By Letty Cottin Pogrebin
In 1959, when I was 19, there was no birth control pill, doctors did not prescribe diaphragms or IUDs for unmarried women, and abortion was a crime. So when I got pregnant, I decided to kill myself by jumping off the Triborough Bridge.
If I had to carry the pregnancy to term, my life would be over anyway, I reasoned. I could never face my professors or go home to my traditional Jewish family with an “illegitimate” child. My shande (disgrace) would shame them. I’d be a single mother with a baby I didn’t want and no chance to make something of myself, let alone find a man willing to marry me.
I felt doomed—until a friend told me about a doctor who, at great risk to himself, was devoting his life to performing medically safe abortions because his daughter had died after a botched kitchen-table procedure.
Memories of that terrible time have returned during this election season, in the wake of the Republican War on Women and, at the state level, recent efforts to impose government control over women’s health and reproductive decisions. Here we are in 2012, back at square one, defending our right to birth control.
I can’t believe we have to spell it out all over again: Without affordable and accessible contraception and abortion, not only will women’s freedom be hobbled by unintended pregnancies, but more unwanted children will be born. And unplanned children are more likely than planned children to be abused or neglected and are more likely to engage in antisocial or criminal behavior. Yet the draconian child welfare cuts in the budget devised by Rep. Paul Ryan prove once again the truth of Rep. Barney Frank’s classic line: “Republicans believe life starts at conception and ends at birth.”
I can’t believe we have to fight all over again against those who bray about the sanctity of life when what they really care about is reining in women’s autonomy, punishing female sexuality and controlling women’s bodies. Then again, maybe it’s just as well that these issues have surfaced so baldly, forcing American women (and men) to confront the ultimate agenda of conservatives and religious fundamentalists before it can become government policy.
Just since January, more than 430 proposals for abortion restrictions have been introduced in state legislatures. (In all of 2011, 1,100 were introduced, and 135 became law.) These include mandated waiting periods; parental consent and notification requirements; deceptive pre-abortion counseling (often just bogus warnings that abortion causes breast cancer or infertility); bans on all abortions beyond 20 weeks’ gestation; bills that prohibit Medicaid funding of abortion, restrict abortion coverage in private health insurance plans, or require a pregnant woman to undergo invasive, non-medically indicated ultrasounds; bills that force her to look at a fetal sonogram, listen to the fetal heartbeat and be lectured at by doctors who, more often than not, resent this demeaning exercise as much as their patients do.
Recently, Mississippi voters resoundingly defeated the so-called Personhood Amendment, a state ballot measure that would have given the fertilized egg more rights than could be claimed by the woman in whose body it existed. Even religious groups split over the measure. But two Republican presidential candidates who got a ton of primary votes, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, endorsed the amendment. The measure has been advancing in several other states, according to Personhood USA, a Christian ministry that has gathered more than a million signatures supporting it. While presumptive nominee Mitt Romney declined to sign a pledge endorsing similar measures before the Iowa caucuses, he has made statements in support of a constitutional amendment that would state that life begins at conception.
Most American women use birth control. Most Jews use birth control. But if you’re one of them—in the eyes of many Republicans running for office—you’re not a responsible adult who understands the merits of planned parenthood but an emasculating, uppity, sex-obsessed slut. Or as one pundit put it: “A woman who votes for a Republican is like a chicken who votes for Perdue.”
Santorum thinks sex is only for reproduction, not pleasure. Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut,” a “prostitute” and a “sex-crazed coed” for arguing that her school’s health insurance plan should include coverage for contraceptives. Religious-sponsored institutions balk at paying for such coverage, and even after President Obama crafts a compromise that has insurance companies picking up the bill, the morality police dig in their heels. Pay for women to be able to have sex without consequence? No way.
Yet insurance can foot the bill for Viagra, and men can have sex without consequence (no nausea, bloating, health risks, labor pains, delivery ordeal or obligation to help raise the child) and no one calls them sex-crazed.
Let’s be clear, ladies: These conservatives don’t trust us to think for ourselves. They valorize a time when there were two kinds of women, virgins and whores, and men knew which was which. They infantilize us. They want to short-circuit our personal aspirations, squelch our rising workplace power and move us back to the kitchen and nursery—and the easiest way to do all that is to deny us the right to determine when, or whether, to bear children.
Coda to my story: I had the illegal abortion. I graduated from college. Four years later, I got married. My husband and I had three much-wanted, deeply loved children who have given us six grandchildren—none of whom would be here today had I been forced to choose between compulsory pregnancy and jumping off a bridge.
Sadly, the tragedy of that false choice may soon await millions of women if we fail to actively support and elect candidates this year who are truly pro-choice on reproductive freedom.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a Moment columnist for more than 20 years, is at work on her tenth book, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick.