Should Women Have the Right to Control Their Bodies?
Every month for the past year I’ve been volunteering to escort women who choose to have an abortion at a health clinic in Philadelphia. I do this because these women face a gauntlet of protesters who’s goal is to prevent any woman from having an abortion. These protesters, who are armed with their prayer beads, shout out that women who attempt to get an abortion will, “regret this decision for the rest of your lives.” They shout at the men who accompany these women with the words, “be a man and raise your child.” They hold up tiny figurines of fetuses and shout out, “don’t kill your baby.” All the while they join in a chorus of prayers which start with the words “holy mother Mary.”
These protesters have another goal. They would like to go back to the days when abortion was illegal. During that time women routinely filled emergency rooms because they had been mutilated by back alley abortionists. Hundreds of women died from these illegal procedures and thousands suffered from the effects of mutilations because abortion was illegal. In John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules he gave a list of all the means women used to have abortions. Women who survived these procedures might suffer for the rest of their lives because they had been denied safe legal abortions. A grandmother of an escort at the clinic died because of a back alley abortion. She had nine children and did not want another.
A few years ago I listened to a Catholic nun who was opposed to abortion. This nun made a decision never to have sexual relations. She argued that women who are not nuns should only have sexual relations when they are planning to have children. Ultimately, this is the position of all those organizations that oppose a woman’s right to control her body. If this position were acknowledged, very few individuals would oppose abortion.
In order to fully appreciate this issue I believe we need to go back and look at the reasons why we are faced with this atmosphere today. Throughout most of human history women had real political power. Men were the hunters and women did everything else. This meant that women were the first farmers, construction workers, scientists, doctors, and ship builders. Because women were so influential in society they had real political power. Lewis Henry Morgan lived among the Iroquois and noticed that the women were organized into the Clan Mothers. No one could become a leader of the Iroquois without the approval of the Clan Mothers.
Throughout most of human history the idea of fatherhood did not exist. The uncle was the man who raised children. At this time, the idea of mine and yours was unknown and an entire clan took on many of the aspects of raising children. This state of affairs made things a lot easier for women because they did not need to be the only ones who cared for the children they gave birth to. Because everything was shared by all, when there were sufficient quantities of food, everyone understood that the necessities of life would be provided to all.
This all changed when men began to trade cattle for wives. It was only at this time that women began to be confined to domestic chores and were forced to take on the primary role of raising their children. This state of affairs found an extreme expression in China where the feet of women were bound and broken so they would not be able to leave the home.
Today, we think of this practice as barbaric. However, the Phillip Morris corporation advanced an advertizing campaign to promote their Virginia Slims cigarettes. Their main theme was “You’ve come a long way baby.” In other words, today corporations find it perfectly acceptable to promote a product to women that will cause lung cancer.
In this atmosphere, corporations view women as vessels that produce children. In most instances, women, not society as a whole, are the ones expected to raise children. Women’s bodies are routinely displayed to sell a wide variety of commodities. The idea that women should have rights that are equal to the rights of men is an idea that shakes the foundations of the capitalist system. While some women have managed to become professionals, government officials, or corporate officers, women are paid on the average about 80% of the salaries of men.
In the early 1970’s the Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs. Wade that abortion was legal in the United States. The court was clearly influenced by the woman’s movement which had been actively demanding this right for several years. We might also consider that the woman’s movement had been influenced by the civil rights and anti-war movements of that time.
Since the Roe vs. Wade decision, the government has worked consistently to compromise women’s right to abortion. In eighty percent of the counties in this country, there are no centers where women can have an abortion. Most hospitals do not provide abortions. We might note that hospitals could have a significant revenue from abortions since this is one of the most used medical procedures in this country. In fact, on the rare occasions where there are complications from abortions, it would be safer having these procedures in hospitals where any problems can be dealt with.
In order to pass his new so-called health care plan, President Obama used the issue of abortion as a sacrificial lamb. Now, women who want their health insurance coverage to include abortion will need to have a separate plan. This seemingly insane state of affairs came about so the government will not be accused of funding abortions in any way.
All these facts point to the reality that the most powerful people who oppose abortions are not the protesters who come to health clinics with their prayer beads. The government, at all levels, as well as corporate America, has worked to compromise a woman’s right to control her body.
If women do not have the right to control their bodies, we might ask the question, What rights do they have? When abortion was illegal, intelligent women risked their lives, rather than be forced to give birth to a baby they clearly did not want. Then and now, there are orphanages filled with children who are not wanted. These children are desperate to live in an environment where they would be nurtured and cared for. This state of affairs exists, not because of uncaring mothers, but because in the capitalist system profits are more important than human life.
In Cuba abortion is a woman’s right, and the government works to ensure that children are cared for. Cuba has more doctors and teachers per capita than any other nation in the world. The infant mortality rate in Cuba is lower than in the US, and the percentage of people who have HIV/AIDS is one-sixth the percentage in the US. Health care is not a commodity but a right for all. I met a Cuban worker who had four children. He was proud of the fact that all of his children will have a lifetime right to both health care and education. While Cuba has enormous problems, the Cuban government’s commitment to the defense of woman’s rights sets it apart from the consistent policies in this country that are hostile to woman’s rights. This state of affairs came about because Cuba had a revolution that overturned capitalist relations.
It is clear that the only way women will continue to have the right to control their bodies is if people stand up to defend this right, and work to roll back all the efforts aimed at compromising a woman’s right to abortion. Without this right, there is no women’s liberation. Without the liberation of women, humanity is not capable of moving forward.