Friday, July 11, 2014

Women's Liberty and Bodily Sovereignty

The heated debate over reproductive rights in America today, in 2014, is both bizarre and frightening for a woman who grew up in the age of Women’s Liberation.  We thought these issues had been settled long ago and indeed they were, from a legal standpoint.  The Supreme Court had ruled to legalize both birth control and later, abortion on the basis of “privacy,” a right which conservatives deny exists, except when it refers to a corporate bank account or a politician’s tax return.  These rulings have been debated over and over but they nevertheless remain the law of the land.  This has not, however, prevented the anti-choice movement from finding clever ways around the law which have resulted in successfully regulating many abortion clinics out of existence as well as reducing women’s access to birth control through their health insurance.  As I watch this process, I can’t believe it is happening; it’s like a nightmare and I can’t wake up.  But it is all too real.

Reflecting back on my life, one of the things for which I am most thankful above all else is the liberty of bodily sovereignty, made possible by modern law and medicine.  I grew up taking for granted that it was my natural right as a woman to control my fertility, to have sole authority over my own body, to decide whether and when – IF ever! – to have children.  This sovereignty over one’s own body is so essential that all other “freedoms” are meaningless without it.  When I said this on Facebook, one of my male friends replied incredulously, “No way, really?!”  He thought my statement was absurd.  I explained, what good is the right to vote, or to work, or travel, or whatever, if my own body does not belong to me?  How am I a “free person” if I am merely a walking incubator, my uterus property of the spawn of any man who manages to impregnate me with or without my consent?  My friend sincerely didn’t “get it,” perhaps because as a man he cannot even imagine what that would be like.

Women take this precious freedom for granted in America today, or at least we did until recently, but the fact is, it is a profound departure from the normal state of existence for most women around the world throughout history.  With a very few real historical or even mythological exceptions, women previously were condemned to a life as broodmares.  This was in part due to social inequality in cultures which treated women as second-class citizens and/or slaves of their husbands.  However, even in the rare cultures where women were afforded more respect and autonomy, e.g. a feminist friend of mine pointed out, Sparta, biology was still destiny.  If you were born with a womb, you were destined to be a baby factory – perhaps highly respected, able to choose your own mate and have some control over your life circumstances – but still at the mercy of biological fate.  Without reliable contraception, a woman would have babies, lots of them.  Many of the babies would die, and many of the women would die in childbirth.  In fact, until the 20th century, childbirth was the #1 killer of women.  Let that chilling fact sink in for a moment.  The conservatives argue that birth control is not preventive healthcare because “pregnancy is not a disease,” it is a mere “inconvenience.”  A sometimes deadly inconvenience.

My mother narrowly avoided becoming one of the statistics.  A type 1 diabetic, very petite and in fragile health, she had been forbidden by the doctors to get pregnant.  But because she desperately wanted a baby, she chose to ignore their advice.  At 7 months something went seriously wrong and they told her, “We need to get this baby out of you NOW!” and took her to emergency C-section.   Probably the only reason we both survived is that we were at Bethesda Naval Hospital where the best possible care was available.  We didn’t have the opportunity to “bond” before I was immediately whisked away to a NICU incubator and Mom to her room in critical condition.  The doctors sternly warned her she must NEVER get pregnant again because they would not be able to keep her alive, and although she adored babies and wanted more children, our brush with death frightened her enough that she obediently began taking the Pill.  I never got a brother or sister but at least I had the companionship of my dear mother.

Throughout most of history, even if you were one of the lucky women blessed with broad hips, safe births and healthy babies, you were nonetheless still a slave, literally, to biology, because having successfully delivered those children, you then had to raise them.  That was your role as a woman, unless perhaps you were wealthy enough to afford a nanny to care for the children so that you might pursue some other activity, if permitted by society.  But most women didn’t have that option and regardless of whatever other skills, talents and interests they may have had, faced a life as mommy and housekeeper.  While many women enjoy that life and find it very fulfilling, for me it sounds like a living hell.

Fortunately – and again, I thank God for this daily – I was born in America in the early 1960s, so for me, not even the sky was the limit!  I went through phases of wanting to pursue different vocations:  a ballerina, a jockey, a veterinarian, an astronaut.  The latter was a very good possibility because my father was an Air Force officer and was able to get me into the Academy, although I turned down that opportunity.  But, my parents always told me:  You can be whatever you want to be!  Maybe even the President someday, who knows.  I was raised with the understanding that as a woman, it was up to me to choose my life path.  I could have any career I wanted, OR I could be a stay-at-home mom, if I so chose, in which case my husband would support me.  Note, back then we had a CHOICE, whereas nowadays the economy requires both parents to work, and women are expected to have a job AND raise the kids and keep house, which in my opinion is NOT “progress.”

In any event, a large part of what made this wonderful freedom of lifestyle choices possible was the miraculous invention of The Pill which gave women control over our reproduction.  In the past, random pregnancy was often viewed by employers as a reason not to hire or promote women.  And there are some jobs you just can’t do while pregnant, like ballet, horse racing or going into space.  I didn’t need to worry about that, being fortunate to have access to The Pill throughout my fertile years because, at least until around 2000, I had good insurance that always covered contraception – yes, even when I worked for Christian companies!

My introduction to the Pill occurred when I was a teenager in Hawaii.  My mother found out that I had lost my virginity, whether through “motherly intuition” or maybe she overheard me talking on the phone to my best friend Kat.  Angry and sobbing, she proceeded to tell me that she didn’t understand this “sexual revolution” stuff.  My grandmother had taught her that sex is an unpleasant duty that a wife must endure to make her husband happy and to have children.  When she was my age, good girls didn’t have sex, mostly for fear of getting pregnant.  Those who did were SLUTS, and if a shotgun wedding with the boyfriend was not arranged, the wealthy ones went abroad to study in France, while those from lower-income families were sent off to stay with their aunt in the country for a year.  My mother told me she had only had sex with one man, my father.  She paused her rant for a moment, and then said quietly, misty eyed, “You know, I probably would have wanted to explore my options, if we had the Pill back then.  There was this boy that I really loved…”  Pulling herself together, Mom sat up straight and said sternly, “Anyway, I don’t approve of what you are doing!  You were supposed to wait for marriage.  But the worst possible thing that could happen to you right now is to get pregnant, which would totally ruin your life.  SO, I am taking you to the doctor to get on the Pill!”  And God bless her, she did.  I respect my mother so much for having the courage and the wisdom to handle the situation in that manner.

Ironically, shortly after I got on the Pill, my boyfriend’s family, also in the military, was transferred to California.  We had only had sex one time, with a condom.  It was a horrible experience, as he had explained the first time often is, but he assured me that it would be wonderful the next time.  But, we didn’t get the opportunity, and I never saw my first love again.  I missed him so much, and did not have another boyfriend until after I went to college.  It was nonetheless a relief, however, just knowing that IF I were to get into a sexual relationship, I would be protected.  In college and later in my 20s while seeking a life partner I dated several young men, but none of them wanted a long-term commitment, so I was very glad not to have become pregnant during those relationships.  Religious opponents of contraception blame birth control for this modern social phenomenon where men have access to sex “without consequences” and thus don’t need to make a lifelong commitment.  While this might be true, I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing.  Contraception allows women to play the field, looking for compatible candidates while weeding out the men who might not make the best husbands and fathers, unlike the olden days when you were pretty much stuck with whomever got you pregnant, only to discover down the road that he was a poor match.

But, while I wanted a life partner, I never particularly wanted kids, for a few reasons.  For one, I have always been quite concerned about population growth and the environment and thought there were already enough humans on earth.  More importantly, I didn’t think I would be a good mother.  I completely lack the maternal instinct.  Unlike my mom, who would not hesitate to grab and smooch the daylights out of a baby belonging to a complete stranger, I find nothing attractive about infants.  Now, many people have told me, “Having a baby changes you.  You will feel differently after you have one of your own!”  However, a baby is not a science experiment and I would hate to test the theory, only to find that those people were wrong and that I did, in fact, possess zero maternal instinct.  I have always believed that people should not breed unless they are seriously able and willing to be good parents.  It doesn’t seem right to me that an innocent child should be brought into the world “by accident” or as a “whoops!” or an afterthought, but only if they are truly wanted.

Of course, conservatives like Rush Limbaugh often argue, “If women don’t want kids then they just shouldn’t have sex!”  As discussed in another post, I’m not convinced that they seriously want us to stop having sex, based on my experience.   After failing to find a desirable partner, I became a Third-order Sister.  I was voluntarily celibate for 14 years and received fierce criticism from all sides, especially from conservatives, regarding my lifestyle choice.  Friends, family members, coworkers and complete strangers told me that my lifestyle was abnormal and wrong!  Society is, after all, oriented around couples and family life, and sex is the glue that holds romantic relationships together.  So while the conservatives claim to support celibacy in theory, it's quite another matter when you actually practice it, then suddenly you are going against God and Nature.  Basically, in my experience you are damned if you do and damned if you don't!  And incidentally, while I thought I wouldn’t need the Pill anymore since I was celibate, it ended up being prescribed to treat my anemia related to excessive menstrual blood loss.

Life rarely turns out the way we planned.  After 14 years of celibacy, when I had long since completely stopped looking for a partner, I met my husband at age 42.  Had I followed my mother’s old-fashioned morality, that we should “wait until marriage” to have sex, it would have been a very long wait indeed!

I did not become a ballerina (at least not professionally, although I dance at karaoke bars during long instrumentals), or a jockey (although I have raced my own horses at local fairs), a veterinarian, an astronaut, or President (although I went to school with one, Barry Obama).  My “career” involved mostly just boring secretarial jobs, followed by 22 years in the medical field.  Now I work as a yoga teacher, psychic and holistic wellness counselor.  My adult life has not been the most exciting nor successful from a career standpoint.  But, it is MY life and I am very happy to have lived it my own way.  Thanks to modern medicine being upheld by the Supreme Court [until recently], I have managed to avoid the one career that I specifically did NOT want, namely, motherhood.  I cannot imagine not having had that choice.  I want my goddaughter and stepdaughter to have the same freedom that I enjoyed, to live their lives as they see fit, to become mothers if and when they choose.  I pray that we won’t return to the dark ages when women were broodmares.

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