Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A desperate form of birth control

For thirty years I wrote a biweekly column for our denominational organ.  It gave me the opportunity to think in public  about many subjects.  I remember  some columns I was proud of. I’ll also admit to some bloopers. 

A column I wrote in 1980  titled “Convenience...Or Murder?” brought me the most mail I had ever received. It came primarily  from those for whom the issue of abortion was etched in  black and white.  My  editor  later wrote that one letter was signed by 15 women from one congregation stating they did not want readers to operate under the misconception that I was speaking on behalf of all women. I never intended to.  To them this column was worse than a blooper.  

Recently I read Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh, a novel about pioneer  life in Manitoba in which some women, overworked, undernourished, without medical care,  figured out a strange  method of  aborting a fetus. 

The novel was first published in 1925 and condemned as   “obscene” and “indecent.” Grove taught in the Winkler, Manitoba,  school system for several years and married a Mennonite woman. It was later republished in 1989 and heralded as great literature. The novel has a dark outlook on life and is sometimes compared to works by Thomas Hardy, Theodore Dreiser and others. 

In Grove’s novel women suffer because they are expected to work like men yet accept the burden of childbearing to provide  future workers for the farm.  Ellen’s mother had been forced to leave behind two of her three children in her native  Sweden when she and her husband emigrated to Manitoba in the early 1900s.  Her husband demands she help him with the outside work, yet satisfy his needs at night. When she becomes pregnant, he blames her as if she has committed a crime,  for pregnancy keeps her from helping clear the land  and  build his farm. What can she do?

Throughout the ages women have  shared secrets  and folklore  about birth control. It happened when I was a young married woman. It happens today even though  birth control is no longer illegal or  immoral as it was in my mother’s and grandmother’s era.  I sensed as a child  that female relatives were discussing something clandestine related to a topic I did not understand.  

A woman in an earlier time was expected to accept however many children the Lord gave her, for hadn’t the Lord said to  be fruitful and multiply?  And without birth control women sometimes kept bearing children into their middle forties, year after year. My genealogical records show women who bore up to 12 and 14 children, one after another – and then died to be replaced very soon with a new wife – and child-bearer. I wish I could share the stories of some of these women.

In Grove’s novel,  a neighbor gives Ellen’s mother her own foolproof method of not bringing a child to full term:   work harder than a man in the early stages of pregnancy.  The mother does that – lifts heavy things, walks behind the plow for a day, saws huge  logs  with a bucksaw, chops wood  with a heavy  axe, carries bundles, clears brush until she miscarries.  Her husband carries the little  bundle out  to the woods to bury it. And the process starts again.  The mother  tells Ellen she recognizes she is murdering her unborn children, but can see no  way out of her dilemma of working like a man yet bearing children like a woman.  

Even when she is a skeleton of a ghost her husband prays mightily at the bedside before insisting on his rights as a man.  After one difficult  miscarriage  he orders her to whitewash the cabin.  Her strength gives out and  she dies.  

Vilhelm Moberg broaches the same topic  of too many children and not enough strength in his novel  The Settlers, the third book in his series The Emigrants about Swedish pioneers in Minnesota.  Kristina is certain her weakened body cannot  survive another birth,  yet finds herself pregnant for the eighth time.  She had prayed  earnestly, desperately, to be relieved of the sick and miserable feeling for the first few months, the shuffling about on heavy feet to carry the increased burden of her body, and at last the terrifying labor, her strength spent, and then the great weakness and fatigue afterward with her limbs heavy and aching.   Why did God create another life in her?  When her prayer is not answered,  she doubts the existence of God. 

Other immigrant novels examine the same topic of too many pregnancies in weakened bodies, with greater gentleness and delicacy. It appears too often to be ignored as unrealistic.These novels depict the desperation of women forced to bear child after child and what they did to prevent this burden.  Only fiction?  Fiction is often closer to truth than reality. 

As I  re-read my column of 1980,  I wondered again why readers had been upset.  I did not advocate abortion as a method of birth control.   I only asked readers to look at the inconsistencies in our thinking about it.  For example, personhood begins at conception some people proclaim vehemently, yet an early  miscarriage is flushed down the toilet, an unnamed  blob of mucous and blood, sometimes accidentally.  If this were truly a person,  shouldn’t it be shown the respect and dignity of a name and a proper burial? 

In my old age, I am less concerned about certitude about many issues that troubled me earlier.  I hope I am becoming more tolerant of women in this country and underdeveloped countries about their concern about an issue that has been discussed too little.   At what point is enough children enough?

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