New Yorker Cartoon
The right to privacy encompasses a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy [but] a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy is not absolute … Roe v Wade, 410 US, p 154
Dear friends and readers,
This morning I read a thoughtful questioning blog by a friend who maintains a journal of her reading online: Margaret Sanger and the Planned Parenthood Rally. I got all fired up, felt strong emotion as I have before when it’s pointed out that, hard as it seems to believe, a sufficiently large percentage of the population in the US is against letting people have the liberty to buy and use contraception to vote in congressmen who will fight to pass laws to destroy women’s health organizations, specifically and most notoriously (see the name) Planned Parenthood, in order to stop the women from having access to safe contraception.
I wrote about this on my blog once before when I had a sudden insight into this apparently destructive aim: after all who would force on families endless children, the enormous work, the inability to care for children individually, the dire poverty, the exhaustion of a woman’s body and a man’s ability to support her and the family that would result: The woman from Planned Parenthood: what is hated is a woman’s access to contraception:
I’ve noticed in mainstream media the determination to de-fund Planned Parenthood has not been treated with any clarity or truthfulness. What has been repeated is the mantra of the Republican group refusing to sign the budget is the objection to Planned Parenthood is they support abortion and do abortions. The reality is a tiny percentage of Planned Parenthood’s efforts are about abortion (different figures are quoted, one that’s repeated is 3%).
The real animus against Planned Parenthood is they enable women to have sex without getting pregnant. The whole thrust of the organization (as seen in its name) is to spread contraception, to give women control of their bodies — and inexpensively. It’s a legacy of Margaret Sanger. The real objection of the republicans is such places enable women to have sex without anxiety.
As I wrote my friend in my comment I’ve gone beyond this insight I had (Katha Pollit saw it too) as I’ve watched and listened to the public media’s reporting of this anti-contraceptive care movement. I still see that republicans and their quiescent allies want to prevent women from having control over their reproductive functions. By stopping access to contraceptives, they also make sex risky so the woman can no longer have an adult sex life of her own choosing.
But the reasoning goes beyond this. They want to subject women to men who they think have the right to demand of a woman they have a relationship with that she produce a child, preferably a son for them — to prove or act out their “manliness.” Romney’s nomination and all he stands for, now coupled with Ryan enforces this lesson: the people heading this movement don’t want to pay any taxes for anyone else’s need. Yes they know very well that Planned Parenthood also provides cheaply for women’s health care in other areas: for antibiotics, for psychological help, for operations (say if you have endometriosis). But every one must be on their own, everyone keep every penny he or she earns except for the minimum of taxes to have wars and say build sidewalks and roads. Poor people deserve whatever happens to them; they are meted out discipline and punishment this way.
The last part of the agenda (not to pay anything for anyone, not to share and take responsibility for anyone but yourself and only pay into what you get an equivalent out of) is not in John Riddle’s Eve’s Herbs. But the rest of the agenda emerges as he tells the history of contraception and abortion in the west.
Riddle opens his book with the quotation that heads my blog and a full account of the Roe v Wade decision which he says troubled him because not only the were the judge’s arguments but much of even the intelligent discourse around it was riddled (pun intended) anachronistic misconceptions of the previous history of abortion, for example, that the Hippocratic oath implied a physician could prohibit or refuse to help a woman produce an abortion, that the idea that a human life begins with conception is an ancient widespread one, that scientific studies were central to women and their physician’s decisions about how she should go about treating her reproductive system. Says Riddle in the first chapter (with witnesses in print to demonstrate this) many ancients accepted not only abortion but suicide, not condone but accept.
He decided he would write a book which would demonstrate clearly that until the 19th century in Europe and the cultures the spread from Europe (through emigration) it was acceptable to abort a fetus before quickening, and that few believed a human being was created at the time of conception. I wish he could have proved all that he set out to prove. Alas, he does not. It is true but only generally speaking that until the later 18th century until quickening a woman could obtain an abortion and not be punished or ostracized as long as she kept her act private — as she would most of her sex life. But very early on (3rd century conferences and their publications like the Bible) the church’s hostility to sex and to women demonstrated a strong disposition to stop any control of reproductive functions by either men or women, and there emerged the corollary idea that a human life or soul began at conception. And even earlier than Christianity, from Roman times on we see the persistent idea that a man has a right to have children, especially a son, and that such a right trumped the woman’s right to abort the fetus in her body. In fact much of the discourse that got into court when cases involving marriage, children, pregnancy outside marriage, stillborn babies (with accusations of murder often flung at a woman) was about how a man had been deprived of a possible heir (a son was wanted).
But along the way, about 2/3s of the book demonstrates something as important to the contraception, abortion debates — and let us include here debates and a lack of real common knowledge about miscarriage, stillborn and deformed fetuses and babies, artificial insemination and technologically-induced pregnancies, induced parturition (bringing on childbirth before the full term or 9th month), and choosing a child’s sex. From the beginning of recorded time women have wanted to control their reproductive functions to protect themselves and control their destiny and, together in earlier times with midwives and “healing” women, done everything they could to help themselves in these areas. Riddle has a hugely long chapter where he lists and describes all the herbs and concoctions used (as far as we can tell) from medieval to later 18th century time to bring about fertility, prevent contraception, or cause termination (abortion) or early birth, or somehow control and aid a woman who seemed to be sick because of the pregnancy. Riddle keeps saying many of these did work, some were also toxic, and of course some probably had little effect at all.
So for centuries women were left alone to deal with their pregnancies and reproductive functions more or less. If it was not at all acknowledged as her right to chose, because much was invisible, not mapped publicly, she could exercise her own judgement and follow her desires insofar as herbs could help. They did all they could for themselves. The strongest motive for control was a man’s right to have a child by his wife.
A group of men, an iconic copy of Roland of Parma’s Surgery depicting a context in which surgery is not simply professionalizing but masculinizing quite thoroughly.
It’s important to know that medicine was seen as a woman’s province until the later 17th century when it became part of medical science and began to be a paying licensed profession. Groups of women together. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English argue in a their Witches, Midwives and Nurses that a large majority of women burnt as witches were women who practiced medicine, and that some of this stemmed from the animus of men who wanted to repress them. It’s no coincidence that the largest number of such burnings took place in the 17th century too. It also came from fear as if a woman is granted this power to heal, she is blamed if something goes wrong (and who better to blame than an aged ugly old woman, an easy scapegoat). Riddle concurs that midwives were subject to ostracizing and anathematized and burnt (together with, as Doris Lessing and Stevie Smith say, their helpless hapless cats).
He also demonstrates that until the 19th century laws ignored this fraught and important part of women’s lives, and that attitudes across many levels of society about when you could abort and when human life began were multiple and flexible and endlessly ambivalent. He shows that the recourse to “science” as a rational or explanation for what a woman chose to do only began in the mid-20th century,and then (as science often is used) only those parts of scientific explanation were brought forward which enforced a particular group’s previously held cultural beliefs or agenda.
19th century photo: doctor in charge, nurse his servant, and woman patient subject to them
The last third of the book is the most troubling. We see how easy it is to lose knowledge. Riddle demonstrates that the rise of evangelicism and Victorian determination to control sexuality itself led to the repression of earlier traditional knowledge about herbs. Middle class women no longer had access to or handed down knowledge of herbs. Physicians also did all they could to ridicule and stigmatize as silly or dangerous all means of self-medication that they did not themselves invent or see as scientific. Women’s wombs become a sort of public territory — women had never managed to have the right to control the space about their bodies and their right not to be searched or invaded bodily by members of the community if they have transgressed sexually. Now their reproductive functions were seen as producing important commodities: children. This is another version of men wanting children, but now with the growing understanding of conception, development of fetuses, and physicians’ apparent right to bring babies into the world using socially approved of methods, one could make laws about conception, and childbirth and enforce them by punishments.
Riddle cites new kinds of bills, like Lord Ellenborough’s 1803 omnibus bill which covered various kinds of murder, and this law included a demand that a court determine whether a child who was born dead or alive, to see whether the mother should be accused of murdering it if it died soon after and she had not told anyone it had been born (this hit at women who had babies outside wedlock). It included language like:
It is a crime of murder for anyone to unlawfully administer to, or cause to be administered to or taken by any of his Majesty’s subjects any deadly poison, or other noxious or destructive substance or thing, with intent [for] … his Majesty’s subject or subjects thereby to murder, or thereby to cause and produce the miscarriage of any woman, then being quick with child.
There may still be glimpsed the assumption that no human life or baby is there until quickening, but someone who understood these words or act would be foolhardy to administer any herbs at all, lest she be accused of having done it after the quickening. Quickening is ambiguous and occurs differently for different women and not at exactly the same time.
The last chapter takes us back to modern America, and we find a melange of extraordinary punitive and repressive laws, including attempts to stop women from using any drug that is not prescribed by a certified physician, attempts to prevent women from regulating their menses, prohibitions against the sale of contraception or any drug for female use only. We have arrived at the time of Griswold v Connecticut when the US Supreme court invalidated a Connecticut law that forbade the sale of contraceptions on the grounds of a right to privacy. (Scaglia thinks this hilarious, this right to contraceptive privacy, does not find it in the Constitution.)
At the same time women continued to, albeit quietly, hiddenly, secretly (and thus with shame and fear and anxiety) avail themselves of what help they could get outside the medical profession (and inside when it came to by then illegal abortion). Among popular medications supported by women’s groups was Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, advertised as a “blood purifier” but actually known (as herbs once were known) to have anti-fertility properties so sold as a means of birth control. There were attempts to take it off the market, its ingredients were investigated and changed (fenugreek seed was removed), vitamins were added. It is still sold today. The AMA has of course been tireless in damning such bottles as quack and charlatan stuff.
As Riddle shows all along, one text discussing this preparation is probably partly right when it suggests that abortifacients like this could also be placed in “a volume on toxology.” Drugs that terminate pregnancies are often toxic. The Republican congressmen who likened the product of rape to a product of sex outside marriage and said US people should consider the cases as parallel and consider the feelings or rights of the father takes us right back to the age-old assumption that a woman’s body is only a container for a man to have children through. Plus ca change, moins ca change.
Jill Townsend as Elizabeth in very bad pain after inducing a premature birth, Michael Cadman as Dwight Enys, the doctor (Poldark 1977-78)
I read this book because I wanted to answer a question I had about a key incident in the Poldark novels. In the fourth novel Ross Poldark rapes Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark in order to assert his right over her body and stop her from marrying George Warleggan. Events and feelings transpire such that she goes ahead and marries Warleggan and gives birth to a baby 7-8 months afterward and claims it was premature. But it was not, it was full term baby, the child was Ross’s. Warleggan is told that the child was not born prematurely, and his savage jealousies are aroused; he torments her and the boy and when she becomes pregnant again (by him), after a terrible scene of his corrosive bullying, she takes a herb compound a London physician has given her to induce an early birth. She wants to persuade Warleggan that she naturally gives birth early so that he will accept the son. She is told the herb or drug is dangerous and should call a physician immediately upon bad cramps. But she does not call a doctor immediately and by the time a doctor is on the scene who recognizes a smell from her increasingly rigid and cold body as gangrene-like it is too late to save her. I wanted to know if there was a compound from herbs which could prompt early parturition, but then kill the person by causing gangrene. Riddle does not descend to that level of detail.
Lest my reader find this story melodramatic, I should say that Charlotte Smith’s Romance of Real Life includes court cases where a woman has a child prematurely and the husband accuses her of trying to foist another man’s child on him. Jim suggested that if the trajectory here is probable, perhaps the specification of gangrene-like is fantasy.
But if I did not have my question answered, I learned about an aspect of women’s history far more important generally. From a book I reviewed Josephine McDonagh’s Child Murder and British Culture, 1720- 1900, I did know that women were routinely accused of infanticide when their babies were born dead, especially if they were poor, powerless, or unwed, that laws were written which made them guilty until they could prove themselves innocent and that as late as the 1980s one can find a case of a girl prosecuted for murder when she was found to have hidden her pregnancy and the baby was stillborn. Well, now I have the larger picture and I have shared it with all who read my blog.
Another New Yorker cartoon on behalf of women
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