I was born in 1968 in a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Philadelphia. Books have been written about these homes located in the United States and up until recently, Ireland. It is estimated that 1.5 million unwed mothers were forced to give up their children for adoption in the United States in the 20 years prior to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
My biological mother was 15 when she became pregnant. She was forever scarred for life by her experience in one of these homes. She was 16 when she gave birth and had no say whatsoever in what happened to me. The decision was solely in the hands of my grandparents. Let that sink in: my mother was completely powerless over what happened to her and to her child. She was in labor (with no form of anesthesia) for close to two days and when that baby–that was me–finally exited her pain-wracked body, she was not allowed to see or hold me. She was told it would be easier that way because I was going to be given up for adoption.
She and I had some things in common aside from genes. Neither of us received any sex education. She told me that she did not know that she could get pregnant if she wasn’t married. That may sound ludicrous to us today but it really happened.
The first time I had a health class that addressed menstruation was as a freshman in high school, a little too late for just about every girl there. There are a lot of statistics out there and variations for ethnic subpopulations, but as of today the average age of menarche for girls in the United States is 12.06 years. That means most girls start having their periods around fifth grade.
I had the great fortune to grow up with wonderful parents. But despite my repeated requests for information, I was not given any. We did not have the internet then. If you wanted to look something up you had to go to the library and use the card catalog. There was no generalized heading of “birds and bees,” as my mother refer to anything sexual. When I did get my period, my mother provided me with a “sanitary belt” that was a holdover from the 1960s. They didn’t even make the type of pads that went on those belts anymore.
I was on the swim team when I started menstruating. Good luck hiding a pad in a bathing suit. I asked about tampons and was told that they could only be used by married people. By virtue of having older female cousins and friends with older sisters, I learned through them how to manage my period and that Planned Parenthood existed. One of my dear friends and I took the bus to Planned Parenthood. That is where I had my first pelvic exam. I was asked if I wanted to see my cervix. I didn’t even know that I had one!
Fast-forward a couple of years. I was suffering from such crippling menstrual periods that my mother finally relented and took me to a gynecologist, but only because our family doctor told her it was necessary. Her prevailing thought was that women didn’t need gynecologic care until they got married, because our religion taught that sex outside of marriage was sinful.
At the age of 18 I was informed that I had severe endometriosis and that it might become very difficult for me to bear a child. My condition was managed with high doses of hormones, which had a plethora of side effects, including an increased risk of reproductive organ cancers and blood clots. I began to require laparoscopic surgery every one to two years throughout my 20s and early 30s to remove painful scar tissue from my abdominal/pelvic organs. I asked several gynecologists for a hysterectomy and was repeatedly turned down. I was told that I was too young to make that decision and that I might want to become a mother later in life (even though those same doctors told me the only way that was likely to happen was through fertility treatments).
I was not empowered to make decisions regarding my own reproductive organs. This was after Roe.
These personal anecdotes underscore how religious attitudes toward sexuality and lack of sex education can lead to unwanted pregnancies. There are a multitude of other ways in which an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy can occur. There is an endless array of scenarios under which a woman might choose to avoid pregnancy or terminate a pregnancy. The most important word in that last sentence is the word choose.
We need to be empowered regarding our bodies, and we need to be free to make our choices.
There is a big difference between sex education and sexual titillation, but it’s common for people to conflate those two things. If this country was serious about reducing the number of abortions, then sex education would be mandatory in all grammar schools. It would be presented in a simple, age-appropriate, and factual way before children start menstruating or having sex. Safe, reliable birth control would be available at no cost to everyone.
If people were truly pro-life as opposed to pro-birth, every person in this country would have universal healthcare. I am in the medical field and I see people die all the time because they can’t afford treatment.
If this was truly a pro-family country, then there would be guaranteed paid maternal and paternal leave. There would be social safety nets to ensure that in the richest country in the world- children don’t go hungry, homeless, or without medical care.
Hopefully, Americans will start to realize that only by working together to elect people who will make these issues a priority, will we see the abortion rates go down in significant ways. Imposing religious beliefs on our school systems and codifying them through our laws will only lead to more unwanted pregnancies and the return of back-alley abortions.
When I remarked to a friend that I would be attending a woman’s rights rally in Flagler County today, I was asked if I was afraid and warned I needed to be very careful. We should never be afraid to raise our voices in support of what we think is right, but we should be very afraid about staying quiet when we see injustice. My dysfunctional uterus never bore a child, and I will use whatever power I have to make sure that other women have the freedom to say what does or does not happen with their reproductive organs.
Kathleen Brady is a long-time resident of the Hammock.
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