Thursday, January 22, 2009

Blog for Choice: Happy Birthday to Me

Roe v. Wade and I are the same age. Seriously. As the U.S. Supreme Court was handing down the decision, my mother was giving birth to me at Columbia University Medical Center.

It’s interesting because my original due date was January 4, in a time before obstetricians decided that induced labor and caesarian sections were preferable to letting a pregnant woman’s body decide when the baby was done cooking. Were I a believer in signs, I might think it meant something that I, a feminist and activist at heart, entered the world 2 ½ weeks late on the same day as one of the most important and embattled reproductive rights cases in history.

I remember the moment I recognized the significance. I was a freshman in high school, and my public speaking class was working on debates of controversial topics. My topic was abortion. I don’t remember which side I was assigned. I don’t remember who my partner was, or even if that partner was a boy or a girl. I remember this: As we sat in the library doing research, my classmate said “Hey, you were born the same day Roe v. Wade came out. Lucky for you it didn’t come out any earlier.”

I don’t think my classmate meant to be cruel. I think he or she was simple a thoughtless 14 year-old making a bad joke. I also knew that I was a planned baby—my mother and I had talked about birth control and how she decided to have children after 10 years of marriage. But at that moment, all I could think was how horrible it would be to know you only exist because your mother was legally obligated to have you. I made my decision about abortion and where I stand in that instant.

My parents married when my mother was 20, under pressure from her mother. My grandmother discovered my mother was using birth control. To my grandmother, a Southern Baptist woman born in Arkansas in 1914, using birth control during pre-marital sex was worse than getting pregnant. Birth control meant you had planned to sin, after all. I suspect they would have married eventually, though probably not before my mother had finished college. Though they are still happily married 46 years later, I know the statistics. Had they had children when they first married, it is not unlikely that they would have divorced. That they have had a wonderful partnership for nearly half a century is thanks in part to my mother being able to control her fertility.

If I am a well adjusted adult who grew up secure in knowledge that I was loved and wanted, it is thanks in part to my mother having access to birth control and the training in how to use it.

More than 20 years after my abortion epiphany, my understanding of reproductive rights is more sophisticated than that of the girl I was then. Legal training has helped me realize that Roe v. Wade, while important, is also a deeply flawed decision, cobbled together from concurring opinions and overly reliant on outdated technology and medical knowledge. Awareness of reproductive rights issues has helped me recognize that a constitutional right to a medical procedure means nothing if one has no practical access to that procedure, and that prevention of a pregnancy is just as important as the ability to terminate one.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2005 there were only 1,787 abortion providers in the United States. To put that in perspective, a health insurance industry report estimates 50,059 active OB/GYNs in the U.S. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. counties do NOT have an abortion provider, and 35% of U.S. women live in those counties.

Thirty-five percent of public school sex education programs teach abstinence as the only form of pregnancy and disease prevention. Teachers are prohibited from discussing contraception, or may only discuss it in terms of ineffectiveness (Guttmacher)

I had the benefit of growing up the child of educated, well-off, forward thinking parents in an educated, well-off, forward thinking part of the country. I received complete, accurate information regarding contraception in school. My mother encouraged me to talk to my boyfriends about sex and birth control and to take control of my own medical care. As a result, I felt confident when the time came to make a decision regarding contraception.

Had I grown up in a different family, a different time, a different place, would I have been able to make those decisions? Would I be happily married to a wonderful partner? Would I have completed college and later law school? Would I have been able to follow the dreams I dreamed when I was 14?

If I am a successful, productive member of society, it is due undoubtedly in part to my ability to control my fertility.

If I am a happy, active participant in my life and the lives of those I love, it is surely because I have access to contraception and the training to use it.

Mr. President and Democratic members of Congress, the only gift I ask of you on this, my 36th birthday, is that you take a stand for women. Most of you were elected as pro-choice candidates, and the time has come for you to prove it.

Make it clear to medical and pharmacy personnel that they either provide women with the legal contraception they require or find another line of work.

Get rid of abstinence-only education requirements and give girls (and boys!) complete and accurate information regarding their reproductive choices and health.

Provide incentives for doctors who learn to perform abortions and offer their services in counties that currently have no abortion provider.

Admit that thanks to Democrats inability or unwillingness to stand up to the forced-birth advocates on state and local fronts, Roe v. Wade is not the towering pinnacle of reproductive choice it once was and stop using it as a stick to beat women with at election time.

And while you're at it, you might look into providing the national healthcare and paid family leave that will bring us in line with the free world we're supposed to be leading and make keeping an unplanned baby a more viable option.

And most of all, trust that, given complete and accurate information, women will make the best decisions for themselves and their families that they can, regardless of whether you would make that same decision.

Trust women. That’s all I want.

Happy birthday to me.

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