When I was 12, my dad gave me a booklet about sex. He told me if I had any questions, to ask him. I am grateful to him for a frank, informative discussion about human sexuality. My father was a clergyman, and I suspect that when it came to sex, he’d heard it all; nothing I asked shocked him. This was before Oprah and Dr. Phil, and today, people discuss the most personal aspects of their private life on TV. Some of today’s discussion seems vulgar, or tawdry and sensational. Maybe that’s just an indication that I’m old.
One summer, I spent time with my grandmother, my father’s mother. She lived in an old farmhouse in the hills of southern Missouri, just north of the Ozarks. My dad had four brothers and sisters, and the farm wasn’t large. During the Depression, times were hard. I was an impertinent teenager, and I asked my grandmother why she and my grandfather had so many children. She had a bad heart, and the each pregnancy had been difficult.
My grandmother told me that back in the bad old days, the 1930’s, birth control was illegal, except in certain cases. Although her doctor advised her not to have children, he could not refer her to a clinic until after she had five children. I had no idea things had been so bleak, and I’m glad she told me.
After her 5th child, (my father), my grandmother’s doctor was legally able to refer her to Planned Parenthood. In 1916, Margaret Sanger and other progressive women formed that great organization to provide healthcare, including family planning, for women. Wealthy women always had more medical options than middle and working class women. Sheepskin condoms were a possibility for well-connected men, and some educated women were able to be fitted with diaphragm-like cups. Some women used sponges, but writing about these options was illegal.
There was an incipient women’s movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Some, even then, advocated free-love. Increasingly, people chose not to marry. Women knew that family planning was necessary to insure their physical and economic health. There were even a few states with divorce laws, and there were books that discussed, in veiled terms, how couples could prevent unwanted pregnancy.
This was before divorce was widely accessible. Married women, in the nineteenth century, forfeited their right to own property; all their possessions became their husband’s. Women could not vote. The fact that some people opted out of marriage provoked an extreme backlash, and the Comstock laws were passed in the 1870’s. These laws restricted divorce, and made any discussion of birth control illegal.
Due to advocacy by Margaret Sanger and others, these laws stifling laws began to be undermined in the early twentieth century. The Comstock laws were not completely done away with till the 1960’s, and today, conservative politicians are chipping away at these hard won rights. Some on the right are intent on reversing these legal victories.
My grandmother explained how Planned Parenthood saved her life by fitting her with a diaphragm. It was a shame she had to wait until the birth of her fifth child before she could access this service. During this discussion, my aunt, a right-wing Southern Baptist, entered the room and told me she made monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood, because they provided so many vital services for women’s health. In today’s toxic climate, I wonder if we could have had such a frank talk. It made an impact on me, and I am grateful to my grandmother and aunt for educating me.
Here’s a news flash: most men love women. Those of us who have opted out of traditional, heterosexual marriage still love women. If there isn’t a girlfriend, there’s a sister, a cousin, an aunt or mother. Since we love women, we want them to be well-cared for. Thank God for Planned Parenthood. For many, Planned Parenthood is the only place available for pap smears, mammograms, and family planning. It is tragic that a few confused politicians are using this agency as a prop in their war against women. Attacks on Planned Parenthood are attacks on women. It’s misogyny, and it’s shameful. People who picket outside women’s clinics should be truthful. They should admit that they hate women, and they want women to die. There are women who hate women, too. I’ve seen women-hating women marching outside of clinics.
In some cases, motherhood must be postponed. It’s not easy to talk about terminating a pregnancy. No one wants to have an abortion, it’s a lose-lose situation. No one makes that painful decision lightly. In many cases, the mother’s life is endangered. It is irresponsible and murderous to insist women risk their lives for the sake of a fetus. In some cases, there are economic reasons to terminate a pregnancy. To say that a woman should carry the fetus to term and give it up for adoption is also irresponsible. It’s simplistic. Sadly, adopted children, if they are lucky enough to be adopted, are not all loved and raised in good homes. Some get bounced around in foster care for years. God knows foster parents are hard-working and well-meaning, but many foster children never feel loved or wanted.
You know a woman who has been helped by Planned Parenthood. I know women who have used their services. You know women who have made the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. I know women who have had to do that, as well. Bad things happen: in the real world, there are diseases, there are unplanned pregnancies. These things happen; why pretend they don’t? There have been times I’ve suffered the unforeseen consequences of my actions, and such things have happened to people I love. If there were only wise people in the world, nothing would ever happen--- so goes a traditional African proverb.
It’s time for a frank discussion about human sexuality. This doesn’t mean screaming at each other, and it doesn’t mean being lurid like Dr. Phil or the kids from New Jersey. There is no need to demonize gynecologists, and I don’t know what to say about the sick people who kill doctors. Whatever your point of view, it’s counter-productive to carry hateful signs outside women’s clinics. Most of us have had sex at one time or another, and we have to deal with the consequences of this activity. Women’s bodies need to be treated with care and respect, and no woman should have to go without medical care. No man can claim to love women if he doesn’t respect women’s bodies. If we aren’t capable of a frank, honest, non-accusative discussion about sex and its consequences, maybe we should just shut up.