Thirty five years ago (22 January 1973) the Supreme Court decided a case titled Roe v. Wade which held that until a fetus is viable outside its mother's body (twenty eight weeks), it is not a legal individual whose rights extend beyond the rights of its mother, that in fact the mother's health preempts any rights the partially formed embryo has.
This case overturned a law in Texas that criminalized abortion and reverberated through the states. According to the Roe decision, laws against abortion violated a woman's right to privacy under due process (in the Fourteenth Amendment). This decision superceded state laws restricting abortion.
Roe v. Wade is one of the most controversial cases in U.S. Supreme Court history. Even before it was decided there were men and women whose stomachs turned at the idea of abortion. The issue had been argued many times before in fairly recent history. In 18th century England, mothers accused of murder were not put to death if they could prove they were "with child." In infamous London prisons of the day there were "child-getters"--fertile men who could reliably make a woman pregnant. Some female criminals availed themselves of their services repeatedly so as not to be hanged.
In the early Soviet Union, abortion was freely available. It was later abolished because too many women were using it in place of birth control--which was hard for most women to get up until the sixties and seventies. Rich women had it, but often not the working classes. Remember Mary McCarthy's The Group? Vassar girls had diaphragms in the thirties--but not blue collar women who relied on condoms and men who would wear them or withdraw before ejaculation. As a seventeen-year-old freshman at Barnard, I got my first diaphragm from Planned Parenthood (a college tradition). I never got pregnant accidentally because I knew that an abortion would make me terribly sad. I loved children, dogs, cats and other living things, and I understood that terminating a pregnancy would be extremely hard for me emotionally. (But then I had sophisticated New York gynecologists all my life and grew up in liberal, enlightened Manhattan with parents who were bohemians of the thirties before they surprised themselves by getting rich).
In my own Manhattan high school years, girls disappeared from New York to darkest New Jersey or Pennsylvania to seek the services of illegal abortionists and many of them were accidentally sterilized while others may have died. Rich women in New York went to Flower Fifth Avenue hospital for a "D & C." My mother did this as late as 1960, but our housekeepers and baby nurses from Jamaica or the Deep South didn't have that option. A safe medical abortion (my mother referred to it in whispers as an "a- b") was expensive and hard to find. Many poor women got infected and died. In my mother's case, as I later learned, my father was adamant about not having another baby. There were already three girls growing up and needing private schools, hand-smocked party dresses, music lessons, art lessons, ballet, figure skating, charge accounts at Saks, Best and Company and Bergdorf's, Doubleday book stores (with their listening booths for LPS--which we quaintly called "records."
How interesting that the thirty-fifth anniversary of Roe comes on the very day that my daughter will go home from the hospital after having had twins. She had a really tough time, and has been warned that she would be at risk if she got pregnant again. She is not yet thirty and has had, thank the goddess, three beautiful children and a lovely husband. She also has generous parents and in-laws, step-parents who adore her and can refuse her nothing. But she was still terrified by a very difficult delivery (the details of which are hers not mine to describe. Since she is a much-published novelist, I'm sure she will).
The babies, a girl and a boy, are miraculous--like all babies--bringing back to me Ordinary Miracles, a book of poems about childbirth I wrote when Molly was born. (The phrase has entered the language--or been ripped off by various ASCAPniks and jingle writers). Babies are miraculous, especially just when they just wake to the world.
They seem to come from a better place which some call 'God,' some call 'Mother Nature,' and some call human evolution, depending on your point of view. (I happen to think that evolution is every bit as numinous as 'God'). But one thing is clear: Having them ain't easy. And that's long before you have to raise them.
For centuries, death in childbirth was woman's lot. In some places, it still is. In mountainous Afghanistan where women can't get to hospitals or there are none, in war zones, in occupied zones with barriers or curfews, in many parts of Africa, in rural India, and China, in rural America, giving birth is still no joke. Even in big cities, it can be dangerous. There is massive bleeding, the placentas don't always detach promptly, babies are often transverse or breach, just for starters. Then there is the question of medical care.
Again, in the eighteenth-century, my favorite period in English Literature, (at the dawn of the modern era--but before Louis Pasteur), accoucheurs (the precursors of obstetricians) killed many women with the microbes they unknowingly carried from the sickbeds of other patients. There was a great political struggle between midwives, who only dealt with women, and doctors who treated everyone, because the doctors wanted their monopoly.
Many women died of infection--like Charlotte Bronte--or nearly died like Mary Shelley. Women's health had always been a political football in the supposedly "civilized" Christian era. Many midwives (always specialists in women's health) were burned as witches throughout modern history.
Now we know about bacteria and viruses and we are much more aware of unconscious infection, but childbirth can still be a big deal--especially for older women, very young women, the ill, the malnourished, the poor, the mothers of multiple babies. It seems to me incredible that anyone without a uterus would try to dictate what a woman should do with hers.
So I am appalled that abortion remains under attack--and that birth control in America has been impeded. We came so far with so much struggle. To give it back now is no less than an assault on women's health.
Of course babies are precious and should be cherished. Nobody doubts that. But should a woman be forced by the law to give birth if she has health issues, a dead baby, twins or triplets, or can't get to a hospital or must be accompanied but a male relative--who may be at war or dead or unwilling? Fundamentalist Muslims, like fundamentalist Christians would deny her that.
No wonder the late great Florynce Kennedy said: If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."