Around 1968, soon after it was founded, Population Connection—then called Zero Population Growth—called the members of its small New York group and asked them to counter a major march by the right-to-life forces, who were assembling in Central Park. My recollections of this long-ago event are vague, but I remember being shocked by the lack of warning, and our inadequate response. Rapidly I fabricated a home-made sign that read
AN UNWANTED CHILD IS A CARDINAL SIN
and went to Central Park, where I joined a dozen or two of my pals. My sign did not last long. A cleric detached himself from the mass of anti-abortion marchers and ripped it up. The message clearly stung.
Everyone concerned knows the outcome of that particular fight. On January 22, 1973, almost exactly half a century ago, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the right of women to have an abortion. Then as now, those who do not want to avail themselves of this right can carry their child to term.
I came of age at a time when both abortion and contraception were forbidden topics for well-brought up girls. My mom provided a few facts, and my friend Elisabeth and I read the appropriate sections of my parents’ four-volume medical encyclopedia. Nevertheless, for a long time, I was incredibly naïve and ill-informed. I hid my lack of sophistication as well as I could.
Doctors were not allowed to provided birth control to the unmarried. They were also forbidden to perform abortions, though some physicians bent the rules. When the time came for me to need reliable birth control, I stumbled, gauche and embarrassed, into the office of a willing doctor. My explanations of why I had made the appointment were ridiculous. I remember both the doctor’s and my relief when he finally discovered why I had come: “She wants a diaphragm [contraceptive pessary],” he informed his assistant in a loud voice. Then he fitted me.
My boyfriend, who was actually pacing outside the doctor’s office, and I continued to have sex, which now was safe, got married and, as planned, had kids four years later when he had a PhD and a respectable job. I have always envied those who did not have to go through such a charade.
When I became a medical writer, I researched and wrote a book for young adults about humankind’s long and marvelous history of both conception and contraception. The search for a solution for those who had trouble conceiving, as well as the process of developing birth control, was long and arduous. Most women bore their children, wanted or otherwise, and I presume fell in love with what Germans call ein Maleurchen—a little misfortune. Mathilda, my own great-grandmother—the much beloved matriarch of my family—always recounted that she cried when told that she was expecting her third and fourth closely-spaced children. Her doctor consoled her, pointing out that she had “a loving husband who did not drink and stayed home at night,” and that they had “enough money to feed everyone.” For the poor and the unwed, accidentally conceiving a child was a catastrophe that often ended up in a deadly attempt at abortion. Abortions always were and are poor alternatives to successful birth control.
As I was researching Conception / Contraception: A New Look, fortuitously published the year Roe v. Wade was decided, I discovered Margaret Sanger, a nurse who during the 1910s cared for the women of New York’s Lower East Side. Many of them were suffering and dying from the consequences of illegal abortions. After watching a Mrs. Sachs die of septicemia, Sanger quit her palliative, often ineffective nursing and embraced birth control. (Sanger coined the term.) She illegally imported pessaries from Holland. She taught poor women how to try to avoid unwanted pregnancies. She lobbied the legislature and fought Comstock, the postmaster general who confiscated mail that discussed contraception. She went to prison because she would not cease operating a clinic that distributed whatever birth control was available to poor women. This clinic was the beginning of Planned Parenthood. Sanger gave a $500 symbolic grant to three genius scientists, and they developed the birth control pill. It fulfilled a centuries-long dream.
Today, girls and women can avoid pregnancy in a variety of ways, but abortion is still with us. Done in a clinic by experienced and expert staff, it is a necessary, safe part of our medical arsenal. Birth control, including abortions, is part of our modern lifestyle. Let us not go back to illegal abortion mills. As always, those with adequate means will have relatively safe abortions. It will again be the poor who will bear the brunt of killing Roe v. Wade.
A short century ago, Susan B. Anthony and her friends were jailed for demanding that American women be able to vote. No one would dare to take this self-evident right from us. Fifty years later, women demanded and won the right to decide when to become mothers. Nobody should tamper with that indelible right. Birthing healthy, happy children is humankind’s greatest gift, joy, and obligation. Having our babies when we can care for them to the best of our ability is our sacred right and duty.
SUPPORT WOMEN’S FREEDOM TO CONTROL THEIR BODIES.