When I was growing up, people didn’t talk about things like unwed pregnancies and abortions. To this day, my eldest aunt denies what my mother told me, that their Aunt Barbara was 15 years older than my mother and she died sometime in the 1930s of peritonitis caused by an illegal abortion. She was the reason my mother supported abortion rights. To my mother, the fight for abortion rights was about saving lives, not ending them.
Fueling the fight for abortions was a horrible mistake made by drug regulators and CIBA, the company that developed thalidomide. Originally marketed in 1957 as a sleeping pill, it gained popularity as a treatment for morning sickness. Then, the babies started being born. Between 1957 and 1962, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 babies in 46 countries were born with the otherwise extremely rare birth defect of missing limbs. In some, hands grew out of shoulders or feet directly out of hips. In some, all four limbs were deformed. Almost half the babies died within a few months of birth, and another quarter died before age 50. Women who knew they had taken the drug sought abortions, and in 1960, the only way they could get them was illegally or outside the country. A handful had their choices made public, and that set off the debate about abortion for medical reasons.
Some of the pro-choice propaganda was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. The 1963 movie The Cardinal included the crisis faced by a priest who must allow both his sister and her baby die because he cannot give his permission for a necessary abortion to save her life. That section of the film got more notice, more comment than all the rest of it.
We never saw abortion as a last resort for birth control. To us, they were separate issues. We were also fighting for factual sex education at an age when it would do the most good, and access to affordable birth control “The Pill” became available in July, 1961, and was supposed to change everything. Women would be able to have pre-marital sex just like men and not have to pay the price of unwed pregnancy. Without the education, the pill was pretty useless at solving the problem, and too many doctors wouldn’t prescribe it for teenagers. In the beginning, they even resisted prescribing for unwed women.
There were other issues that are usually forgotten, like the reason so many young women sought those illegal abortions – the price a woman paid for becoming pregnant out-of-wedlock. Charles Dickens wrote about it in Oliver Twist, and Victor Hugo in Les Misérables, how Oliver and Cosette came to be orphans. Hugo was even more explicit than Dickens, no nice little death in childbirth, but the slow degradation of an unwed mother into a prostitute’s death of sexually transmitted disease. The legendary Supremes had one of their greatest hits with a song about the price a girl and her baby paid, 1968′s “Love Child” and it’s album companion “I’m Living In Shame.”
President Johnson’s War on Poverty was supposed to address the problem of unwed mothers, though no one actually came out and expressed it that way. The welfare system would provide support for the mother and child while going after the father for financial support. Boy, did that one backfire. It became the basis for the small number of multi-generational “welfare queen” families whose existence colored attitudes towards any woman who received welfare. It still does. The right wing still chooses to believe in welfare queens who spend their whole lives being pregnant and living off the system.
Twenty years after Roe v. Wade, we elected the President who finally understood the whole picture – William Jefferson Clinton. He pledged to keep abortions “safe, available and rare,” exactly what most of us wanted. He supported factual sex education in our schools, including information on preventing pregnancy. And he reformed welfare – replacing the hand-out with a hand-up. Workfare instituted lifetime limits on benefits and a work requirement when the youngest child reached 12 months of age. In some states, like Wisconsin, it worked magnificently, and welfare mothers were entering new areas of employment like the construction field. In others, like Mississippi, it was a failure because of a lack of jobs and public transportation to get to available jobs. Mississippi is still a failure, with the highest rates of unwed mothers and teenage mothers in America.
Inexplicably, stupidly, Bill Clinton ended up being the apex of both the abortion fight and the welfare battle. It’s all been downhill since.
Now, just 12 years after Clinton left office, the right to an abortion is being limited by states controlled by right wing legislatures, Republican candidates think they can get away with saying that babies conceived by rape are “gifts from God” and there should be no reasons for abortion, doctors and pharmacists are denying birth control to women, Planned Parenthood is being defunded, and the four million welfare recipients (three million of whom are children) are being demonized as leeches on the poor, over-taxed conservatives.
The latest polls show 70% of us are opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade, but that doesn’t help when the right to choose is being denied state-by-state, clinic-by-clinic, and we have a Supreme Court whose majority is conservative.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905. We have forgotten the past, the time before safe, legal abortion. We have forgotten the young women whose lives were cut short by back-alley butchers, who lost the ability to ever have children, and those who were so rejected by society that they ended up like Fantine while their children were warehoused in orphanages.
I haven’t forgotten. I haven’t forgotten my mother’s melancholy speaking of her beloved aunt. I haven’t forgotten the trauma my father went through when he and his brothers were taken away from my grandmother because she was pregnant and not married. I haven’t forgotten the cousin who bewilderingly decided to spend eighth grade “visiting relatives” in Pennsylvania. I haven’t forgotten my high school classmate, forced to bear her own father’s baby and then raped a second time when the state decided to let her mother adopt the baby, or how none of us knew how to interact with her when she tried to come back to school. I haven’t forgotten trying to explain to my own seventh grade daughter why her teachers found one of her classmates curled up on the school’s steps, and why that classmate’s parents had kicked her out into the street the night before with nothing but a couple of days clothing and her school books, just because she was pregnant.
We’ve made some progress at accepting unwed motherhood as a fact of life, and no presidential or vice-presidential candidate these days would make an issue of an unwed television character being pregnant, as Dan Quayle did. But that acceptance is hardly universal. It depends entirely on the society that unwed mother lives in. But we are losing ground on sex education, availability of birth control and abortion.
Maybe what we need is to lose those rights again. Maybe if people were forced to see the consequences again, to see what we lived with just forty-one years ago, they would understand why Roe v. Wade was important and why it should be protected. Too many of our national arguments are based on how little some people understand of our political and social history, how easily they are persuaded that what they are being told, the propaganda they are being handed, is factual. One of today’s demonstrators against abortion claimed that legalized abortion and birth control were twentieth-century assaults on society. That’s ignorance. Birth control methods are recorded in ancient Egyptian texts and abortion was legal until 1588. It’s as ignorant as the people who use the last sentence of a letter by Thomas Jefferson, about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants, and leave out the beginning of that paragraph about how ignorant and ill-informed people rebel for all the wrong reasons. Fighting the ignorance is the hard part, fighting the perception that abortions are undertaken cavalierly or wantonly, fighting the idea that those of us who support Roe v. Wade are baby killers, and mostly, fighting the ignorant belief that outlawing abortions will end them. It never has, not for the 425 years since they were first outlawed by good ole Pope Sixtus.