So last Friday the Chair of my department came tapping on my door to tell me she'd been hearing from the students in my class all week about the infamous class.
"Oh, my," I said. Or words to that effect. (I am known throughout the department, or, well, through the university, as That Professor Who Says Fuck A Lot.)
The Chair laughed. "No, no. Well. I've been hearing from both sides of the issue, but mostly from students who think you handled it well. And I think you handled it perfectly. Which is mainly what I wanted to say."
"It was," I said, and hesitated. "It got rough."
(A short digression while we discussed the student's presentation. Another digression while we discussed the need for a class in gender studies, so that we could, justifiably, educate our students on issues like abortion rights.)
I told her my plan to use Our Bodies, Ourselves for a follow up class, and include the sections on abortion.
Which, in the end, is what I did: that section, the section on birth control, the section on pregnancy and childbirth, and the section on violence against women. I also told the students that if we had had more time, we would have been reading the whole book, and that they should read the whole book. I gave them a brief history of how the text had come into being, and why it was such an important text, historically and politically.
"It's not like we didn't know -- humankind didn't know -- how babies were made, or how to keep pregnancy from happening," I said. "This is not arcane knowledge. We have known how to stop pregnancy, and how to cause abortions, since Mesopotamia -- since 2000 B.C.."
"So what happened? How did we lose this knowledge? Well, a number of things. First, after the Black Death, the Catholic Church* made both abortion and birth control not only a sin but a crime -- it hadn't been before then.
"And since the Catholic Church controlled the Western world at that point, information about both contraception and abortion soon became lost or arcane knowledge.
"With the rise of industrialization and the Age of Enlightenment, this knowledge became less arcane; but in 1870 in America the Comstock Act made it illegal for anyone -- even your doctor -- to give you information about birth control."
You should have seen my students at this point. Their eyes were huge.
I paused. "You can imagine what the results of this law were."
"What about midwives?" one of my students demanded. "Didn't they -- couldn't they--"
"Well, that was one reason for the law," I said. "Anthony Comstock and those like him did not want women -- and it was women who angered him -- sharing knowledge about how to control their own fertility."
At this point I wrote the name Margaret Sanger on the board.
"Margaret Sanger," I said, "one of the early activists in the birth control movement. She was a nurse on the lower East Side on New York City, in the early 20th century. As a child, she watched her mother die of cervical cancer. Her mother was fifty years old. She'd had twenty-two pregnancies. Eleven live births."
The class gasped.
"My great-grandmother," I said, aside, "died at sixty, of a stroke. Seventeen pregnancies, nine live births. Eight kids survived to adulthood. That's how it is without birth control. Anyway. As a nurse, Sanger saw all these women, not as rich as her mother, but -- just like her mother -- suffering through one pregnancy after the next. Dying, like her mother, because they couldn't prevent pregnancy. The story she tells us is of a woman who tried to abort herself and nearly dies from it. Who begs the doctor to tell her how not to get pregnant again. The doctor tells her to abstain from sex."
I looked out at the students. "Why is that not good advice?"
They laughed. Not pleasant laughter.
"It's not always up to the woman," one of my students said. Not pleasantly.
I looked back up at the white board. "Sanger tells about coming back a few years later and finding that woman dead from a self-induced abortion. So."
The class was silent.
"So. That's one reason we need to keep birth control available. But what are some other reasons?"
I walked them through the reasons: if we all have five or six or nine kids, there is no way we are going to school or getting jobs that mean anything or that can do anything in this world (and -- without birth control -- we will all, in fact, have six or nine kids); that without birth control, we do not have ownership of our bodies; that without birth control, we will have to let someone, usually men, but someone provide for us and for our children, since we will not, in fact, be in any position to have a job that pays enough to support both us and all those children; which means we will not have equality, political or otherwise.
"And why do people oppose birth control?" I asked. "Because that's an interesting question. I mean, you can see why the Pope opposed it -- sort of you can see this -- in 1484. The Black Death had just happened. Half the world was dead. Labor is getting all uppity and demanding fair wages. The Scientific revolution is happening. Who knows what might happen if we don't breed some more ignorant teeming masses, and fast?"
This got a laugh.
"But why would anyone be against it now?" I spread my hands. "Who uses birth control?"
Two students raised their hands, and then one of them laughed. "Oh! I thought you meant-- "
I laughed too. "No, go ahead! Who uses birth control or has used it or plans to use it?" I raised my hand, and so did everyone else, including the student who had given the Pro-Life presentation, I will note. "Yeah," I said. "Everyone. It's like 99.5% of the population, right?"
"Even Catholics," one of my students said. "Hell, 25% of abortions are gotten by Catholics."
"Right, we'll get to abortion," I said. "The thing is, when you educate women about birth control, what women do is, they control their births. My great-grandmother had nine babies. My grandmother had four, my mother had four, and I have one. This is what we see happening. Why does this bother -- I won't say everyone -- but some people?"
"Women in control," said one of the students.
"Women with options."
"Women as competition."
I sat down on the desk and took a breath. "Now. Why do we need abortion?"
Not even a pause. Because this was what they had been waiting for.
The student who had spoken about control -- one who had asked for this lecture -- held up the picture of Geraldine Santoro, on page 339 in OBO. (It's an upsetting picture, so be warned.) "So this doesn't happen again," she said. "This. This is why."
Another said, "Because of what happened to my friend. I used to be against abortion. I did. I did. Because my mother was, and I just, I believed what she said. But my friend got pregnant, and her boyfriend made her do -- do --do all this stuff, trying to -- and she nearly died. When if she had just been able to get an abortion at a hospital**, she would have been fine. So I'm pro-choice now. That's why. That's why we need abortions."
"Because I was on birth control," said the student who had the medical abortion, "and I got pregnant anyway."
"Right," said another student. "Because birth control fails. It does. That section we read on birth control--" She thumped Our Bodies, Ourselves. "That's what it says. Almost all of them -- well, all of them, really -- they can all fail! And then what?"
"Even abstinence," I said. "I liked the section on abstinence. It's 100% effective, it's the best method. Except it too can fail."
"Because you can get raped," the first student said.
"Or because you just might not be good at it," the other said.
I grinned a little. "Humans do turn out to be surprisingly bad at not having sex."
I paged through the book. "But speaking of rape. Yeah. I also had you read the section on women and violence because that does tie into this. Also because the section on violence against women is important, it wasn't just for its connection to birth control and abortion. But."
I had their attention again. In fact, I think this is the most attentive they have been all semester. I should lecture on birth control and rape all the time maybe.
"But this is really what this is, the effort to take control of our bodies away from us," I told them. "It is, in fact, a kind of violence. Forced pregnancy. Denial of the control over our fertility. Refusal to allow us to say when or if we will conceive, or when or if we will have sex. These are violent acts, even if they don't come with a slap or a punch or a gunshot."
"War on Women," someone said, only half aloud.
"Well, there's a reason we call it that," I agreed. "I know the stories they tell you can look benign, even sweet -- family values, mama at home in the kitchen baking cookies, getting back to basics. And there is nothing at all wrong with the choice of a woman having kids, or staying home with a child. What you don't want to lose sight of is the real aim of those who want to strip women of that choice -- to force their choice on women."
Since we've been talking all semester long about what that means (forcing people to act without their consent) they got what I meant just fine.
I haven't gotten any feedback on this class yet, from the Chair or anyone else, but it went well, I think.
Lots better than I thought it would, the night before, when I was chewing down Xanax.
Update: See also this, from Amanda over at Pandagon, on why anti-choice measures are class warfare. Kind of goes with my point about why the Pope would make contraception/abortion illegal in the 15th century.
*Speaking against witches, by which the Church meant women who practiced medicine and midwifery, in its proclamation Summis desiderantes affectibus in 1484: [these persons] have slain infants yet in the mother's womb, ...these wretches furthermore ...hinder men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving, whence husbands cannot know their wives nor wives receive their husbands.... This decree gave the Inquisition the right to hunt down and punish anyone responsible for aiding in contraception or abortion.
**Arkansas requires parental consent. Also, good luck finding a clinic here. (This, BTW, found while I was researching clinics in AR, is why I love Scarleteen so much.)
7 hours ago