Sex & Herbs & Birth Control

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Bromo Selzer douches, pregnancy protection amulets, pennyroyal teas, birch bark tampons, slippery elm sticks — these are but a few of the myriad methods women in different parts of the world have used in their efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Meanwhile, the obstacles they have had to confront have included religious proscriptions, punitive law codes, persecution of midwives, and the devaluing of folk knowledge.

Sex and Herbs and Birth Control is a lively, provocative account of women’s attempts to provide themselves with as wide a range of reproductive options as possible. A more detailed description of the book and ordering information can be found here.

A review in Feminist Wire can be found here.

“fearlessly female-centric” — Publishers Weekly

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Clarence Thomas Race-Baits Abortion Rights Advocates

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Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to block part of an Indiana law banning abortion based on the sex, race, or health defects of the fetus. In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas maintained that the current reproductive rights movement has disquieting similarities to earlier population control groups that sought to limit the birth rates of those they deemed unfit. He cited Margaret Sanger’s eugenic proclivities and allies, and stated that currently abortion rates are highest among racial minorities and the disabled — precisely the groups that old-style eugenicists had hoped to reduce. He insinuated that the abortion rights movement is racist.

Many anti-abortionists like the idea of associating present-day reproductive rights activists with the racist agendas of earlier zero population growth advocates, and right-wing commentators such as Ross Douthat of The New York Times welcomed Thomas’ remarks as if they contained some sort of profound truth.  (Occasionally in the past this line of argument has been used as a cover for opposition to women’s health rights. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s some male Black nationalists such as Amiri Baraka and several Black Panther leaders battled with their female counterparts and other Black women’s health activists over this point, with the men denouncing birth control as a genocidal plot and the women insisting on their right to limit family size.)

But Thomas’ efforts to link modern-day abortion rights proponents with 20th-century eugenicists are hypocritical and historically unsound. For one thing, except for a brief time in her more radical youth, Margaret Sanger opposed the legalization of abortion. Neither she nor even the most viciously racist eugenicists whose support she solicited (for example, the Nazi sympathizer and Ku Klux Klan member Lothrop Stoddard) advocated abortion as a means of limiting “undesirable” populations. Rather, they pushed contraception and in some cases sterilization of those they considered “unfit.” Abortion rarely if ever figured into the discourse of eugenicists.

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Lothrop Stoddard (1883–1950)
Eugenicist, white supremacist, Nazi supporter, and co-founder of the American Birth Control League

Moreover, mid-19th century movements to make abortion illegal in the U.S. and other countries emerged not so much from some pious life-begins-at-conception notion but rather from fears that the wrong women were practicing abortion. Doctors and other upper-middle-class white professionals pointed uneasily to the relatively large families of people of color, immigrants and the working class, and lamented the propensity of affluent, educated white women to limit family size through abortion. Even in more recent times, echoes of these racist fears can be found among some foes of legalized abortion. In 2007, Portuguese Cardinal José da Cruz Policarpo couched his opposition to legalizing the practice in racist terms, saying that European (i.e., white) culture and values would be put at risk by low birth rates relative to those of (non-white) immigrants to his country.

Besides distorting history, Thomas’ argument blatantly ignores two basic facts. First, if women of color are disproportionately represented among women who seek abortions, it is because they are disproportionately represented among the poor. (According to research by the Guttmacher Institute, 75% of abortion patients in the U.S. are poor or low-income.) Yet self-styled “pro-life” crusaders are conspicuous by their absence when it comes to advocating comprehensive sex education, free prenatal care, onsite infant day care at Walmart’s and other low-wage employers, and similar measures that might actually help underprivileged women and their offspring. Until Clarence Thomas, Ross Douthat, and other opponents of legal abortion demonstrate concrete support for babies of the disadvantaged who have already been born, their professed concern for minority populations is disingenuous and hypocritical.

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Second, anyone who has any knowledge of the historical or present-day statistics on abortion worldwide knows full well that prohibiting abortion does virtually nothing to prevent the practice. The procedure becomes more costly and more difficult to obtain, and desperate women without the means to flee to a more reproductive-health-conscious state or country are likely to attempt self-induction or fall into the hands of unscrupulous clandestine providers. Meanwhile, affluent women can virtually always obtain safe illegal abortions.

Safe, legal, accessible abortion is a vital necessity for women’s reproductive health and wellbeing, and this is especially true for low-income and minority women, who are the main victims of policies that restrict access. Right-wing jurists such as Clarence Thomas are no friend of minority women.
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An Opportunity for Indonesia?

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indonesia

The New York Times recently published an article titled “With Joko Widodo’s Re-election Indonesia Bucks Global Tilt Toward Strongmen.” Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, just as the U.S. is the largest Christian-majority country. But while the U.S. head of state is a narcissist and compulsive liar who is taking his country in the direction of fundamentalism and intolerance and giving aid and comfort to extremists around the world, Indonesia’s leader is a moderate, self-effacing reformer who favors a syncretic, locally-inflected version of Islam and equal rights for women and ethnic minorities.

President Widodo’s cabinet of 34 boasts eight women, including the Foreign Minister and the Finance Minister, and he supports microfinancing programs that benefit large numbers of women in the informal sector — small traders, farmers, and market gardeners, such as the sellers in the floating market pictured below.
 

floating-market-lok-baintan-6Indonesia’s Lok Baintan Floating Market

President Widodo is far from perfect — he’s a politician, after all, and is no stranger to the vacillations and reversals characteristic of the breed. But observers are cautiously optimistic. He no longer has to worry about re-election, and has a fairly strong mandate for reform, since he defeated a right-wing Muslim fundamentalist on a platform of fostering pluralism.

Despite President Widodo’s opponent’s claims that Widodo’s platform is a betrayal of Islam, in fact it reflects the dominant beliefs and practices of Islam throughout its history. For example, Moorish (Muslim) Spain was an intellectually vibrant and religiously tolerant region for centuries. Only with the ascendancy of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella did Jews, Muslims, and other non-Catholics face persecution and expulsion from the realm.

Islamic traditions of tolerance have also extended to women’s reproductive concerns. As I explain in the first chapter of my book, Sex and Herbs and Birth Control, the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence (historically the most influential interpreters of Islamic principles) accepts abortion until ensoulment, which for them takes place 120 days after conception. Other schools of jurisprudence, such as the Shafi’i and Hanbali, have debated when ensoulment occurs, but traditionally Islamic jurists never put it earlier than 40 days after conception. Thus, abortion before this time was no one’s business but the woman’s, and abortion has been widely practiced and condoned throughout the Muslim world from the time of Mohammed.

Since 2009, the only circumstances in which abortion is legal in Indonesia are to save the life/health of the pregnant woman, or (up to six weeks) in the case of rape. Of course, as in many (if not most) countries with restrictive abortion laws, illegality has little effect on frequency. Estimates are that approximately two million illegal abortions are performed in Indonesia each year. Although complications from illegal abortions are estimated to cause about 16% of all maternal deaths, it is interesting to note that an Indonesian woman is twice as likely to die in childbirth as from an illegal abortion.

President Widodo could enhance his reputation as a friend of women and opponent of fundamentalist extremism if he joined Indonesian health rights advocates in pressing for liberalization of abortion laws. That way, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country could honor the pluralistic, women-friendly traditions of mainstream Islam, while casting further into relief the misogynistic and backward-looking policies of the Christian-majority U.S.

Illogical arguments (even when well-intentioned) do not belong in The New York Times

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While consistently supporting women’s right to legal abortion, The New York Times writers on occasion seem unable to refrain from pushing illogical arguments that do not help the cause. I posted about this on two previous occasions in 2013 and in 2014. On September 7, 2018 the newspaper published an article by Pam Belluck with the title “Science Does Not Support Claims That Contraceptives Are ‘Abortion-Inducing'”. The article rightly points out that anti-abortion zealots run counter to established medical opinion when they claim that pregnancy begins with fertilization rather than implantation of the fertilized ovum in the uterine wall.

But then Belluck states that “a growing body of research strongly indicates” that emergency contraceptive pills don’t prevent implantation. “Instead, the pills, if taken up to five days after unprotected sex, work to stop fertilization from occurring. They do this by delaying ovulation… or by thickening cervical mucus so that sperm have trouble swimming and reaching the egg to fertilize it.”

A moment’s thought shows that this claim makes no sense. As Belluck says, the Plan B pills work for up to five days after intercourse. But ovulation in a large proportion of cases must have occurred before the pills were taken. If the pills worked only by preventing ovulation, then they would fail to prevent pregnancy in all those cases, and that is false.

When people say that some of the Plan B pills are effective up to 120 hours after unprotected sex, what they mean is that, among all women who would have otherwise become pregnant, most will not become pregnant if they take the pills within five days. As any fertility expert will tell you, in order to get pregnant you need to ovulate as soon as possible after intercourse. After 48 hours sperm rapidly lose motility, and the chances of sperm fertilizing an egg after waiting 120 hours for ovulation are near zero. Thus, among the women who take emergency contraception after four or five days and who otherwise would have become pregnant, almost all have already ovulated.

The fact that the pill is effective up to five days after sex obviously and incontrovertibly means that the later in the five-day window one has waited, the more likely it is that the drug is working post-fertilization. Clearly, if egg and sperm have already met, the pill is either directly destroying the fertilized ovum or preventing its implantation in the uterine wall. It defies logic to deny something so obvious, as The New York Times has done before (see my previous post “Well-Intentioned Junk Science Is Still Junk Science”).

Supporters of reproductive rights should not attempt to appeal to anti-abortion zealots with erroneous claims that the effective action of post-coital contraceptives is exclusively pre-fertilization. We need to freely acknowledge that the processes involved in establishing a pregnancy are complex, and the ways in which contraceptives impede these processes are also complex. We cannot disguise the fact that several common contraceptives, including morning-after pills, IUDs, and ordinary birth control pills, sometimes act after conception. Thus, all these methods are potential targets for those who claim that any destruction of a fertilized ovum is murder. Ironically, to be consistent, anti-abortion extremists should also oppose the rhythm method — the only form of birth control permitted by the Catholic church — as I point out in “Questions to Ask Your Priest”.

To support their extreme stance, the anti-abortion movement routinely makes fanciful, unscientific claims — that first-trimester embryos feel pain, that legal abortions are less safe than childbirth, and that most women are traumatized by abortion. We should counter their falsehoods by always giving accurate information. If we indulge in junk science, we are descending to their level.

The Outrage of El Salvador

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Maira Veronica Figueroa Marroquin (center) released after 15 years in prison

The government and legislature of El Salvador have once again shown their blatant disregard for women’s health and wellbeing by adjourning without voting on proposals to weaken the country’s draconian anti-abortion law. El Salvador is one of the remaining five countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to completely ban abortion under all circumstances. The situation is made even worse for women because the law is enforced with exceptional severity and arbitrariness.

In mid-April 2018 the Spanish-language cable network Univision aired a segment on “Primer Impacto” chronicling Salvadoran women’s rights activists’ attempts to get justice for women imprisoned under the law. At least two dozen women who suffered miscarriages or stillbirths late in pregnancy while not under a doctor’s care (in other words, women from the impoverished majority of the population) were initially charged with abortion, a crime bearing a sentence of up to eight years for both the woman and the abortionist. But prosecutors wound up getting the women charged and convicted of aggravated homicide, and they were sent to prison for up to thirty years. Protests by feminist and human rights organizations within El Salvador and throughout the world have succeeded in freeing five of the incarcerated women. But so far the Salvadoran government and judiciary have refused to review most of the cases. Meanwhile, the proposals to grant exceptions to the ban on abortion when the woman’s life is in danger or when a minor is pregnant as a result of rape have once again been stymied.

The bitter ironies in the Salvadoran situation are many. The tiny, densely-populated country has been experiencing an unprecedented upswing in violent criminal activity, in part because of deportations from the U.S. of Salvadoran gang members from Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and elsewhere (young men born in El Salvador but reared and introduced to crime in the U.S.), and in part because of the large numbers of ex-military and ex-paramilitary individuals left unemployed after the end of the U.S.-bankrolled counter-insurgency war against earlier movements for social justice and national liberation. Yet the government seems more concerned with policing women’s bodies and enforcing one of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the world than in trying to control criminal violence.

Another irony: Salvadoran anti-abortion fanatics have had the unmitigated gall to portray supporters of weakening the anti-abortion law as being under the influence of foreigners. The reality is that worldwide most of the funding of the most strident anti-abortionists comes from Catholic or Protestant fundamentalist organizations based in the U.S. The present Salvadoran outright prohibition is only twenty years old and was enacted in 1998 at the instigation of U.S.-based anti-abortion groups. Earlier Salvadoran anti-abortion legislation was not as sweeping, and enforcement was not so vicious.

In the early to mid-1990s it was possible to have discussions of the harmful public health consequences of illegally induced abortion without participants being intimidated and shouted down by anti-abortion zealots. I myself attended conferences in 1993 and 1994 in San Salvador at which speakers addressed the lack of sex education in Salvadoran schools, the horrible consequences for women’s health of abortion under unsafe conditions, the enormous costs to Salvadoran taxpayers, the need for freely distributed contraception, the injustice of safe clandestine abortions being available to affluent but not to ordinary women, and Salvadoran indigenous women’s use of native plants for abortifacient purposes. These conferences were well-attended and well-publicized, and both were co-sponsored by the Salvadoran Women Doctors’ Association. But by the late-1990s throughout Central America the situation had changed. Anti-abortion fanatics, largely funded by U.S.-based organizations, increasingly made it their business to harass legislators, gynecologists, and women’s health clinic personnel. The atmosphere of belligerence and intimidation has deterred many doctors from performing abortions in circumstances in which they would have had no qualms about performing them in the days before the anti-abortion zealots became so threatening. In the words of the independent legislator who proposed one of the bills that would have softened the ban, “There is a lot more tolerance for corruption than there is for discussion on abortion.”

And so the outrage continues. Groups of self-righteous misogynists directed from the U.S. hypocritically and sanctimoniously proclaim their love of (embryonic) life, while Salvadoran women die from clandestine abortions under unsafe conditions, and at least twenty Salvadoran women languish in prison because they couldn’t afford doctors to bear witness to their miscarriages.

“Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics”

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These famous words, which Mark Twain attributed (probably erroneously) to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, have served as a warning that statistics, if used carelessly, can be as misleading as outright lies.

In the mid-1990s I was asked by the United Nations organization UNIFEM to examine cross-cultural statistics on women’s participation in science, technology and medicine (STM). The goal was the compilation of tables for the UN fact book The World’s Women: 1995 .

This being well before the days of easy internet data searches, UNIFEM sent me cartons and cartons of policy papers, data sheets, and women’s organization pamphlets. I poured over the materials for months, trying to contrive tables that would fairly put the status of women in STM in each country in comparative perspective.

I was forced to conclude that the task was impossible. Some data sets only included the percentage of women in STM in tertiary institutions, while others only included women in government research institutes; some collections lumped together women of different ranks or in different scientific specialties, while others meticulously differentiated ranks and subfields; some included even the social sciences and humanities in their definitions of “science,” while others included the physical sciences but not mathematics or engineering. Ultimately, I wrote a piece (the only signed one in the volume) explaining the absurdity of trying to derive meaningful comparisons from such sources.

We find a different sort of methodological morass if we examine the UN’s comparative Gender Inequality Index (GII) (Human Development Report,
United Nations Development Program, 2016). The GII is calculated from three components, one of which is purportedly a measure of reproductive health; it is that component that I’ll discuss here.

The reproductive health component of the GII is computed by combining two indicators: maternal mortality per 10,000 live births and teen pregnancy rates per 1000 women. Once could ask: What about other indicators that in some countries are much more significant than maternal mortality and teen pregnancy rates in assessing the situation? At the very least, the data should include availability of contraception and legality/accessibility of abortion. In the United States one should also track the number of abortion doctors harassed or murdered, the number of clinics and schools intimidated out of offering birth control and abortion information, the number of states with outrageously restrictive TRAP laws, the number of raucous demonstrations at abortion clinics, the number of “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” staffed by anti-abortion zealots masquerading as neutral reproductive health advisers, the decreasing availability of abortion and certain forms of contraception, and so on.

The likely explanation for the UNDP’s use of maternal mortality and teen pregnancy and nothing else is that those are the data that are readily available from most countries of the world with some degree of accuracy (although the ratio of reported teen pregnancy to actual teen pregnancy undoubtedly varies widely from country to country). This is the typical reason why “proxy data” are used: you use the data that’s easiest to get, not the data that would really be most revealing, and you hope that the proxy data at least correlate with what you’re trying to measure.

In the case of the UNDP’s proxy data for reproductive health, what they do correlate with is the overall wealth and level of development of a country. More than anything else, low maternal mortality means a relatively affluent population and a highly developed health care system.

Similarly, the use of teen pregnancy rates skews the results in favor of the wealthier countries, where in fact it’s reasonable to expect that a low teen pregnancy rate signifies widespread availability of birth control as well as adequate sex education in the schools. But note that `teen’ is defined to include 18- and 19-year-olds. In many low-income countries where most men and women do not go to college and a high proportion of the population is rural, early marriage and child-bearing are culturally accepted and not correlated with failure in life. (This was the case in the U.S. until well into the 20th century.) Why then should the GII penalize low-income countries for a high teen pregnancy rate?

Because of what is counted, and equally importantly, what is not counted, there are some curious oddities in the GII rankings. Take South Korea, for example, which ranks tenth in the world in the GII. Because South Korea has a reported teen pregnancy rate of 1.6/1000 (the lowest in the world) and a maternal mortality rate of 1.1/10,000, the reproductive health component of its GII appears close to ideal, and that leads to its high GII ranking. But abortion is almost completely banned in South Korea. Doctors have been prosecuted for performing the procedure, the illegal abortion industry is booming, and there is a large black market in abortion pills obtained illegally over the internet. Women activists have been trying to get the draconian abortion laws revised for years, and have only recently succeeded in convincing the legislature to revisit the issue.

To cite another example, Cuba has a GII ranking of 62 out of 159 countries, while the U.S. ranking is 43. Why does Cuba come out poorly compared to the U.S.? By far the main reason, ironically, is Cuba’s reproductive health component, which is greatly affected by its relatively high teen pregnancy rate of 45.6 per 1000 vs. 22.6 for the U.S. Meanwhile, Cuba has a health care system that is a model for developing countries, and it is the only country of Latin America that has had unconditional reproductive freedom for women for over half a century. (In addition, women constitute 48.9% of the Cuban legislature and 27% of the Cuban Academy of Sciences; the latter figure is the highest percentage in the world.)

My point is not to castigate the UNDP for using statistical methodology that favors the wealthy countries and underrates low-income countries such as Cuba that have progressive traditions in women’s health and women’s rights. Rather, the lesson here is that issues of reproductive health and gender equity are far too complicated to be captured by a single number, especially one that’s computed from proxy data.

A New Book Describes the Women’s Wing of the U.S. Anti-Abortion Movement

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Marissa Haugeberg

I just wrote a review (for a librarians’ journal) of Women against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century by Karissa Haugeberg, an assistant professor of history at Tulane University. At first, I was put off by the subtitle, because the idea of dignifying anti-abortion zealotry with a term like “moral reform movement” is abhorrent to me. I myself would never use such a phrase for the same reason I never call opponents of abortion “pro-life” — like many feminists, I am sickened by the hypocrisy of that term.

As it turns out, however, one should not judge a book by its cover — or its subtitle. This is a nuanced, sophisticated, and balanced account of three decades of anti-abortion activism in the U.S. on the part of overwhelmingly white, largely working class Catholic and Evangelical women. By the end of the book Haugeberg has made it abundantly clear that there is nothing the least bit moral about the terrorist violence of the anti-abortion movement.

Haugeberg argues against the widespread notion that most acts of violence against women’s health clinic personnel have been committed by white Evangelical men. She demonstrates that women were coordinating violent “rescue” actions (vandalizing and bombing clinics and assaulting and terrorizing staff and clients) “long before Evangelical men joined the movement.” In large part, the Catholic women’s early turn to “rescue” violence was prompted by their frustration with most Catholic priests’ and nuns’ disinclination to actively oppose Roe v. Wade. Juli Loesch, for instance, cut off her relations with a group of Benedictine nuns because of their ambivalence about abortion.

Haugeberg repeatedly notes that most of the (Catholic) women who embraced anti-abortion activism initially went to some effort to portray themselves as seriously interested in women’s welfare. The crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) were set up by these women supposedly as a more female-centered alternative to the male-led and Evangelical-dominated anti-abortion groups, which were overtly anti-feminist, if not misogynist, and which put fetal personhood at the heart of their rhetoric.

But the CPCs quickly degenerated. Though still employing a discourse of concern for women’s health and wellbeing, the CPCs have unashamedly turned to “deception, coercion, and terror” in their attempts to prevent women from accessing abortion. CPC personnel routinely lie to women about how long they’ve been pregnant (thus moving them past the time limit for legal abortion in many states). CPC staff show fabricated abortion videos, make outrageously inaccurate claims about abortion hazards, intimidate and terrorize women seeking abortions, and publish confidential information about them and their families.

Haugeberg’s book is fascinating and well written. But it is not an easy read. She uses their own words as much as possible in chronicling violent anti-abortion fanatics such as Shelley Shannon (attempted murderer of Dr. George Tiller and intimate friend of the killers of Dr. Tiller, Dr. David Gunn, and others). Those words are smug and self-righteous, and it takes a strong stomach to read the sanctimonious justifications of their violent attacks.

Haugeberg criticizes the distinctions often made by scholars and the media between supposedly peaceful arms of the anti-abortion movement such as the CPCs and the terrorists who over three decades have killed eleven people, attempted to kill another 26, and committed close to 2000 acts of arson and vandalism. Violent anti-abortion activists move freely among the various factions of the movement, and their terrorism is virtually never condemned by the national organizations. The actions of female anti-abortion terrorists have met with tepid response by state and federal officials as well. All too often, their repeated violent acts do not lead to criminal charges and rarely result in jail time.

Melinda Gates Makes the Same Mistake as Margaret Sanger

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Melinda Gates

Recently I came across a 6/2/14 blog post from Melinda Gates extolling her foundation’s emphasis on reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health (they use the acronym RMNCH). Gates was bothered by the fact that many commentators see RMNCH issues as inextricably linked with abortion access/legality. She insisted that abortion should be discussed separately from other reproductive health issues, and she proudly announced that the Gates Foundation has no intention of funding abortion. Gates’ blog post drew protest from some feminists, including Daily Beast writer Sally Kohn, who posted “A Plea to Melinda Gates: Stop Stigmatizing Abortion.” Kohn pointed out that the Gates Foundation’s head-in-the-sand policy on abortion comes at a time when, according to World Health Organization figures, each year approximately 20 million women resort to unsafe abortion and at the barest minimum 68,000 women worldwide die from the consequences.

Provision of effective contraception could certainly reduce these numbers, but it is absurd to act as if contraception will eliminate the need for abortion altogether. Contraceptives fail. Women’s circumstances change. A partner can leave or become abusive. A loved one might suddenly require intensive care. Any of a score of events could mean that a pregnancy, even one that was desired at one time, cannot be allowed to continue without hardship. And the fact is that once a woman has decided that continuing a pregnancy is not in the best interests of herself and her family, she is likely to terminate it by whatever means necessary, even possibly attempting the procedure on herself.

Gates is regrettably (if unconsciously) following in the footsteps of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Sanger is often eulogized as the mother of modern birth control. However, as I discuss in Sex and Herbs and Birth Control (pages 182-188), in the first decades of the 20th century Sanger promoted “modern” contraceptives (which at the time consisted of ill-fitting diaphragms or spermicidal jellies) as the logical replacement for abortion. But these methods were unreliable, as Sanger knew. Moreover, a study in Sanger’s own clinic indicated that most women who discovered their condition when they came in requesting birth control did not carry their pregnancy to term but rather found some medical excuse for termination (doctors would often approve medical termination of pregnancy for the affluent) or else disappeared into the abortion underground. But Sanger refused to recognize the implications of these findings. Unlike more progressive feminists of the time, such as Drs. Marie Equi and Madeleine Pelletier (both of whom gave abortions to poor women themselves) and Mary Ware Dennett, Sanger stubbornly insisted that contraception could eliminate the need for legal abortion entirely. This was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. Melinda Gates is making the same mistake.

Gates appears to be avoiding the abortion issue for a couple of reasons. She herself is a Catholic and does not want to challenge the Church’s stance as many Catholics (for example, the group Catholics for Choice) have done. In addition, like Margaret Sanger, Melinda Gates seems to feel that by stigmatizing abortion her Foundation can avoid controversy and position itself in the mainstream. This approach worked for Sanger, in that she was able to attract some fairly conservative donors who would have balked at being associated with a “leftist” demand such as legalized abortion. (The infant Soviet Union immediately legalized abortion in 1918, so calls for legalization in the West were often branded as “communist.”)

But Gates is deluding herself. Abortion access is integral to any RMNCH strategy worthy of the name. And promoting abortion stigma, as Gates does, is not helpful to anyone who is truly interested in women’s reproductive health and wellbeing.

Professional Women’s Basketball Team Takes a Stand for Women’s Reproductive Health

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Occasionally athletes make the headlines because of their visible and vocal commitment to progressive political causes. In 1967 Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. army, saying that he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese people; he was vilified in the press and (temporarily) stripped of his heavyweight boxing title. In 1968, runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners respectively of Olympic gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash, drew the ire of conservatives by raising their fists in the Black Power salute during the award ceremony. In 2016, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and later several other U.S. football players began kneeling during the national anthem (which is played before U.S. sporting events) to protest racist violence and show their support for the organization Black Lives Matter.

Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics, 1968.

The most recent example of people in the sports world taking a courageous stand on principle concerns the fight to maintain women’s access to reproductive health care. As discussed in previous blog posts, in the U.S. there have been massive and increasing attacks on women’s reproductive health. Misogynist Republicans at the state and federal levels have been assiduously working to defund Planned Parenthood, despite the fact that for many low-income women, the organization provides their only access to health screening exams. In the face of this concerted assault, the Seattle Storm, a professional women’s basketball team which is one of the very few sports teams owned by women, has announced a pathbreaking formal partnership with Planned Parenthood.

On July 18, 2017 the Storm will have a “Stand With Planned Parenthood” rally before their game with the Chicago Sky. Five dollars from the sale of each ticket will go to Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, and there will be a fundraising auction as well.

Interestingly, the Storm ownership group does not think that their action will be particularly controversial among their fans. In an interview with The New York Times, co-owner Dawn Trudeau noted that the team owners, their audiences and their players share a progressive outlook. Trudeau sees the partnership with Planned Parenthood as a way to “make a meaningful impact on the national health care debate.” According to the Times article, reaction among coaches and players on other professional women’s basketball teams has been very positive. Chicago Sky player Imani Boyette noted that “Planned Parenthood is vital for women who don’t have access to standard health care. I was a P.P. patient in high school because I didn’t have health insurance. Taking a stand for things that affect the underprivileged, as a league and [as] women of privilege, is how change happens.”

As readers of Sex and Herbs and Birth Control know, I am not uniformly positive about Planned Parenthood’s role historically or internationally. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, often consorted with racists and eugenicists in her efforts to get funding, and International Planned Parenthood often acts in culturally inappropriate ways. But at present in the United States, Planned Parenthood plays a crucial role in women’s health, and efforts to defund the organization must be resisted. As Boyette notes, Planned Parenthood is often the only recourse for women without health insurance, and is their best option for obtaining mammograms, Pap smears, STD-screening, and low-cost contraceptives.

How to Lie without Lying

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The May 11, 2017 New York Times carried a brief letter from Father Michael P. Orsi that is worth quoting here. Orsi objects to an earlier column (“A Christian Abortion Doctor” by Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, May 7) that said that Thomas Aquinas’ theology allowed for abortion. Orsi writes:

“In the Summa Theologica, his magisterial opus, the saint never writes directly on abortion but speculates on ensoulment for the fetus, which did not challenge the traditional prohibition [against abortion].

“Although there is no direct condemnation of abortion in the Bible or by Thomas, he was certainly aware of the scriptural roots of the anti-abortion teaching, as well as in the teachings of the church fathers, who unanimously condemned the practice.”

At first glance, Father Orsi’s remarks seem clear and straightforward. Aquinas and other leading Catholic theologians “unanimously” condemned abortion. End of story.

Saint Thomas Aquinas

At least Orsi was honest enough to admit that the Bible does not prohibit abortion — a fact that most anti-abortion zealots persistently refuse to acknowledge. But Father Orsi implies that Aquinas’ speculations on ensoulment of the fetus have nothing to do with questions of abortion; this is far from the truth. Virtually all Catholic theologians before the 19th century were interested in the question of ensoulment (the point at which a human soul enters the body of a fetus, usually thought to coincide with quickening) in large part because of its relationship to the question of abortion. For most of its history the Catholic church condemned termination of pregnancy only after ensoulment/quickening, but not before. In fact, most theologians didn’t even use the word “abortion” for the ending of pregnancy prior to quickening.

The use of the term “abortion” by early Catholic theologians was very different from the modern use. In fact, the vast majority of abortions in the U.S. today would not have been considered abortions by them, because they occur before quickening.

Several prominent clerics, nuns, and saints, including Thomas Sanchez, Albertus Magnus, Pope John XXI, Hildegard of Bingen, and Elizabeth of Hungary, themselves wrote positively of emmenagogues and early-stage abortifacients. Peter of Spain (later Pope John XXI) compiled a long list of abortifacients in his Book of the Poor, and Hildegard of Bingen promoted the abortifacient properties of tansy, which had not previously received scholarly attention.

The fact is, for close to 1900 years the majority of church writers and Canon lawyers accepted early abortion (approximately first trimester) under most circumstances and all abortion under some circumstances (such as when the life of the woman was threatened). Contrary to Father Orsi’s claim, Thomas Aquinas paid attention to ensoulment precisely because the timing of ensoulment was intimately tied to the question of when termination of pregnancy is an actual abortion. The later ensoulment was thought to occur, the longer the window for ending pregnancy without incurring religious censure.

In the chapter of my Sex and Herbs and Birth Control titled “A Little Bit Pregnant,” I discuss the diversity of opinions on termination of pregnancy among Catholic commentators through the ages. I note that present-day opponents of abortion are completely mistaken in their claims that the Church has implacably opposed all abortion at all stages of pregnancy from the time of Christ until now. But I say that the confusion is in some sense understandable, since definitions of abortion used in the past and at present are not the same, and the average anti-abortion zealot misstates the history out of ignorance rather than deliberate deception.

Father Orsi, however, is an eminent theologian who has written numerous books and articles on bioethics, Catholic family law, and related topics. He is not ignorant of the complex and nuanced stances of his predecessors. He must know full well that his Church did not categorically condemn all abortion under virtually all circumstances until 1869. One is forced to conclude that Father Orsi’s misleadingly worded letter is deliberately misstating the history of Catholic proscriptions on abortion. Father Orsi’s letter is, in fact, an excellent example of sophistry, that is, how to lie without lying.