Our Daughters, Ourselves

Published on
June 20, 2022

Fifty years ago, my generation grew up seeing few women in authority, having little agency over our own health care, marrying badly because of unplanned pregnancy, dying in botched abortions. With the Supreme Court expected to overturn the Constitutional right to abortion care, it’s worth appreciating how far we’ve come, and how this fight rattles the foundation of democracy.

Legal abortion and access to birth control were just the beginning. It became routine to have a woman doctor. Sexual awareness and education improved immensely and with them, the radical idea that women were competent to make decisions about their bodies and their health care.

Before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, sex education was dismal to nonexistent. In my California public school, as in many schools, it happened one night in junior high. Girls went to one room and boys to another. I have no idea what the boys learned, but it sure wasn’t “No Means No.” 

The girls’ lesson focused on menstruation. Abortion was never mentioned. Yet somehow it became an epithet flung by older male siblings: “You little abortion!” Everyone mispronounced menstruation as men-US-tration. What sticks in my mind is a pamphlet that promised: “Your period should not interfere with your life any more than a cut on your finger.” (A cut that apparently involved nausea, severe cramps and the embarrassment of leakage.)

Bolstered by that knowledge, my cohort proceeded to high school. In our senior year, one of the prettiest, most popular girls got pregnant and missed graduation. We thought she was cool. She had had sex, whatever that was! 

In the hallways, we heard about girls who went to Mexico for abortions. And we heard about bloody coat hangers. 

All this scared me to death. I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be the first in my family to graduate college, not a homemaker nor a bloody statistic. In college and into my 20s, it was pure luck that my ignorance about sex and birth control didn’t ruin my life.

Into the late ’60s, marriage and children still were the standard goalposts for girls, as they were for my mother’s generation. People who were ready for sex but not marriage got married anyway. Often they stayed together because divorce was considered shameful (as was cancer). Women who left college and jobs had a hard time rejoining a career track and supporting themselves, especially if they had young children. My cousin got pregnant our freshman year in college, dropped out, got married, had the baby, got divorced. It took years for her to put her life back together. This was far from the happily-ever-after family fantasy we’d been fed. 

Then came the activists, with lawsuits and protests including the Coat Hanger Farewell, a march of thousands in downtown Manhattan, March 1970. Legal arguments spoke to the essence of democracy: government of, by and for free and equal people. The lead writer of the first suit to challenge a state’s strict abortion law told The New York Times, “When we couldn’t control when we had a baby, we weren’t free and we weren’t equal. That was our fundamental argument. It was clearly even stronger for low-income women.” 

In the next seminal case, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania. v. Casey (1992), the Supreme Court recognized: “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” 

While protests and lawsuits continued, sex education moved beyond menstruation, as did awareness among teenagers. They learned about reproductive health resources. And they weren’t scared to ask for help. 

 I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be the first in my family to graduate college, not a homemaker nor a bloody statistic. In college and into my 20s, it was pure luck that my ignorance about sex and birth control didn’t ruin my life.

My millennial daughter and her best friend in high school went to the local Planned Parenthood clinic to ask about birth control. In the waiting room, Lisa recalls seeing “all these people who looked very sad.” But the empathic counselor advised that, as she wasn't sure how sexually active they would be, for the time being they have their partners use condoms. She gave them a brown paper bagful. Back in the car, they opened the bag a little too eagerly and condoms flew all over. Their nervousness dissolved in laughter. They also got some laughs in a family planning class when everyone, boys and girls, wrestled condoms onto bananas. 

Whereas my generation got horror stories, my daughter’s cohort had light moments while learning about birth control, abortions, and sexual health care. 

Perhaps the best family planning lesson had been in sixth grade, when all students had to carry a 5-pound flour sack everywhere they went for a week, to get a smidgen of an inkling of what caring for a baby would involve. Some of them drew smiley faces on their sacks. Still, the sacks grew tiresome, and started leaking, very quickly. 

In another state, my niece took to heart the improvements in sex education. After college, she worked for Planned Parenthood, including as an abortion counselor. Most of the clients already were parents. “I came away with a deep trust that pregnant people make the best decisions for themselves,” Michelle says. 

A few years later, she has two children, a loving partner, both with good jobs, health care, a house, friends and family to step in and help. Still, it’s exhausting. “And now that I’m a parent, I don’t want that for anyone who doesn’t want it.”

When women are denied access to abortions, the physical and financial damage is often devastating. A well-reviewed study designed at the University of California, San Francisco, was able to compare women at similar stages of pregnancy and financial circumstances, all seeking abortions. The women denied abortions reported more severe physical harms, from postpartum hemorrhage to gestational hypertension. And they were much more likely to live in poverty six months later. 

Of course they were. Whatever track they were on — work, college, already caring for children with or without a partner — they were derailed. Our country suffered the loss of their talent for years, at least. 

My niece fears that the end of Roe means more women will get derailed. 

“On an individual level,” Michelle says, “I don’t feel afraid. I’m white, living in a state [Washington] that has structures to protect reproductive rights. There’s a Planned Parenthood within two miles that does first- and second-trimester abortions. 

“On a systemic level, it’s absolutely terrifying. The frequency and need won’t change. Abortion will continue to happen, and perhaps not in patient- and health care-centered ways.” 

The New York Times reported in May that revoking Roe would jeopardize abortion care for half of American women. And in the 28 states likely to ban or severely restrict abortion, many “also have policies that make it harder to access health care, and also pregnancy and child care support and services. … Everyone risks losing access to abortion in these 28 states. But those who are more likely to get the procedure include women of color, in part because of unequal access to opportunities like health care, jobs, education and housing.”

Examples cited by the Times team include Mississippi, where “74% of women who received an abortion in 2019 were Black, yet Black women make up just 42% of the child-bearing population. In Idaho, Hispanic women made up 25% of those getting abortions and 15% of women and girls of reproductive age.” 

Pregnancy-related deaths also would sharply increase, especially among Black women. Ana Langer, professor of the practice of public health and coordinator of the Women and Health Initiative at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, cites a December 2021 study estimating “that banning abortion in the U.S. would lead to a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths overall and a 33% increase among Black women, simply because staying pregnant is more dangerous than having an abortion. Increased deaths due to unsafe abortions or attempted abortions would be in addition to these estimates.” 

The message that women aren’t competent to care for our own bodies and health care undermines so much of the progress of the last half-century, not just abortion rights but also privacy and equality for women. And I suspect it will feed a continuing plague of sexual harassment and abuse. 

How do young parents teach their children that their bodies belong to them, if their mothers live at the whim of state lawmakers? 

Our 4-year-old granddaughter has learned that no one can touch her if she doesn’t want them to, a policy initiated by her preschool. It applies to friends and relatives as well. When we leave, she doesn’t have to kiss or hug us, just say goodbye in some way. “Us? Really?” we thought at first. But then we remembered being kissed and pinched by old relatives. And I remembered the physical vulnerability of being a little girl. Hannah has the choice to hug, blow a kiss, wave or just say goodbye. Her body, her choice.

It’s a fresh take on the message originated in “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” the revolutionary 1971 book that encouraged women to demand a say in their own health care, to take ownership of their own bodies. As the authors stated, the historical lack of self-knowledge about the female body "had had one major consequence — pregnancy.” And: “Unless we can freely decide whether to continue a pregnancy, it is impossible for us to control our lives, to enjoy our sexuality, and to participate fully in society.” 

The message that women aren’t competent to care for our own bodies and health care undermines so much of the progress of the last half-century, not just abortion rights but also privacy and equality for women. And I suspect it will feed a continuing plague of sexual harassment and abuse. 

For decades, a majority of Americans has supported legal abortion. Today, six in 10 Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 

The current climate is neatly summarized by Elizabeth Rapaport, professor emerita of the University of New Mexico School of Law, in this summer’s issue of the journal New Politics. Whether Roe is hobbled or overturned, we can anticipate more restrictive legislation on health care. “Women will suffer harm and endure hardship,” she writes. “There will be popular resistance to the abrupt rollback of reproductive rights and anticipated assaults on constitutional protections for the secular family. Popular resistance may birth some democracy. The victors may regret the end of Roe v. Wade.”

So much has gotten better since I was taught that I’d hardly notice having a period, never saw a woman doctor, and everyone knew pregnant girls who left high school or college. My daughter saw only women doctors. She and my niece knew no one in high school or college who dropped out because of pregnancy. 

I’m sure there was some kind of doctor among the “first woman” stories that enriched my early years in journalism, in the ’70s. Each new opening seemed impossible until it wasn’t. “Men Working” signs were reworked. Firemen became firefighters, policemen could be called officers. Miss and Mrs. gave way to Ms. Democracy survived. Will it now?