Last month I was asked to present my biographical portrayal of local notable, Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966) to the Sisterhood of Congregation Kol Ami at their annual meeting. While updating my ending remarks, I realized yet another aspect of my previously unappreciated white privilege: the legacy of access to both higher education and healthcare in my family of origin.
Abortion access and reproductive choice by and for women is the issue for which I have gone to the polls to vote religiously since I began voting in 1976. While at college I found myself pregnant and I knew that I wanted an abortion. My college doctor was able to get me an appointment at a Women’s Health Clinic in New York City over Thanksgiving break.
I told my father that I was pregnant and he said, “Isn’t it wonderful to know that you can become pregnant – - now what have you decided to do?” He had always affirmed my ability to make decisions about my own body. My boyfriend and I took the train into the City from my parents’ home in New Jersey. At that time Roe V. Wade was not yet the law of the land, but New York State law did allow women to make decisions about their childbearing futures.
Margaret Sanger, born in Corning in 1879, is considered the foremother of women’s reproductive health and the founder our contemporary Planned Parenthood organization -- which grew from Sanger’s first-in-the-nation health care clinic for women that opened in Brooklyn in 1916. One hundred and one years ago, at the founding of the American Birth Control League Sanger remarked “…..we hold that children should be conceived in love; born of the mother’s conscious desire; and only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health. Therefore, we hold that every woman must possess the power and the freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.”
She was fighting for access for all women (and men) to have information about and methods to limit pregnancy. She worked her entire life to reduce the need for back-alley abortions – of which she had visiting nurse experience when she was called on to give after-care to desperate women who lived in New York City slums and tenements.
And now I am a grandmother and there is still not a heritage of health for women in this country. We are at the bottom of the list of all developed world nations with respect to maternal health outcomes. And while methods of contraception have come very far, I wonder what my granddaughters’ decision-making abilities will be – if and when they decide to become parents. It looks likely that America may return to the patchwork of state-by-state abortion access that I found myself in forty-six years ago.
Sanger was also the first to be quoted as saying “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” I had always believed that in order to lift up women worldwide, access to education was the prime ingredient. But now I feel differently after watching an interview with Melinda Gates on David Letterman’s Netflix series, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.” Ms. Gates relayed a story about a trip she made to check in with the myriad women’s health clinics her foundation had funded throughout Africa. At one site she found that women were being turned away in tears. The clinic had run out of Depo-Provera, given as an injection every three months. The women were afraid that they would become pregnant, as their husbands did not know they had been receiving the contraceptive shots. It was the only way these women could prevent bearing more children into families that could not feed them.
Gates remarked that if we want women to truly gain equality – it all begins with their ability to control pregnancy. Family size limitation and a legacy of maternal and infant health is the foundation on which all other gains for girls and women can be built. And this is what Sanger had dedicated her entire life to as well. So, I guess I must continue my fight for access too. And most importantly, remember how easy it was for me to have missed this……what had been a given in my family of white privilege, is not available to other women in this country or worldwide.
Or to quote the President of my childhood, John F. Kennedy, “For of those to whom much is given much is required.” He found that in Luke 12:48. If you have heard that line of wisdom, you know it means we are held responsible for what we have. If we have been blessed with talents, wealth, knowledge, time, and the like, it is expected that we benefit others.
Still learning (and yearning) after all these years.
Yours in the struggle, Jenny