddow to invent a female anatomy and physiology chart just for the Man Cave.
In the days when men had nothing to do with reproduction but the sex act, men were, of course, generally ignorant about these things, and women did what they felt was necessary, using woman-disseminated (ha) knowledge. Now that men have a little knowledge, it's become a dangerous thing for women. But make no mistake: try as they might, they can't know everything because, try as they might, they cannot make individual women's bodies their own.
What Romney didn't grasp is that while most hormonal birth control prevents conception, sometimes hormonal birth control may also prevent implantation if fertilization occurs. So like the myrrh itself, it can act both as a contraceptive--causing a woman to cease ovulating so that no egg is present for fertilization--or as an abortifacent, hormonally preventing implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine wall. Pardon me for a moment while I clarify that: In a woman's uterine wall. A person's uterine wall. The uterine wall of an individual woman, inside of her body.
Were there to be a constitutional amendment stating that human life begins at conception, all hormonal forms of birth control--with their either primary or secondary function of preventing implantation of a ball of dividing cells into a tissue called the uterine lining--could be illegal. Miscarriage could be considered criminal, ranging from homicide or involuntary manslaughter, and open to investigation for everything the woman has done that might have been related to it.
Any woman who's ever undergone the pain of a spontaneous abortion or miscarriage of a wanted pregnancy may be able to imagine how invasive, shaming, and horrific such an investigation into her privacy, her body, might be. Any woman who's ever had an abortion--for medical reasons or from choice--can imagine how invasive, shaming, and horrific such an investigation into her privacy, her body, might be. A married woman with only one child--like three of my great-grandmothers--would be an object of suspicion. How is she doing it? She'll never tell. But make no mistake about it: Those top-secret girl things that you suspect women know and you don't? We do. Sorry. Our bodies, our selves.
Ironically, according to Gawker, back when Romney was pro-choice and allowed inclusion of abortion coverage in the MA health care law, abortion rates actually fell. But the real key here is that this effort to prevent abortions by saying that life begins at conception would, in fact, result in increases in unwanted pregnancies. Unwanted pregnancies will lead, as they have for millennia, to women's turning to surgical abortion or abortifacents, safe or dangerous, whispered through the womanhood grapevine. Abortions will continue, but women will have become criminals for having them or suspected criminals for losing a pregnancy. Or, as is happening in Kenya, they will die.
Reduced access to contraception, the hijacking of a woman's tissues and organs as an incubator for the state, will lead to greater reliance on these ancient abortifacents and backstreet abortions, as has happened in Kenya, in the absence of access to the most effective form of contraception, hormonal interventions. Anti-abortion efforts and news media scare headlines that present women as vulnerable to mental illness, incapable of making serious, informed decisions about reproductive choices, or unable to have abortions without legal sanction are wrong on all counts. Women know this. They know a lot. Make no mistake about it.
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