Friday, May 03, 2013

Teaching Our Bodies, Ourselves

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.)


dorki said...

Kudos delagar! That was a class session to be proud of. Also, kudos to your department chair for seeming to be level-headed.

delagar said...

Yes, we love our chair!

Anonymous said...

Economics has been having a great literature on this in the past 10 years or so. Started by Claudia Goldin, picked up by Martha Bailey, and now others. And I recently saw a talk at SSHA this last year that shows empirical evidence that the anti-abortion laws actually did increase population in the 19th century.

Bardiac said...

Brava! That sounds like a wonderful and amazing class!

(And a nod to your sane chair, too!)

Tree of Knowledge said...

That is amazing. I want to be in your class.

delagar said...

Thanks, y'all! N&M, I hadn't heard about that. Thanks for the tip!

undine said...

Fine post, and sounds like an awesome class!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Thank you. Thank you for holding that class. Thank you for speaking out. I grew up on OBOS, but for all the women who didn't, or who had a copy taken away from them, or who passed one around secretly among their friends, thank you. You have empowered your students and done great good in the world.

Historiann said...

That looks like it was a fantastic history lesson for your students. I'll have to check out the newest edition of OBO, as mine is from 1984 (!) and so is more of a primary source now than a secondary source.

Hector_St_Clare said...

I don't know quite what I find more disturbing: the fact that you are pro-choice, the fact that you distort the facts of history to serve your dubious cause, or the fact that you take advantage of your position as a teacher to indoctrinate your students with pro-choice propaganda, instead of training them in critical thinking. (As an scientist, I find the last the most professionally concerning, if not the most morally troublesome).

Abortion has, in fact, been considered equivalent to murder by Christians since the first century. It was condemned as homicide by the Didache, by the Letter of Barnabas, by numerous other first-century texts, and (infallibly) by the Sixth Ecumenical Council. The Council said explicitly that those who procured abortions were to be subject to *the penalties of murder*. If you're intending to link to Aquinas, save it: his speculations about delayed hominization were never made dogma, they were based on following Aristotle rather than early church tradition, and they actively *disagreed* with what had been the position of Christians (both east and west) before that time, as well as since.

As for the 'choice' to have an abortion, we no more need to give people that choice than we should give them the choice to commit murder, rape other people, own slaves, etc.. Abortion bears a remarkable similarity to slavery (including the similarity that it's at this point inextricably bound up with our society and won't be ended anytime soon, just as Rome was inextricably bound up with slavery. More's the pity.)

Hector_St_Clare said...

"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."

Yes, yes, we've all heard the tired old slogans about 'women's rights over their bodies', and whatever other verbiage the feminist peanut gallery is using these days. I must say, I'm much less concerned about the trivial metaphorical 'violence' involved in telling you that, no, you can't murder your unborn baby, and much more concerned with the very real violence being done to your baby.

That you can't quite seem to grasp this, is perhaps the best evidence that you lack the moral or intellectual maturity to be trusted with these kind of decisions over another person's life. (I'd say, personally, that you can't be trusted to *vote* or *speak* about abortion either, but sadly I doubt that battle is going to be won for a while yet.)

Re: ""War on Women," someone said, only half aloud."

Yes, you are aware, right, that women are equally likely as men to be pro-life?

Re: " 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."

Well, yes, I do want to force that choice on those women who would otherwise choose abortion, just like we force people who wish they could own slaves or fight in blood-feuds, to obey the law. That's what living in a civilised society- as distinct from, say, the cannibal societies of Papua New Guinea- means.

delagar said...

Oh, Hector, does it make you angry when women talk?

Sorry, though, buddy, you're who has been indoctrinated. Do a little more research and you'll learn that your data is -- well, let's be polite: incomplete.

In fact, there is conflicting evidence about how the early Christian church felt about abortion; early Christians varied in their attitudes toward both abortion and birth control, with most Christians of the time (like most people of the time) thinking it was fine up until the fetus "quickened."

Others, of course, though not many, thought it was a horrible sin. Like you do, no doubt.

And, of course, the US is not a theocratic nation, so what the Christians think (or what you think) doesn't actually matter. A good thing, in my opinion.

Here you may see the varying opinions of early Christians and others as to whether abortion is murder -- because facts are what I like:

Hector_St_Clare said...

Re: And, of course, the US is not a theocratic nation, so what the Christians think (or what you think) doesn't actually matter. A good thing, in my opinion.

Not really. The prohibition against abortion, like the prohibition against murder and against slavery, is rooted in the natural law, not in religious law, and as such is binding upon all men. The unborn child, no less than you and me, is deserving of the protection of the law. There's no case you can make for abortion that doesn't also extend to a case for murder.

Regarding contraception and abortion, yes, I thought you were going to bring up Religious Tolerance. It's a favourite of those who haven't bothered to read the original sources, or who read them with an agenda. You should look into the sources, you might actuually learn something.

Be that as it may, first of all, your link is riddled with errors. (There were *many* early Christian streams of thought, not three, just to start out, and Christianity started in the first century AD, not the second. Also, their dating of the texts is off). Second of all, it doesn't actually say what you think it says (did you read it?) They start with the money quote:

"There are many writings, letters and petitions of early Christian philosophers and Church Fathers which equated abortion with infanticide and condemned both as murder."

And then they run through the same list of quotes I would (I'd add that Basil explicitly stated that whether the fetus was formed or unformed, and that the Sixth Ecumenical Council condemned abortion. Infallibly, at least for Orthodox, Catholics and more traditional Anglicans).

They then say, "St. Augustine (354-430 CE) reversed centuries of Christian teaching in Western Europe, by returning to the Aristotelian Pagan concept of "delayed ensoulment." He wrote 7 that a human soul cannot live in an unformed body."

So, yes, the idea that early abortion was not murder was an *innovation*, owing more to Aristotle than to Jesus Christ or church tradition.

As for contraception, the case there is a bit more murky. Not all Christian groups agreed, and within Catholicism & Orthodoxy the case is a bit unclear because modern chemical contraceptives didn't exist. However, there is a consistent tradition forbidding both unnatural sex (which includes condoms, oral sex, etc.) as well as abortifacient contraceptives.

delagar said...

Unnatural sex.

Natural law.

Okay, Hector. I think we're just going to have to agree you and I aren't actually living in the same universe.

And, as I noted, it's very fortunate that this is, in fact, the USA, where religious men like you don't actually get to control the lives of women like me -- at least so far.

Have a nice life.

Hector_St_Clare said...

Re: And, as I noted, it's very fortunate that this is, in fact, the USA, where religious men like you don't actually get to control the lives of women like me -- at least so far.

Well, that rather depends on 'fortunate for whom', doesn't it?

Abortion on demand has been great for the lounge-lizard, player males who like to use women for casual sex and then dispose of the consequences when necessary. It's shifted the balance from 'Dad' types to 'Cad' types, in other words. I'm not quite sure who else has benefited.

One thing I never fail to be impressed by is how deeply self-centered and, yes, selfish, the rhetoric on the pro-choice side tends to be. It all revolves around MY choice, MY body, MY career, ME ME ME. Your own rhetoric is pretty telling, you're unwilling to allow people who might be smarter, more thoughtful, and more morally advanced than you, to tell you what might be best for you, and for your child. Your rhetoric really reminds me a lot of an elementary school classroom who doesn't want to eat their vegetables, and doesn't want the teacher to tell them what to do. My side, on the other hand, is actually concerned about someone other than ourselves: in this case, the unborn who are unable to speak for themselves.

Sadly, yes, your side is in the majority right now. For now.