Today, we’ve learned that Paul Ryan, the leader of the Republican Party in the United States of America, where I live and work, has stated his party’s intentions to defund Planned Parenthood.

With that in mind, I thought I would share some brief history.

In 1800, the average birth rate for the American woman was seven children. We don’t know the precise statistics for infant or mother’s mortality rates because we weren’t tracking them yet, but they weren’t good: a century later, in 1900, eight hundred and fifty women died for every 100,000 live births. (By then, we were better versed in basic hygiene). This is the century that anesthesia was finally introduced to the birthing process, despite objections from the clergy, who claimed that labor pains were the will of God. Pads were made of wood pulp, and tampons had yet to be invented. Despite the clitoris being known to medical researchers and scientists since 1559, this was the period in which its existence vanished from anatomy and medical textbooks, not to reappear for almost two hundred years. Women were believed to be weak, prone to bouts of “hysteria”: a catch-all diagnosis that hid the real culprits. What we then considered “female hysteria,” we now would consider cancer, flu, viruses, depression, anxiety, mental health issues, or almost any other disease. Hysterectomies were performed at staggering rates on mentally ill women, as it was believed that removal of the female organs would restore sanity.

With this as background, let me introduce you to Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. (Actually, you should google James Barry, who was really Margaret Ann, a British woman who lived her entire adult life in disguise as a man in order to study medicine, but that’s a topic for another time). Elizabeth Blackwell obtained her medical license in 1849, long after doctors had arrived to settle the early colonies. She fought like hell to get other women trained as doctors, a road that was long and fraught with institutionalized sexism.

Planned Parenthood, the institution that we still use today, grew out of the first birth control clinic. Margaret Sanger was the first person to really put together the pieces that poverty, child mortality, motherhood mortality, lack of access to contraception, and deaths from illegal abortions were all very much related.

Why do women still rely on women’s healthcare centers? Because for centuries, despite all evidence to the contrary, it was just assumed that their needs were the same as men, or that their differences were not worth actually studying.

Remember this, when someone tells you that it’s fine if Planned Parenthood is defunded, since you can just go to any other healthcare clinic to obtain those services. Remember this, when you read stories of male lawmakers who remain ignorant about basic biological functions while gleefully legislating them. Remember that it is only within the past century-plus that we have gained the right to study our own bodies, let alone control them. Remember this when you mourn the women who will inevitably die, from illegal abortions, from childbirth, from conditions that were preventable and curable. Remember this when you fight like hell.


If you liked this post, you can do me a favor and call your congressperson today, or make a donation to Planned Parenthood here, or do both. I just did. 

PS: If you get a little tongue-tied with all of this over the phone, this infographic is helpful, too. Reminder that federal funds already don’t cover the cost of an abortion, if you are morally opposed to that procedure, and a reminder that “defunding” Planned Parenthood is not yanking funds from some general operating budget, but is really about Medicare not reimbursing Planned Parenthood for services provided to low-income patients (any services, like mammograms or STD screenings) that would be reimbursed to any other healthcare center.  


17 thoughts on “Hysteria.

  1. I am a women’s health care provider at a FQHC, a federally funded community health clinic. We provide care for uninsured & under insured for the whole family. I give families free birth control, including male & female sterilization. We are also in danger of losing funding. PLEASE support your Community Health Centers!

    • Thanks for all you’re doing to help families. Is there a specific way to support Community Health Centers as a whole, or learn how our local ones will be affected?

  2. Katherine, I think and have thought about this before, yes, being a man, I have. I truly believe that there can be something other that Planned Parenthood that will support women and be less government (US citizen) supported. Americans have many individually and corporate sponsored orgs. perhaps these will fill the space that over time Planned Parenthood, over time has become. Please don’t take this in anyway, minimizing what you are saying.

    • What do you recommend replacing it with, and why exactly do you think it needs replacing? The money that goes to PP is mostly in the form of Medicaid reimbursement, which would be the same for any facility serving low-income patients. When you say “over time has become,” what do you mean? They’re an organization that provides healthcare for low-and mid-income women and men, 97% of which are non-abortion related services like cancer screenings, physicals, and family planning. So I’m not sure why you would want want to fix something that isn’t broken.

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  4. Writing from Australia, but thought I’d add another argument to the discussion. In this debate I think it’s useful to keep in mind maternal mortality rates in the USA. Particularly comparative to Canada; women are twice as likely to die giving birth in America. The disparity worsens with lower socioeconomic backgrounds and areas without sufficient healthcare options, clinics and policies. One reason is the lack of affordable healthcare during and following pregnancy, which leads to more complications and danger.

    There are pretty strong statistics backing this up. The New York Times wrote a good article, but there’s lots of other information out there.

    Even if you disagree with abortion, (another conversation for another day – alongside how the US healthcare system’s privatisation increases such financially based disparities, worsening problems like this) affordable care during pregnancy is necessary for the safety of mother and child. Already an issue, surely defunding available options will worsen the situation.

  5. Pingback: Hysteria – Read Between The Lyme

  6. This is fantastic and important. Just to add on to this, PP is one of the few places that transgender and gender-nonconforming/genderqueer folks can turn to for comprehensive and compassionate reproductive health care. Just as the medical needs of women are unique, so are the medical needs of transmen and women, and PP is responsive to that in a way that few medical institutions are.

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