Friday, April 10, 2015

As abortion rights erode, we move closer to the years just before Roe v. Wade when some of us formed self-help groups and took charge of our reproductive health needs, including abortion. Those times are a guide forward. The first of two articles.

Credit: Edson Chilundo on Flickr, under Creative Commons

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(WOMENSENEWS)– My radical feminist group states that our goal is reproductive sovereignty.

I totally support that goal, but how are we going to achieve it? Sovereignty means being independent or autonomous. A nation is sovereign if it can enforce laws within its boundaries with no interference.

Our reproductive anatomy can only be sovereign if we have no interference from the state.

The Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 did not give women in the United States sovereignty over our bodies. Yes, it gave us the right to an abortion, but the procedure is still heavily regulated and many state legislatures are working to erode access. Regulations in Texas, for example, have resulted in the closure of a large number of abortion clinics.

Females in the U.S. do not have sovereignty over their birthing experiences either, even though they can choose their birth setting and birth attendants. As with abortion, however, the states’ regulation of birth attendants limits the actual amount of choice available. States’ licensing laws determine the qualifications and sharply restrict midwives’ scope of practice. Women are able to choose a home birth attended by a midwife in only a handful of states, and even in those states, midwives work in a hostile environment where ordinary birth complications can result in prosecution, loss of license and legal penalties. In addition, imprisoned pregnant women often are shackled during birth.

Given that the courts and state legislatures often restrict abortion and birthing options, isn’t this a good time to change the playing field from electoral politics to grassroots feminist organizing?

It is feasible for a woman, working and learning with other females, to become more in charge of her own health. It’s already been done.

1960s, 1970s Movement

In the late l960s and early 1970s, a health movement arose. In Boston, female college students researched existing medical literature and made the basic information available to all. “Women’s Nights” were held at the local free clinic. Self-funded rape crisis centers and shelters for battered women were started.

Among this upsurge of collective women’s health projects around the country, some female health activists, using the simple technique of doing vaginal self examination, discovered in the 1970s how to control our fertility with safe, effective contraception and how to abort early pregnancies safely.

We did so with herbal abortafacients or with simple equipment that can be used by minimally-trained women. The idea spread. Some trained themselves to be midwives to assist women to have safe and natural home birth.

Thousands of U.S. females participated in these efforts, holding self-help clinics, establishing female-controlled clinics and midwifery services.

Grassroots groups used the technique of breast self-examination done in a collective setting to gain the knowledge and to assist one another with breastfeeding. Self-helpers used simple technology to do artificial insemination with semen donated by supportive males.

We shared home remedies and treated common vaginal infections. We fit each other with barrier method devices, such as diaphragms and cervical caps. We used the speculum to observe the monthly changes in our cervix that enabled us to avoid exposure to sperm during the times we were likely to be fertile or conversely to be sure to have penis-vagina sex to get pregnant.

With regular self-examination, we found we could detect changes that alert us to seek diagnosis and treatment from medically trained personnel.

First Clinic Meeting

The first self-help group evolved in 1971 from a small group of abortion rights activists who were determined to learn to do early abortion with a hand-held device used by an illegal abortionist in our community.

At our first self-help clinic meeting, we showed this device to a meeting of women. One member of the group was Lorraine Rothman, who came to the next week’s meeting with a prototype of a modified device that simplified the procedure so that the contents of the uterus could be suctioned out by a team of minimally-trained females. We called this procedure menstrual extraction, because it could be used to safely and relatively painlessly to extract a menstrual period or a very early pregnancy

Of course, gaining sovereignty would necessitate us doing more than reading books and attending sex education classes to learn about our bodies’ anatomy and physiology (as valuable as books and classes are).

The knowledge from holding self-help groups would need to be shared widely with small groups of women by peer facilitators. Large numbers of women need to learn how to incorporate it into their own health and hygiene, and demand that their doctors be respectful and include them in the medical exam experience by answering their questions fully and showing them their cervix with hand-held mirrors.

Unless there are wider and deeper changes in our society, peer health education would not be the choice of the majority of females. Due to religious or other personal beliefs or convenience, they will continue to rely on a medically certified person for health education and even their routine health care.

That’s not a big problem. In order to protect females from oppressive legislation, it would not be necessary to have all, or even a majority, of women incorporate female-controlled health care into their lives. We don’t need an army of self-helpers.

We just need a viable network of health centers throughout the nation, staffed by females trained through self-help, making it possible for any woman to use safer methods of birth control, or terminate an early pregnancy without having to go to a clinic, or have a midwife-assisted home birth.

Likely Attack

Would political authorities attack women learning to take charge of our health care? Yes, they have and they will continue to do so. A self-help movement would build a real base of support for them. (I will discuss the legal aspects of all this in a second piece, later this month.)

When a significant number of females have benefitted from these experiences and had access to this body of knowledge, the state would be deterred from arbitrarily depriving them access to health care, not only because of the general outrage it would cause among a broad swath of knowledgeable women, but because a significant number of women could defy such state action successfully. A relatively small number of females with this knowledge could change the terms of the debate.

It’s a tall order to spread this knowledge. But, if we don’t take direct control of our reproduction, any alternative will be a tall order too.

We’ll have to raise millions of dollars to help sisters to travel to get abortions whose nearby clinics have been shut down. Distributing drugs by mail to cause early abortion has its legal and physical dangers also. Dramatic protests can draw attention to injustice, but they can at best spark wider protests, which will then require massive turnouts of people again and again.

Is it practical?

The good news is the number of women who choose to have a natural birth at home is increasing and so are licensed midwives.

Some feminist health centers remain, even though they exist in a hostile environment created by anti-abortionists, some who camp on their doorsteps and others who use their influence within the state bureaucracies to harass them. There is a burgeoning movement of alternative health providers, such as breastfeeding consultants, fertility-awareness teachers and full spectrum doulas, which are making female-controlled health care a reality. Those who want reproductive sovereignty need to build on these solid gains made by feminists over the last 40 years.