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.
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.