by Robert J. Howe
Note: This story may be upsetting to some.
This story is about how authoritarian regimes deform human relationships, even—especially—the most intimate ones. It is also a story about how people can’t be controlled, and the unintended consequences of trying to do so.”
Spring at the Phyllis Schlafly Correctional Facility in Broward County. I’m here to visit my mother, who will be fifty-eight in a week. This is no kindness to her, or me. It is a state-mandated visit. I am a living reproach.
I have never seen my mother when she was not in one phase of pregnancy or another, and today is no exception. She looks tired and done to death. The lines around her mouth have solidified since my last visit; they are set in the stone of her face. She looks—she is—angry. She has been angry ever since I can remember.
“Hello, Bryan,” she says. Despite her angry expression, this comes out almost gently.
I have spent a lot of time in therapy, ostensibly coming to terms with the fact that my mother didn’t want me. I am still required to check my weapon at the prison’s armory, lest I take revenge on her. This is absurd: she could not have had any feelings on the matter one way or another, as she didn’t know me then. What she didn’t want was to raise any children for whom she couldn’t adequately provide. The alpha and omega of her life problems revolve around what she considers adequate.
She has a crooked smile, when she smiles, from where her jaw was broken. The arresting officer stepped on her face to keep her from swallowing evidence. If her dead bolt lock had held three more seconds, we would not be facing each-other across the scarred wooden table.
“Hello, Elena,” I say.
She eases herself into a chair, unnaturally skinny except where she is unnaturally round. Half a lifetime of bearing rich women’s children has left her calcium-depleted and stick fragile, and her pale, sweaty face is made more unattractive by the reflection of the green visiting room walls.
We don’t talk much during these visits; it hurts less that way. It is part, too, of my mother’s strange Bushido. What we can do, is look into one-another’s green eyes without flinching. My mother understands, as do I, that between us there can be no feelings of guilt or regret. At least, this is what I like to think. Almost everything I know about my mother, I know from reading the official reports. Prison has a way of making everyone’s life into roman à clef.
There are no guards in the room, a strong reminder that every word and gesture is being recorded. This is another reason for our sphinxlike communion. It is harder, though not impossible, to get blood from a stone. All this notwithstanding, there is something she wants to tell me.
My mother was almost as old as I am now when she had me; that pregnancy was no childish fling.
“You have got to be kidding,” was my father’s sole, and last comment to my mother. He never came home from work that day. The Legal Aid lawyer told my mother it would cost more money than it was worth to have him skip-traced, so that was the end of that.
Abortion was still legal in a few states then, but Florida wasn’t one of them. My mother regretted the necessity of an abortion, both because she had wanted what she thought was her “twilight baby,” and because she’d have to have it done illegally; New Jersey, the closest free state, was as financially inaccessible as the moon, what with residency requirements and medical records transfer fees. The day my father walked, money became the big issue. My older sister and brother were just six and seven, respectively, and no one else was going to pay to bring them up. My mother couldn’t work pregnant, and they couldn’t live on what the anemic AFDC provided.
There was a doctor who would do it at Misericordia, in Pompano, and list it as a Dilation and Curettage, and her health plan would have even paid the bill. But two days before the operation a couple of suits from the National Reproduction Administration took the doctor away in the middle of the night. It seems she’d established a questionable pattern of performing D&Cs on women with no significant medical history.
That’s when my mother started answering the classified ads in the back of women’s magazines. She was careful. She was patient. She almost got away with it.
My desk is always heaped with paperwork, and today is no exception. So many case folders cover the tabletop that I can’t find a place to set my coffee. In those folders, more often than not, is all the information I need to do my job. By the time I have finished my coffee, I’ll have closed three cases over the phone. Three more anonymous buff folders will then take their place. It is a rare day that I go into the field.
I have been asked, more than a few times, how I feel about my job. The unspoken subtext is always, Does it bother you?
There is, I’m afraid, not much to be bothered about. It isn’t a case of not seeing the forest for the trees; I am so mired in the minutiae of the profession, that it is more like not being able to see the tree for the bark. It is all statistics: looking for the deviations from the norm. I wouldn’t know half my clients if I saw them on the street. What I know are their telephone bills, mortgage payments, medical histories, grammar school grades, even preferences in movie rentals.
Some would argue that it is easier to do my job thus insulated. They are right, but not the way they mean it. It is simply that there is less to remember this way.
My mother’s wrists are chafed from the restraints. Two years ago she dove from her bed stomach-first onto the floor. The D.C. lawyer and his wife who were waiting for the baby got a million-five from the Broward Special Corrections Department for mental anguish. My mother got padded leather handcuffs.
When I look at the raw spots on her arms, I notice that she’s tensing her muscles so hard the veins stand out like the surface of a relief map. Her face is completely composed for the cameras, however. I don’t know what to make of this, but I am careful not to stare, nor look away too quickly. I’m rewarded with the ghost of a smile too quick to register until it’s passed. So, I was meant to notice the flexing.
A guard comes in, they call them matrons here. This is a deliberate choice with 1950’s connotations, I think. She stands next to the table, stolid and dumb in her blue blouse and skirt, and signals us that the visit is over. It is less than half the time normally allotted to mandated visits. This is my mother’s small victory: our silence makes them too uncomfortable to endure watching for long. I think my mother would like to say that she is proud of me today, but cannot. To say that would be a tacit confession of her guilt. Any approval of me would mean she was wrong thirty years ago when she tried to flush my fetus out of her body. Still, it is this tacit understanding that allows me to go on with my life and my job.
Our eyes do not meet while the matron is in the room, and my mother is led away without looking back.
My mother finally narrowed it down to three advertisements that looked amateurish enough not to have been planted by the NRA, and were ambiguous enough so as to draw minimal attention. All three were for Riviera Diet Supplements—bootleg Roussel Uclaf pills—black market abortions being too dangerous, too easy to track, or both. She went to the library then, and looked up back issues of the magazines. Two of the ads had run for several prior issues, so it was a good bet that they were already under surveillance. The third was brand new.
The next step was a driver’s license under the name of a cousin who’d died as a child, with an SRO address. The rooming house address served two purposes. First, when it was time to get a post office box, it was less likely that an SRO address would trip a flag in the postal computer; it was entirely reasonable for someone living in a rented room to get their mail at a p.o. box. Post office boxes in middle-class residential neighborhoods, which ours was, usually alerted the Postal Inspection Service to a violation of the mail obscenity laws. The second reason for the SRO address was that, in Florida, there were far too many to register their tenants weekly, or even monthly. The annual, retroactive registration would turn up my mother’s nom de guerre, but by then she’d be just another desperate, half-remembered face in the clerk’s mind.
All of this cost money—a mid-quality forged license, (ones that could pass at a DWI checkpoint cost much more than paper good enough to fool a bored postal clerk), p.o. box rental—and the pills. They came in lots of six, packaged like vitamins. Some unlucky women had gone through all this, in fact, and had gotten nothing but vitamins. There were six to make sure the job was done. The feminist underground calls them étui, French for “small purses.” The NRA agents call them six-guns.
In the long run, of course, it was still cheaper than having another baby and staying home for the prescribed two years. That same week she found work as a secretary in an insurance company.
I come back from lunch and find that the pattern section has left a list on my desk. Only two names are in my area of responsibility; Evans, Theresa J, and Frawley, Taneka (none). Evans can be put off; I request a background jacket and set her name aside until it comes through. The Frawley folder is on my desk, so I will start with that one.
It is, as I recall, a fairly obvious case. Multiple postal flags, feminist literature subscription—cancelled fairly recently, unmarried, works as a B-girl in a beach club on the strip. Associate’s degree in accounting. Dangerous because she is smart enough to know she’s got a high profile. If at all possible I will perform the search while she is at work.
I bring the folder to the Warrants window, where an NRA administrative justice signs, dates, and seals a premises/vehicle paper. I kill fifteen minutes waiting for the warrant to register by Teletype with the local police. I use the time to check my weapon: I don’t often go into the field, and I go to the shooting range even less frequently. My Glock automatic has a seventeen-round clip, and I carry a spare clip in my jacket pocket. If this is not overkill, I am in the wrong line of work.
The folder stays on my desk—too many classified sources to leave the building—but I slip Frawley’s photo I.D. out, an enlargement of her Florida Driver’s License, to take with me. She is a common looking Black woman, over thirty, with an old-style “natural” hairdo. In the picture she is smiling.
The light in the visiting room is always bad—the cameras can record in the infrared if need be—adding to my mother’s washed-out look. She has just delivered the thirty-fifth baby of her sentence. There is no telling how many more she will bear; she has, in the grim double entendre of Special Corrections, consecutive life sentences.
Since she did not try to throw herself on her stomach to crush the fetus, drink her own urine to poison the fetus, or commit any other act of fetal assault, my mother is entitled to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee during her seventy-day recovery period. Then it’s back to a strict pregnancy regimen as an incubator for some other privileged couple.
She draws hard on her Marlboro. In the silence of the visiting room the stale, dry commissary cigarette pops and crackles like a miniature forest fire. We stare at each other through the smoke. Her arms are no longer raw from the restraints, but she’s built up a pad of callus tissue on the inside of each wrist. There are other changes, as well.
I suddenly realize that she has a facial tic, even though she seems otherwise composed. I have never, in fact, seen her other than utterly composed, so this pad of flesh twitching under her right eye seems the equivalent of a scream. I almost comment, but then the tic stops, and reappears under the other eye.
Could she, I wonder, be doing this deliberately? If so it is a phenomenal display of fine muscle control.
The tic stops again, and for a few minutes we sit in companionable, if absolute, silence. She stubs the cigarette out and sits forward, her arms resting on the table. After a moment, I realize that the flesh on the inside of her forearm jumps every few seconds. This reminds me of the last visit, and her vein-popping muscle tensioning. That will have to be enough for today, whatever it means. The matron, battleship-like in her stiff blue uniform leads my mother back to her dormitory area.
One of the most common mistakes women in my mother’s position made was using the p.o. box solely for their illegal transactions. As camouflage, my mother used the p.o. box for all kinds of things under her assumed name: she sent away for free recipes, subscribed to inexpensive magazines, ordered little things from mail-order catalogs, and wrote herself long, innocuous letters on her word processor at work, signing them with one of three fictional childhood friends’ names that she’d picked at random from out-of-state telephone books.
She said at one point, that if nothing else, assuming her whitebread, straitlaced, alter ego’s mindset had replaced her contempt for women on the rolls with sympathy. It was always the good girls who got into trouble; too timid to go through the NRA’s red tape to apply for birth control, and too afraid to buy on the graymarket. As a result, they bred themselves deeper and deeper into poverty, using their own loneliness and the scant infant stipend as justification.
On the day the pills arrived, my mother was careful to not vary her routine. She checked her box at lunchtime, as usual, and put the pills in her purse, then went off to lunch with her friends. After work, she picked my brother and sister up at daycare, took them home, made dinner, did homework with them, and read them their bedtime stories. She put the pills in a waterproof container and hid them inside the toilet tank float, a place, in her limited experience, she thought startlingly novel.
Two days after the pills arrived, my mother was ready to go through with the abortion. She waited until a Friday night so that she would have the whole weekend for the pill to work. She called the three girlfriends most likely to phone her, and said she was taking my brother and sister upstate to an amusement park (one she’d taken them to before—no break in the pattern there), and wouldn’t be back until Sunday night. She unplugged the phone and set the answering machine. Then she sat down at the kitchen table and tried to think of anything she might have missed.
All of this, she said later, made her feel as if she were planning her own suicide.
I swing by the bar where Frawley works, to make sure she’s there. There are enough businessmen in jackets drinking lunch so that I don’t stand out and spook her. It takes almost a quarter of an hour to find her, since she has changed her hairstyle and looks younger in person than she does in the picture. She is making change for a customer when I leave for her apartment.
I could just shatter the lock and walk in, but then, even if I find nothing, she will know her apartment’s been entered. Better, in all cases, to use finesse. It takes ten minutes of finesse to get the heavy tumbler to click over, during which time two neighbors have walked by. Each time I managed to slide out of their line of sight—not that they would interfere—but if Frawley discovers that there’s been a man in a jacket and tie at her door, it might spook her as much as finding the lock smashed.
Inside the house is neat and organized, but somewhat dirty. It is the house of someone who isn’t home a great deal. There are, however, clothes in the closets, half-used toiletries in the bathroom, and fresh food in the refrigerator, all indicating that this is her real address and not stage dressing.
The current telephone bill is on her desk, opened. I don’t need to look, however; I’ve seen it already. I look through the personal papers in her desk, then get down to searching the apartment. The key, more than cleverness or intuition, is method. In my mind, I divide the room into imaginary grids, and search each one minutely. This not only insures that no spot is overlooked, but that each square foot is seen with a fresh eye.
I turn up nothing. I resist the temptation to research the odd places first, and start at the beginning of my grid again. The first search was entirely non-destructive. I left everything the way I found it, and used only my fingers to probe soft objects like pillows and cushions. This time I cut open what cannot be easily palpitated, and I pry up any loose hardware, tilework, and woodwork I find.
Still nothing. I am about to start my third, deep search when I hear the door. As much as I dislike confrontation, this one seems unavoidable.
My mother’s recovery period has stretched to two months because there are currently no sponsors. Summer is always the slowest season for surrogate wombs, and increasing competition from the private sector has lessened the demand slightly in the Special Corrections system. Whatever the reason, my mother seems to be enjoying this period of relative freedom.
“Hello, Bryan. What’s it like in the real world, these days?”
This is more than she has said to me in twelve years of bi-monthly visits. I wonder if this hiatus in her sentence is wholly the cause of her good spirits.
“About the same,” I say. “You look well.”
The truth is, she looks better—she has put on some weight, and it makes her face look years younger. Anywhere but in here, though, she could pass for someone who has just overcome a serious illness.
She sits for a long time, studying me. It is not like our usual silent communication—it is as if she is seeing me for the first time. The scrutiny makes me uncomfortable. I feel it is somehow a violation of our tacit understanding.
It occurs to me, forced back on myself like this, that it is possible my mother has finally gone insane. I have always assumed she was harder than any person or institution she came in contact with, but insanity is the second most common cause for termination of sentence. Of course, the insane trade one kind of prison for another, and if they are cured, they are returned to Special Corrections. There are precedents, though few of them.
Her voice pulls me out of my reverie.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I wasn’t paying attention.”
“I asked if you’ve ever seen your father.”
This, of all things, I am not prepared for. In the six months from her arrest to conviction, my mother never once uttered a word about my father, or at least none that were recorded.
“No,” I say. “Why do you ask?”
You were never curious before, I want to say, but I can’t bring myself to break our unspoken agreement, even if she has.
The silence grows again, and though she doesn’t seem to be uncomfortable, I am. I begin to wish for the matron to come, silent and implacable, and lead my mother away from me. Instead I stare at the wooden tabletop.
“I wish I had gotten to know you better, son.”
That admission is shocking, in front of God and the cameras, as it were, but no more shocking than her calling me son. It is a word that has not passed her lips in my presence in thirty years.
“Your brother and Vivian were here to see me last week. Ed apparently pulled some strings. Do you know they have three children now?”
“No,” I said, numbed by this spate of information. It is as if Reagan’s face, carved into the South Dakota hills, had suddenly come to life: the oracle of Rushmore.
“Do you ever see them, or your sister?” she asks.
“No. I know I should…” I cannot believe I am saying this.
“I don’t really think they want to see you, anyway.” She says this seemingly without a trace of spite or malice. “You would make them almost as uncomfortable as I do.”
I don’t know what to say about this. I have never been so acutely uncomfortable in my life. Mercifully, the matron enters the room then and stands next to my mother.
“Well, Bryan, goodbye,” she says, looking me directly in the eye.
I fumble for a response, but by the time I can force out the words, she has passed behind the gray steel door.
“Goodbye,” I say for the cameras.
It occurs to me, as I collect my weapon from the prison’s operations room, that none of my mother’s feats of muscle control were in evidence today. I suddenly wish I had asked her what it all meant.
The last thing my mother did, before she took out the pills, was to call her National Health Clinic branch and complain about abdominal pains. The triage nurse asked the usual questions, including whether or not my mother was pregnant. She said she didn’t know.
The nurse told her to call back if the pains got worse, or if there was any bleeding, and to stay off her feet. My mother hung up and went to get the pills from the toilet tank.
She was drying her hands when they knocked at the door. My mother started to hide the pills again, then she heard the ram against the door. She ripped open the foil package too quickly, sending the pills scattering across the floor. By the time she retrieved one, the police were through the front door and searching the apartment. There weren’t that many rooms to search.
The bathroom door exploded in just as she put the pill in her mouth. The next second her head was crushed against the tiles and something in her face snapped. She felt the officer’s blunt, bitter tasting fingers probing her mouth as she passed out.
She woke up in Broward Special Corrections’ hospital wing, and has been in one part of the compound or another since. I was born seven months later, in the prison Nursery.
I was placed in the same home as my brother and sister—though they were moved out within a year of my birth. I stayed until I was eleven, then I was sent to a military boarding school because I had become a disciplinary problem. The state paid my scholarship to the private school, with the understanding that I would enter government service as soon as I was eligible. That was pretty much what happened.
I really don’t regret it.
Frawley has just set her purse on a table in the foyer when I turn the corner. She looks at me for a split second, then snatches the purse up again and dives out the door. We burst out of the building’s lobby, she several yards ahead of me. She is wearing black tights and running shoes—her off duty clothes, I gather—and is opening up the distance between us rapidly. I have to make a split-second decision: do I continue to chase her, or do I draw my weapon now, while I am still close enough to steady myself for a shot?
Had I known I was going to arrest her today, I would have brought backup. I draw my weapon and pound to a stop in front of a parked car. She opens the distance even further while I get my sights steady. I hold my breath, using the car’s roof as a rest, and squeeze off three shots.
The last one drops her. I’m completely winded by the time I am standing over her.
She is shot through the backside and lower stomach. Blood is everywhere, and she is vomiting weakly. A woman is screaming as I go through Frawley’s purse—sure enough, the pills are there. Two packets of them, in fact.
The ambulance arrives after the local police, but before my colleagues: if they are going to save the fetus, they will have to get Frawley’s body to the operating room very quickly.
Far from being over, this incident is just starting for me. I will be held over the next two shifts writing reports, having the pills tested by the lab, being counseled by the service psychiatrist, and making my obligatory appearance before a grand jury.
At least I will get the next five working days off.
“I heard you got one,” my mother says before she’s even seated at the wooden table. “You must be proud.”
I realize that it is going to be as difficult a visit as the last one. I did only what was necessary. I don’t relish the grislier aspects of my job, as do some of my colleagues—I prefer to avoid conflict, where possible. I decide the best tack to take with my mother is silence, at least until I can puzzle out her mood.
“I heard she bled to death right there on the street.”
Where, suddenly, is all this antipathy coming from? Who knows how these rumors get started? The paramedic said Frawley died almost immediately—from shock.
“Are you embarrassed?” she asks. “That would be something, at least.”
I see that this line of questioning is not going to wither away in silence.
“I’d rather not talk about my work.”
“Not to me, at least,” she answers. “So, what would you like to talk about, son?”
That word again. Inexplicably, I feel my eyes prickle.
“How come you’re not smoking?” I ask. My voice sounds perfectly level.
“I’m back on the production line again,” she says, laughing. “You know, I was beginning to think you’d actually thrown your weight around a little to keep me off the breeding line.”
“I can’t do…”
“No, no. Don’t apologize,” she cuts me off. “I’m not blaming you. It was a crazy notion to begin with.” There really is no rancor in her voice.
For the first time ever, I am uncomfortable that the cameras are recording all this. I cast around for a safe topic, then something occurs to me.
“I noticed that you had a facial tic, last—no—the time before last. Is it some kind of medical condition?”
“Your concern is a bit belated, I think. But no, you know it wasn’t a medical condition, I think.”
“I was doing it on purpose…”
“Nobody can control their muscles like that.”
“You can, if you practice. I have nothing to do here but practice. Did you know Indian holy men could stop their heartbeats?”
I look at her blankly.
“No, I don’t imagine that’s the kind of thing you know much about. Well, it’s true. If you practice enough, you can control all the muscles in your body.”
“So I can control my body.”
We have, it seems, skated back onto thin ice again. The radical feminists have always referred to women’s reproductive offenses as taking control of their bodies.
“It’s all right,” she says, “you don’t have to say anything. I just wanted you to be here.”
“You know I come whenever…”
“No, I mean for this.”
She smiles at me, then she closes her eyes. When she opens them again, they are unfocussed and her face assumes an expression of unconscious concentration, if there is such a thing.
I see, suddenly, that the muscles of her abdomen are tensing mightily under her prison smock. It takes another few seconds for me to realize what she’s doing.
I knock the table over trying to get around it, but it is already too late; blood gushes from underneath the smock, making a crimson blotch from waist to hemline.
Guards rush into the room, and less than a minute later, the medical team.
“Christ, she’s bleeding out,” the doctor in charge says.
“What’s going on?” the guard supervisor, a man, wants to know.
“She’s got a massive hemorrhage—looks like a bad miscarriage.”
My mother’s eyes focus again, and she looks into mine. I am unable to look back without flinching.
She coughs, spraying flecks of blood across my face.
“Oh, man,” the doctor groans, “She’s bleeding from everywhere.” He’s young, and sounds afraid.
She is loaded onto an aluminum stretcher. I think about taking her hand, but the moment passes in a blur, and she is being bustled out the steel door, presumably to the prison hospital.
There are, I notice, bloody footprints left everywhere by the medical team and the guards. I right the visitor’s table before I leave.
According to the trial transcript, the triage nurse at the National Health branch—a fifty-year-old widow with the improbable name of Meredith Sanction—called NRA to report a possible reproduction violation. NRA, of course, already had a folder on my mother. Since they could not get an agent there in time, however, they authorized the state police to make the arrest.
Meredith Sanction testified that my mother’s call fit the classic self-abortion pattern. Meredith Sanction’s own marriage had been barren. It is on the record that the magistrate admonished the defense lawyer for pursuing irrelevant testimony during Mrs. Sanction’s cross examination.
The magistrate took less than fifteen minutes to reach his decision. Sentencing was delayed until my birth—presumably so that my mother would not self-abort in the face of a life sentence.
The minister concludes his ceremony over my mother’s grave, then hurries in out of the rain. My brother and sister stand as close to the grave as they can without having to look at me. My brother cries openly, and my sister stares, dry-eyed, at the brown rectangle in the turf. Only I can see the casket.
I still have two days off before I go back to work.
Robert J. Howe is a writer and editor whose fiction has appeared in Analog, Black Gate, Electric Velocipede, and other publications and anthologies. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop (1985). Learn more about him at his website.
I sit here taking deep breaths, swallowing, my chest tight, trying to write how I feel about what I’m about to tell you, but I find I don’t have words that truly convey the horror. That and the sense of standing on the precipice of change that will either truly liberate us as a species or destroy us altogether. I will say this: I’m ready to fight–to really, truly fight–and I’m wide open to ideas.
This week* RH Reality Check released the results of a study that confirmed a terrifying trend many of us have feared for some time: that women are being arrested and imprisoned for “crimes” such as having a miscarriage, delivering a stillborn child, planning to have an abortion, or declining a test recommended by their doctor.
Yes, you heard right. From RH Reality Check:
A woman in Oregon who did not comply with a doctor’s recommendation to have additional testing for gestational diabetes was subjected to involuntary civil commitment. During her detention, the additional testing was never performed.
And that’s not the worst thing. Not by far.
After a hearing that lasted less than a day, a court issued an order requiring a critically-ill pregnant woman in Washington, D.C. to undergo cesarean surgery over her objections. Neither she nor her baby survived.
People, it’s time to get serious. We’ve long known that in some people’s eyes, women are for sexing men and making babies, and now–in 20motherfucking13–it’s down to no birth control, no abortions, and you’d damned well better deliver a living child. I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I’m living in a work of dark future fiction. The world this trend implies is not the world I want for any woman on the planet, much less my daughter, my future granddaughters, or anyone I love.
What will we do to fight it? How far will we go? I know I’ll write my ass off, but that’s not enough anymore, is it? Because ANY level of complacency in the face of this information would be, for me personally, complicity.
And I will not comply.
*It turns out this report was published in January. I was apparently so upset I didn’t notice. Not sure it took until yesterday for the story to reach me, but I certainly was not aware of this, and from the reaction here and elsewhere, I get the impression others weren’t, either.
Here’s a link to the abstract of the study’s findings as published by Duke University Press Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law. The right-hand sidebar has a link to the full article.
Aaaand, it turns out the UN Human Rights Council just released their 2013 “Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” According to Social Justice Solutions, the main takeaway with regard to reproductive health is “the concept that limiting or entirely denying access to abortions or other reproductive rights is a form of torture.”
Guest post by Bridget McKenna
I solicited the following guest blog after Bridget chimed in on another post to let us know that as bad as things seem right now, things are still better than they were just a few decades ago. Bridget’s work has appeared in science fiction magazines, computer games, and even in bookstores. Find out more about her on her website. ~Rosie
Recently a commenter here at Rosie’s place remarked on the subject of women’s rights and recent attempts by conservative lawmakers to wage war on them. “It seems lately that we are worse off than we have been in 100 years!” she exclaimed. I know she didn’t mean that literally, but it did remind me that women younger than I (which is to say most of them!) haven’t lived through nearly 70 of the last 100 years and may not have an image of the world before the pill or before safe, legal abortion became a fact. With those two immense historical changes, women in developed countries and a growing number of developing ones began taking charge of how many children they would have and when they would have them or whether they would have them at all.
It’s my belief that women are–despite some recent heavy hitting from extremists on the right–NOT worse off than 100 years ago. Heck, I’m so old I can practically tell you that from experience! And the change that ignited a fire (again) under American women began with a book—The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. Other writers wrote other books about women’s experience in that century, but this is the one women read and responded to in numbers.
And the response was long overdue. In addition to the many largely forgotten social inequalities of the time, birth control before my daughter was born in 1964 was clumsy and inefficient. Unplanned pregnancies were more the norm than the exception. Pregnancies that occurred before marriage usually led to hasty and often unhappy unions, and abortion, while available, was a minefield. In those days, you had to know somebody who knew somebody, and that somebody might be a doctor putting his or her license to practice on the line, or it might be a nurse or medical student with access to instruments and a knowledge of proper sterilization procedures, or it might be a guy with “a dirty knife and a folding table.”* If infection resulted, as if sometimes did, a woman’s choices were death or the hospital, where medical professionals who even suspected an induced abortion were obligated to inform the police. If you didn’t go to jail, they might.
You see this picture? That’s the other choice women faced if they couldn’t find or couldn’t afford the alternative: to induce an abortion at home by inserting a foreign object into their uterus and hoping they wouldn’t end up in prison or dead from peritonitis.
A medical doctor had the power to order a clinical abortion in cases of rape or incest. Sometimes a family doctor would push the rape definition to keep a teenage girl from carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. Sometimes they would diagnose appendicitis, then remove a healthy appendix in order to induce an abortion. I’m certain that if you studied surgical records from before Roe v Wade, you’d find an entirely disproportionate number of girls undergoing that surgery. Oh, and lest I forget, when my mother was a young woman, giving a woman any form of birth control, or information about birth control was punishable by a prison term. You read that right: People went to jail for telling other people how to avoid unwanted pregnancy. In the 1950s, laws restricting the sale of contraceptives were on the books in thirty of forty-eight states. I could write an entire article about Margaret Sanger and Dr. John Rock and the whole Planned Parenthood thing, and maybe I will, but for now I’ll just leave you with those thoughts. Chew well.
Before 1963, only a very few women of my generation were brave enough to fight for equality and reproductive rights, or aware enough to know there was a problem with women’s role in 20th century society, even though their mothers had worked in aircraft factories and government facilities such as printing plants (my mother) and supported troops in foreign lands (my mother-in-law), and their grandmothers had marched for the right to vote.
Now just say that out loud to yourself once or twice. The right to vote. Until 1920, American women didn’t have it except in Wyoming and some other progressive western states. By the way, the entire world wasn’t stacked against women, even if it sounds that way. When the US Congress opposed Wyoming’s suffrage law and threatened to withhold statehood in 1890, Wyoming told them to go to hell; they’d stay out of the union another hundred years before they’d take away women’s vote. They got statehood.
In 1963–the year The Feminine Mystique was published just 49 years ago–most women believed (or more likely thought they ought to believe) that they actually were second-class citizens. I know this because I was one of them, and so was every woman I spent any time talking with–mostly other young wives and mothers. Then some of us read that darned book, or talked to other women who had read it and books like it, and we gave our status in society some more thought. We did it, it must be said, to a lot of resistance and condescension from the men in our lives, most of whom thought things were fine the way they were. A few of them understood that the prevailing system of gender inequality was hard on them, too, for other reasons. Most were afraid of what the changes might mean to them and their relationships and their homes and their society. Some were willing to concede we had a point on equal pay.
Women not only didn’t get even close to equal pay 49 years ago, many if not most people–particularly men and women of earlier generations–still thought women shouldn’t work after marriage, or at least not after the birth of their first child. This put a lot of extra social and physical stress on men, who would often take a second job in preference to their wife finding employment. In the eyes of their fathers and most of their peers, they had failed as men if their wives took jobs. It took some courage to grow away from that social burden, just as it took courage for their wives to assert their right to full humanhood in a world that accused them of failing as women if they left the house.
Women in the 60s–and in the 50s where they’d come to consciousness–were portrayed in the media as wives and mothers. They might do other things, but first and foremost they existed in relation to their husbands and children. It was popularly assumed that women who went to college did so to pursue a better class of husband; it was called “getting an MRS degree.” They were affectionately denigrated on popular TV shows, and made the butt of jokes for their silly ways much the way men are now. Their job was to have dinner ready, kids clean, and house spiffed up by the time their husbands got home. There were a lot of vodka bottles hidden in laundry baskets in those days, because until women read that darned book, they thought that if they felt they were made for more than this, THERE WAS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THEM. Their doctors tut-tutted and wrote them prescriptions for tranquilizers.
There were always women who broke out of that mold—who had brilliant careers with or without marriage and family, and made names for themselves, and excelled, but during my formative years they were considered exceptional cases. The popular view was they had given something up—something intrinsic to being a “real woman.” Because a real woman was first and foremost a reflection of her man. And so if you didn’t have one of those, you’d better bend all your feminine wiles to getting one; a good provider who’d hopefully be a good husband or father. And if it befell you weren’t happy, some older female relative would be there to tell you “Well, at least he doesn’t hit you.” If, in fact, he did hit you, good luck. The police were very little help, and the church and families often counseled abuse victims to stay in the relationship in preference to being without one. Being in a marriage was more important to many people than being happy or fulfilled or even safe in one. Of course that was all about to change, big time. And a great deal of it was on account of that darned book, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. Read it if you want to understand how American women went from being suffragettes and flappers and Rosie the Riveter to the mostly cowed creatures we were fifty years ago. It’s been called “the book that pulled the trigger on history” for a lot of good reasons.
Women asking for the equal rights in the workplace or for the right to choose when or if to have children is a huge and disruptive occurrence in any society, and it frightens some people the way civil rights and gay rights and a lot of other social changes frighten people, and for a lot of the same reasons.
I’ll be the first to say we need to stand up to keep the rights we have and to make life better for women in America. But trust me–I’ve been there and I’ve been here, and here is better.
*In the 1987 film Dirty Dancing (which takes place around 1963) Billy Kostecki, played by Neal Jones, tells Johnny (Patrick Swayze) what it was like to take their friend Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) to meet “a guy” someone knew who would terminate her pregnancy. Sound clip here. Penny develops a life-threatening infection from the procedure.
This will be a bit of a rant rather than a well-constructed article. You have been warned. Love ya!
Ok, so, I’m really effing sick of people purposely reframing “pro-choice” to mean “pro-abortion.” In the past week or so, I’ve seen those of us who fight for choice referred to as not only “pro-abortion,” but as “abortion advocates.” Who are these creatures who walk the land espousing the virtues of abortion?” I asked. “I’ve lived half a century, and I haven’t met a single one.” And no one could point me to any. Talk about your Straw Feminists.
Yes, I’m pro-choice. No, I am not pro-abortion. I do not advocate for abortion. I would never tell someone to have an abortion unless I thought that not doing so might kill them. I don’t think it’s something that should be entered into lightly. I believe there should be science-based limitations on when and how abortions can be performed. (I certainly don’t believe that a doctor should be allowed to kill a baby that survives a “botched abortion” — WTF, is that really a thing?) Yes, I know there are people who will judge a person evil if they claim to be “pro-life.” I’m not one of them–I get that some people actually believe abortion is murder. If I believed that, you can bet I’d be out there doing something about it. It makes me wonder how many on the right truly believe this in their hearts; why aren’t they taking to the street by the millions protesting all these dead babies? Why is this more of a political issue than a social one for them? I sincerely don’t get it.
Also, I’d have to turn myself in to the police, because I have had an abortion. I’m not sure I did it for the right reasons, but I do know that I was not in a position to provide for another child, and I believe that it happened so early in the pregnancy that it was not a baby, but a potential baby. And yet, that potential haunts me. Partly because I’m a mother and I know what it’s like to take a pregnancy through to term and give birth. And partly because I have a vivid imagination and can picture what that potential might have become. I’m sad about it sometimes, and I wish I’d been able to choose differently, because it turns out that was my last chance to have another baby. Sometimes the thought of that makes me cry. Sometimes (like, for some reason, when I watched Juno) I cry a lot. But none of this sadness or crying is about the idea of killing my child; I don’t believe that I did. I terminated a pregnancy in the first trimester, and to me, that is not murder.
But there is the potential, and there is the sadness. A few years ago I had a hysterectomy to eliminate the menstrual/ovulatory pain I’d lived with all of my teen/adult life. At that point, I still could have chosen to have a baby. I chose not to. I had what they called the “Blue Plate Special,” which means they took the works (uterus and ovaries). All those eggs…each of them was a potential life, too. Did my surgeon and I conspire to commit mass murder? No. No more than I did when I used birth control to prevent those eggs from becoming fertilized. No more than a man does when he pleasures himself or spills his seed into a spermicide-coated condom.
No, the sadness is about what might have been, but don’t discount it: it’s very, very real and once a woman chooses abortion, it can live within her for the rest of her life. Some might not like me pointing that out, but it’s true whether you like it or not. However, sometimes it’s the best solution to a difficult problem. Sometimes the condom breaks. Sometimes the pill fails. And if you don’t believe that the moment when sperm meets egg is tantamount to a lightning strike from God installing a soul and consciousness in that magical moment, well, then it’s simply not murder. I get that some believe that it is, and that drawing the line anywhere else is arbitrary. I just don’t agree.
And yet, here I am advocating not for abortion, but for options. Women must be allowed the option to choose not to carry a child. Women must not be forced to carry children in their bodies against their will. This seems so basic to me.
And another thing: Like voter fraud, I think the problem of sex-crazed women eschewing condoms for the convenience of their local abortion clinic is a made-up problem. Voter fraud almost never happens, and let me state this for the record: ABORTION IS NOT CONVENIENT OR FUN. If you’re a woman, ask yourself how convenient and fun a pap-smear is, and how often you’d opt for the super-invasive, painful, surgical version over actual birth control. If you’re a man and you’re completely grossed out by the preceding sentence, ask yourself the same question.
Ok, done ranting. I’d love to hear what you think.