SOMETIMES WE FORGET THAT ABORTION EXISTED LONG BEFORE THE ROE VS WADE DECISION IN 1973. AND MANY OTHERS MIGHT NOT KNOW THAT BIRTH CONTROL ITSELF WAS ILLEGAL IN MASSACHUSETTS UNTIL 1966, MEANKNG THAT THE BIRTH CONTROL PILL WAS OUT AND AVAILABLE BUT AGAINST THE LAW!
I RECEIVED THE FOLLOWING EMAIL FROM A FRIEND WHO TEACHES WOMEN'S STUDIES AT A WELL KNOWN UNIVERSITY. HER ENTHUSIASM IS ALMOST AN ADVERTISEMENT FOR ANYONE SEEKING TO LEARN MORE ABOUT WHAT THE PAST MIGHT TEACH US ABOUT TODAY.
i've been so eager to tell you about a new book that I read last weekend
called Creating Choice: A Community Responds to the Need for Birth
Control and Abortion, 1961-1973, by David Cline. This is the
book that I've been looking for, especially for teaching about the
complexities of the ethics of abortion and the choices surrounding it
before it was legal. It's a series of oral histories of women who obtained underground abortions, feminists, physicians, and the clergy who were instrumental in creating an underground abortion network in the 1960s and early 1970s. By allowing those involved to speak for themselves, Cline helps to reveal their various motivations without politicizing their words, making them "PC" or "acceptable." By allowing them to speak without interference, Cline validates their voices and grants them the authenticity and complexity they they deserve. So much of the current abortion debate is about making abortion palatable or villifying women who chose abortion and the clinic staff, friends, clergy, and family members who support them. This book is an honest approach to a difficult subject that allows it to be complex, messy, and not always easy to hear. It sometimes made me squirm, and I felt good that it did because abortion is difficult and it is sometimes hard to deal with. This was about real people and real issues not politics or polemics.
Cline focuses on one community in Western Massachusetts that includes Northampton and Amherst, and this community focus allows him to expose the myriad interconnections between clergy, feminists, nurses, and physicians active in
the abortion underground. He also shows how the politics of birth control were
intimately related to those of abortion. Massachusetts, now considered to be one of the most liberal states in the country, was the last state to legalize birth control in 1966. The relationship between women's inability to obtain contraception (and shockingly, the University of Mass. Amherst's health staff's willingness to violate the state law and provide contraception, with the knowledge of the university) and the number of unexpected pregnancies is made clear.
This book joins only a few others that recognizes the critical role the clergy played in creating a "safe" underground network. Part of the Clergy Consultation Service, established in New York by Rev. Howard Moody, the two clergy groups chronicled here, like dozens of similar groups across the country, was committed to helping women make decisions about their pregnancies. They offered counseling, abortion referals, AND adoption referals, in addition to helping those women who chose to carry pregnancies to term and to keep their babies begin constructive dialogues with the family members and welfare services who would become integral sources of support. Significantly, these clergy believed that they answered to a higher law than to that which deemed abortion criminal.
One of the things that I appreciate about this book is that it did not "polish" its players. For example, an interview published by an abortion provider, who used an ivory-soap mix to induce abortion. She charged high fees and had some shady connections with the criminal underworld, but she also provided free services to those in need and she expressed a deep desire to offer her services to women who needed them. Again, abortion is a complex, difficult issue, and the political battles fought over it in the last twenty years have reduced it to sound-bites and linear arguments. Consequently, the complexities over the ethics, politics, and decisions involved with abortion have been marginalized. This book, hopefully, is one step towards bringing these complexities back into the public discourse. Further, by examining the issues of abortion and birth control from a wide perspective, it demonstrates that abortion is a community and social issue--it goes far beyond being "just" a women's issue. Abortion involves men, partners, parents, friends, clergy, physicians, as well as the women undergoing the procedure. Further, this book suggests, I believe correctly, that abortion is about far more than the termination of a pregancy, bodily autonomy, reproductive privacy, and debates about when life begins and viability; instead, it shows that this is fundamentally about women's roles in society, about social values and the roles of religion in our society, specifically the role of religion in relationship to the state. But again, women have never lived separate from men, their families, and societies. Abortion is and has been far more of a community issue than we are currrenly willing to recognize.
Another thing I appreciate about the book is the perspective it gives about counseling, and the importance of counseling to the abortion experience. Interviews with feminists and clergy involved in abortion referral reveals the extensive thought and training that went into the development of pregnancy counseling. Both groups strove to be non-biased and supportive; and the feminists believed they played an especially critical role because they believed that women should support other women during difficult times. Not only did they think deeply and work hard to develop a comprehensive counseling program within their own referral services, but the feminists in particular demanded that counseling be instituted in legal abortion services after the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade. These women pressured the physicians and administrators at newly established clinics to integrate counseling into their services AND because they were the only ones in the country with experience, they successfully pushed these same groups to hire them. Thus, feminists who developed pregancy counseling in the underground took their knowledge and skills above ground after Roe and trained a generation of abortion counselors. Thanks to them, many clininics around the country continue to emphasize counseling with the same non-biased, supportive emphasis used thirty+ years ago. Reading Cline, I felt like I was reading this hidden history of abortion counseling, which has been glossed over in the academic literature, and which I only learned about because I had heard from one other early counselor's experience several years ago. I am thankful that the importance of counselor's work is coming to light.
Anyway, I've been staring at this book on my shelf for about two months now and randomly picked it up last week when my head was finally clear enough to digest the difficulties of the issue. I was immediately captivated by its honestly and complexity and willingess to let abortion be the complext, diffiucult issue that it is. I truly feel like I have a teaching tool that presents an authentic view of abortion in the two decades before it was legal. I DO NOT intend to use this to convert students to the "choice" view, but instead to present the complexities of the issue in historic context and in community perspective. I hope that Cline's book will provoke students to think deeply about their ideas of abortion; whether it reinforces their objection to or support for the legalization of abortion is irrelevant. I like this book because it will make students think beyond the politics, which are now so far removed from women's actual experiences.