Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman …

And getting harder 

Patricia Schroeder who served as a Democrat in the US House of Representatives as Colorado's first Congresswoman, 1973-1996 is famous for the quote, “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both.”

I would change that quote to “I have a brain and a uterus, and they are both mine.”

My brain functions quite well, though granted, I’d hardly be the first to know if it did not. Inside my brain lives my belief structure, the product of 58 years of experience, a lifetime of learning and observing the world around me, thinking, evaluating, weighing the possibilities, making decisions and judgments and finally forming conclusions. The great thing about my beliefs is that they are entirely mine. Private.

I have no right to inflict my beliefs on others

We are all free to believe that which best fits our lives. This is the fundament of all liberties. Even in the strictest dictatorship where my actions and speech may be curtailed, my thoughts and beliefs can still soar in freedom.

My brain belongs entirely to me.

My uterus also played a major role in my life, even more than my brain it sometimes seems. Two live births, one eight-month still-born birth and two miscarriages before it gave up and went into retirement. (hallelujah!) Throughout most of my life, from menarche at age eleven to menopause a few years ago, my reproductive system went on its merry way, driving the rest of me along the normal hormonal roller coaster ride of womanhood, surprising me by circumventing all attempts to control it through contraceptive means and landing me with not one, not two but three completely unplanned pregnancies. Yes, three. And two miscarriages after that.

But why is my uterus and what I do with it suddenly a public affair? All women need to be free to make their own choices.

My choices

As previously stated, three times in my life I found myself unexpectedly and undesirably pregnant, the first time at seventeen. Did I practice contraception? Yes. But in 1969, more advanced forms of contraception such as the pill had just come into common use, and in the conservative world of Medicine Hat, Alberta, these medical marvels were not available to unmarried women. Even diaphragms were prescribed only to women with husbands. Seriously.

That left only the more primitive barrier method of condoms. (Or abstinence, as so many are quick to point out. Sorry. Not an option. The reproductive system often overrides the brain. Hadn’t you noticed?)

Faced with what was truly a catastrophe, I had decisions to make. Granted, abortion was then completely illegal but not unobtainable. Dangerous yes, but more common than people want to believe.

I couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t. Not from fear, but from an instinct that wanted that child as soon as the shock passed, from a belief -- entirely my own – that disposing of my child was wrong. That is: wrong for me.

So I did not have an abortion, a fact for which both my daughters are far less appreciative than they should be. At least as I see it. This pregnancy put an end to my education (I hadn’t yet completed high school,) threw all my dreams out to blow away on the wind and set my life on a completely different, difficult and impoverished course.

My mother decided I should go to the Salvation Army Home for unwed mothers. The child would be placed for adoption and that was to be that. I refused. The following two weeks will always remain vivid in my mind. My parents were more concerned with what the neighbors would think than what would become of their child or grandchild. Even my first doctor’s appointment was made in a town two hour’s drive from ours. Oh, the shame!

Two weeks of violent argument, verbal abuse and offers of scalding hot baths, castor oil and other such old wives’ tales and I was ready to leave. Anything, I thought, would be better than the nightmare of home. I went to my boyfriend’s family.

Quicker than you can say ‘She’s knocked up’ I was to be married. Hurry! A month later, wearing a dress cleverly designed to hide the slight roundness of my belly, I married an unsuitable, equally immature husband. To no one’s surprise, the marriage didn’t last two years.

But in the interim, I was – you guessed it – pregnant again, despite the diaphragm prescribed for me. And that old myth: you won’t get pregnant while breast feeding... A lie!

We were broke, living on an allowance of $200 month. Yes, you heard right. He was a student at a technical college. I stayed at home with the baby. Again, the option of abortion came under discussion. Again, I wouldn’t.

And that’s how I came to be alone with two children by my nineteenth birthday.

I spent my days with my babies and cleaned offices at night. I lived in subsidized housing – a cinder-block complex full of single mothers and their children called ‘Quail Ridge’ by the City of Calgary and ‘Tail Ridge’ by the young men of the area. But at least corralling us single moms in one place meant we could easily form alliances and help each other. I babysat one woman’s children during the day, and she mine at night. Bartering was big at Quail Ridge. None of us had a nickel to spare.

Later, when my children were older, thanks to subsidized day care at an excellent facility that my little girls loved, I was able to enroll in a government program designed to get drop-outs like me an education. I attended the Alberta Vocational Training Center, a facility as dire as its name, and learned the skills to work in an office. It was a beginning.

Thank God for those programs. Without that assistance, I don’t know how we would have made it. Working for minimum wage eight hours a night and babysitting during the day was not a sustainable life style. Nor did it do more than provide the very basics. And an equal thank you to the Canadian medical system, because my younger daughter had health issues, and not unsurprisingly considering the burden and a less than optimum diet, so did I. By the way, I also received free contraceptives.

The third unplanned pregnancy came in my early twenties. I was working at a good office job and taking classes, two a week, at night, at university, earning my Bachelor of Commerce degree. The father, a man I’d known for several months, was not interested in a family, which does of course bring up the question of why he was wooing a mother of two in the first place. Irrelevant, I suppose. But he would, he promised, pay for the abortion.

I should add, at the time I was using an IUD – 99% effective, or so it was claimed. It was removed by a doctor once my pregnancy was confirmed. ‘There should be no complications,’ he said, but to this day I wonder.

For the first time, I did consider an abortion. I had struggled so hard and still had a long way to go. I would be alone with three children. Yes, I spent many painful hours considering my options. In the end, I went forward with the pregnancy.

Unhappily, the baby died at some point around the eighth month. Labor was induced and my would-be daughter, Beth, was born dead, as expected.

“Just as well,” said an insensitive nurse who had been unpleasant and angry from the time she learned I was unmarried. It was not just as well. It was a bitter, sorrowful event. In spite of the difficult circumstances, I wanted that child with all my heart. The nurse did not press charges when I punched her in the face.

In my thirties, stable and remarried, I wanted another child, a child born to a mother and a father. I wanted that stick to turn blue and think, oh wonderful! Not, oh hell, what am I going to do? Twice I conceived and twice I miscarried, once at 12 weeks and once at 14 weeks.

Apparently my uterus had decided enough was enough. My brain came to agree with it and told my body to have a tubal ligation.

So now, here’s my stand on abortion

My decisions were my own, based on what felt right for me. I do not judge the choices others may make. I’ve held the hands of women close to me while they made this difficult and painful decision, accompanied them to the clinic, cared for them and comforted them afterwards. But these were all early pregnancy abortions.

If an abortion is deemed necessary (for whatever reason,) in my opinion, it must be done as early as possible, preferably in the first eight weeks, before the nervous system is functioning and certainly never later than the twelfth week. To me, that is the line in the sand. 

I am decidedly opposed to late term abortions and consider them a savage act that should be against the law. The idea of partial birth abortions -- in fact abortion is not the right term here. Let's call it what it is: the killing of a newborn -- this is beyond my imagination. How such an act can be considered anything less than wanton murder, let alone legal, let alone a medical procedure is truly disgusting.

It is my personal opinion that abortion rights have gone too far. While I am in agreement that no woman should be forced to continue a pregnancy and deliver a child against her will, there must be a point at which we say 'too late.' Many, in fact from my research I found most abortion providers draw the line at the first trimester, or 12 weeks. Only a few perform late term abortions. If I were in charge of the world, I would stop the practice.

But I also accept there may be exceptions where a late termination is deemed appropriate. I can’t think of one off- hand, but then my knowledge of medicine is superficial at best. Severe birth defects subjecting the child to a short life of misery and suffering? Perhaps. Another touchy area, here. The mother’s life is at risk? Certainly. 

The usual reasons given: a victim of rape or incest – surely such pregnancies can be terminated at the early stages. 

I believe the life and welfare of those already living, the mothers, must come first. For this reason, I remain neutral in the face of early pregnancy terminations. In other words, if you can’t get it together to do what you feel you must by eight weeks, twelve at the extreme outer limit, you should have your baby. If you can’t provide the child a decent life, there are many who would love to adopt, as just one option.

So, with that proviso, color me pro-choice. Which means I am for the right of others to choose for themselves, not pro abortion.

But what I am really is 'pro' birth control and the accessibility of birth control to all women. Such a program would obviate the need for abortion to a large degree. Abortion is, and should be considered a secondary choice, to be used only when other methods fail and the situation and conditions require the woman make that decision.

And her decision it must be, and remain. 

This article is about reproductive rights and choices, not the ethics of abortion. Across this land, the rights of women to decide when and how to avoid pregnancy and deal with pregnancy are under attack. The emergence of the authoritarian, patriarchal state is not a figment of the imagination. Come with me on a cross-country tour of laws, tabled legislation and downright bizarre and frightening proposals.

Thank you for reading this article. It is long; it is disturbing and it is an emotionally charged issue and the culmination of several weeks of research and painstaking writing. Still, it is important that we all understand what is happening, and what is at stake.

Sincerely yours,


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