I remember the first time I heard about Roe v. Wade. It wasn’t until my ninth grade honors government class that I learned about the turning point case in women’s and civil liberties. It was lumped in with lessons about the Bill of Rights and the Fourth Amendment, which bars the practice of unlawful search and seizure. It was taught in the context of the right to bodily integrity. And then we moved on to something else.
It’s incredible that in history classes where we learn about the Revolutionary War 39 times, we don’t learn more about recent issues that continue to affect our lives every day in a comparatively more direct way. I’m not saying that those other lessons weren’t important, but seriously, did anyone ever make it past WWII ever before they graduated high school? What about those pretty important decades after that?
From the start I could tell I was going to enjoy Jeanne Flavin’s Our Bodies, Our Crimes. I’m currently in a communications law class for my journalism curriculum, so reading about more cases and circumstances regarding the history of reproductive rights fit in quite well with what I’ve been learning about on several fronts.
If CJ Pascoe’s Dude, You’re a Fag was a fun, yet eye-opening, trip back down memory lane, Our Bodies, Our Crimes was kind of downright depressing. The information was incredibly fascinating, but repeatedly seeing how women’s bodies have been controlled ruffled my feminist mentality.
The thing about abortion rights debates is that the main conflict is between caring about the mother’s wellbeing vs. caring about the unborn child’s wellbeing. So, which one is of more value to us as a society, and why do we feel that way?
Why does abortion always seem to lead to discussions of the mother’s conduct? Or if they are “fit” for motherhood? The thing is, abortion is talked about in a way that criminalizes the woman taking charge of her body in any way possible. That’s the paradox that Flavin brings up constantly throughout her book, and it’s pervasiveness has meant generations of women being told that they only have certain rights and control over bodily integrity to a limited extent.
The author’s paradox in the institution’s preoccupation with a women “fit” for motherhood vs. the unequal access to abortion care reminds me of a story my writing professor once wrote and shared with the class. In the area where she was an editor, there was a story about a woman who was repeatedly arrested for using inhalants and passing out in public while pregnant. After so many of the same occurrences, she was incarcerated but not allowed to seek out abortion practices. So in effect, they said that her behaviors meant that she was unfit for motherhood and may face further consequences regarding her reproductive system after her pregnancy term. But then again, she had no choice in carrying the baby to full term. In this unfortunate circumstance, the woman also happened to be a Native American and lived on a reservation that wasn’t the greatest about gender equality and treating women in general with respect.
At one point, an abortion rights group offered to post her bail if she agreed to use their services to seek out abortion. Another opposing group said they would pay the money if she agreed to carry the baby to full term. I’m not sure whether they offered to support the child after birth, but I’m guessing they probably didn’t.
This example clearly illustrates how women have time and time again been dictated as far as what they can and cannot do with their bodies. In any circumstance, a woman may be deemed “unfit” for motherhood and face punishment to never carry or care for another child again. On the other hand, those who know they can’t care for a newborn and seek out abortion aren’t afforded the opportunity. The barriers in place are numerous: institutional, governmental, legislative, financial, social context and environment…the list goes on.
As gloomy and bleak as this book was, I was happy to finally get to some of her points about what can be done on an institutional level to provide better care for women who need help either terminating or carrying out their pregnancy. The key is changing the dialogue from being reactive and locking these women up, to something that addresses the core issue of access and social circumstance. That, and the fact that these women have autonomy and should be able to have control over the legislation that dictates what they can and can’t do with their body, a crucial issue of privacy and a pillar of our sense of democracy.
All the discussion about abortion rights also reminded me of a True/False film that I saw at the festival this year called After Tiller. The documentary followed the four remaining practicing late-term abortion providers after the assassination of Dr. George Tiller, a pioneer of the service to women and their families around the nation. It was a powerful film and extremely emotional. Of course it had a pretty obvious political slant, but it did a good job of portraying the women seeking out these services as intelligent humans in a difficult situation but taking her future and rights into her own hands. If I could, I would make everyone watch it. At one point, Dr. Susan Robinson of the film says something along the lines of her having her own ethical dilemmas of having to decide which women she would feel comfortable doing these procedures on. Who can say which person has a good enough reason to end her pregnancy? In the end, it’s not anyone’s decision except that woman. And she essentially says that she leaves the decision up to the woman because they are intelligent enough to make their own decisions. It’s just the institutions in place barring them from what they need. This is also what Flavin says in her book, and she leaves the reader with a sense of hope to stir action from the reactionary institutions in place now.