Editorial: Leave women's health care alone

Posted Tuesday, March 26, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Leave women's health care alone

In 1873, a new series of laws were enacted in the United States, making it illegal to send "lewd and obscene" material through the U.S. mail.  But the material being censored wasn't girlie pictures or gentlemen's magazines - the laws were aimed at a new business - mail order contraception.

Until 1873, women's health was a matter for midwives, who knew many tricks for bringing on menses, even after conception had taken place.  The use of certain herbs in certain doses, such as pennyroyal, black cohosh, and others, could end a pregnancy in its early stages.  The use of sponges impregnated with certain fluids, including vinegar, could prevent conception.  The rationale for midwives to provide contraceptive information was clear: one in seven births ended with the death of the mother.  There were few other options for women; caesarian section surgery was rarely done, and even more rarely survived by the mother.  But even when a woman didn't die in labor or as a result of "milk fever", an infection contracted during labor and delivery, having 10 or more children was wearying and led to an early death for many.  The resulting carnage left behind in the family -- daughters yanked from school to care for the youngest children, not to mention the hole in the lives of all concerned -- was an all-too-frequent tragedy visited on women of childbearing age.

But in 1873, the American Medical Association made a power play against midwives, and managed to put many of them out of business by requiring proof of education and requiring fees to 'license' midwives.  They were also required to have a doctor 'supervisor'.

So women turned to each other and began to obtain information and contraceptive materials through the mail, until the Comstock Laws made it illegal.

The maternal death rate zoomed, from both childbirth and illegal abortion. Some women continued to help with contraception, but it had to be a quiet affair.  Until the 1960s, women's health care was highly regulated and kept out of the hands of women.  And many women died.  Those who gave birth out of wedlock lost control of their infants, many of whom were placed in orphanages or given to adoptive parents and were lost forever.

Enough was enough.  By the sixties, married women could get The Pill, but it was still a crime for doctors to prescribe it for unmarried women until the seventies.  By then, Roe v. Wade had been decided.

Not everyone has an abortion because it is 'inconvenient' to have a child.  Many have abortions for the same reasons women tried to avoid pregnancy during the days of the Comstock laws - rational fear of childbearing, the health effects of too-close childbearing, or a necessary termination because of a doomed pregnancy.

So the draconian new contraception and especially abortion laws that forbid abortion after the embryo's heartbeat can be detected can be life-threatening to the mother.  Ectopic pregnancies can have a heartbeat, even though the pregnancy is non-viable.  Some 50 percent of pregnancies fail in the first three months; most of those have a heartbeat at least for a while. 

Abortion is not something that any woman takes lightly.  It is the end of a potential pregnancy, and no one disputes the fact that a potential human being is lost in the process.  But reverting to the days of forced pregnancy and childbirth abuses women whose choices are already limited.

And it won't work, in any case.  No person can be forced to accept a medical risk against his or her will, even to save the life of another already born and breathing child.  Do not accept these restrictions,  whether they are taking place in North Dakota, Kansas, Arkansas, or Maine.  And do not return to office those who would turn back the clock on women's health care.

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