Recently, the right-wing attack on women’s health and sexuality has reached new levels as The U.S. House of Representatives voted to bar Planned Parenthood health centers from all federal funding, and as legislators are working to redefine the legal definition of rape, making women more vulnerable to sexual abuse. I am writing this essay as a young, queer, woman who is in the process of becoming a board-certified birth doula. A doula is someone who provides a woman with support through her birth, prenatal care, and postpartum period; and helps her to clarify her needs and desires and advocate for herself throughout her reproductive process. I am also writing this as a woman who has spent the past decade of my life working to overcome the trauma of my rape when I was 13 years old, and as someone who had difficulty accessing comprehensive medical attention, legal services, and therapeutic healing following the attack. I don’t share my experience as a rape survivor often, but when the government is threatening the sexual and reproductive rights of hundreds of thousands of women across the county, it gets personal. The majority of the people in power who are trying to take away the fundamental rights of women to make choices about their own lives and bodies are men (rich, white, and straight) who have no idea what it feels like to live in a culture where your agency is constantly being threatened, and where, for many women, it is a daily struggle to feel confident, safe, and secure in our own skin.
Free, confidential, and safe health services are intrinsically connected to the equality and liberation of female-bodied people. The oppression of women has long been upheld by maintaining control over our bodies. By forced births or by forced sterilization, by diminishing a women’s sense of strength and pride in her creative ability (whether or not she chooses to reproduce), and by filling her with shame about the size and shape of her body, her sexuality and gender identity, and her basic bodily functions.
Abortion has been particularly highlighted in the larger attack on women’s health services, but it must be looked at in the larger context of a woman’s life. We cannot talk about abortion without recognizing that the attack on women’s health services targets primarily working class women, women of color, and queer women. The government funding that Planned Parenthood receives makes it possible for them to offer abortion services, STI screening and prevention, cancer screening, education on sexual health and pregnancy prevention, and other life-saving services for women who would not be able to obtain these services elsewhere.
Because Congress passed the Hyde Amendment in 1973, Medicaid is banned from covering abortions. This has a disproportionate impact on women of color, both because women of color are more likely to live in poverty and to rely on Medicaid for health care, and because women of color are statistically more likely to seek abortion care Because of the Hyde Amendment, low-income women must go to great lengths to obtain abortions. Women starve themselves in order to save up their grocery money, or risk eviction by using their rent money to pay for an abortion. Many women never manage to get the money they need to pay for their abortion, and are forced to carry the pregnancy to term. When a woman carries and delivers an unwanted child because she couldn’t afford an abortion, it is clear that she will not have the money to support that child once it is born. It is a crime to put this undue burden on women, who, in many cases, are already struggling to pay the bills, and feed the family they already have. Women are not incubators. Women deserve to have control over the biggest decisions in their lives.
And on the other side of abortion, we also must look at the birth system in the U.S. and understand that women who do choose to give birth have the right to decide how, where, and with whom they deliver their babies. In the time since I began training as a doula, I have spoken with many women who are seeking the support of a doula or midwife because they describe their previous birth experiences as being “traumatic,” “terrifying,” “confusing,” and “under someone else’s control.” It has become common practice in hospitals across the country to medically induce labor against a women’s will, when there are no medical reasons to do so, because it is faster and easier for the doctor. Laboring women are often tied down to hospital beds, pumped full of chemicals, or in other ways denied the freedom to deliver in a way that is comfortable and empowering, however she defines that . Through cultural messages, women are made to believe that they are not strong enough to give birth naturally, and that they won’t be able to handle a process that their bodies were built to endure. In 2007, the rate of cesarean section was 31.8%, meaning that about one mother in three now gives birth by cesarean section, and this number is on the rise. The National Health Organization recommends a rate of cesarean between 5% and 10%, and says that anything higher is causing more damage than good .
A healthy and just birth culture, which puts the woman in charge of her own process, is only possible in a society which allows birth to be a choice — not an obligation. Birth and parenting should be rewarding and fulfilling, but this means that women and families need to be raising children because they truly want to. Birth has become viewed as a medical issue rather than as a natural biological process. It’s important to understand the ways pregnancy, birth, and reproductive health are tied to a women’s identity. We must demand that women be treated as complete humans, not as vessels for growing babies, or for sexually servicing men. At the same time, birth should be seen as empowering and beautiful, if a woman chooses it, and a woman’s reproductive abilities should be valued and recognized as strong and powerful. It is fundamental that she is in control of all decisions concerning her body: with whom she wants to be sexual, and how, and when; the way she performs her gender identity; how she protects herself from STIs and pregnancy; whether or not she keeps her baby if she becomes pregnant; how she delivers her baby, if she decides to; and how she raises her children and contributes to her family and society. A woman’s ability to feel strong and empowered is dependent on her ability to be powerful in her own life and sexual/reproductive choices.
Destroying Planned Parenthood, redefining rape, and continuing the attack on women will not only force thousands of women into situations they are not prepared for, it also sends a message to women everywhere that they are not capable of making their own choices about their own bodies, lives, and families. I don’t believe that any woman has made the choice to abort her pregnancy lightly. When a woman has the courage to realistically assess the conditions of her life and her responsibilities to those around her, she deserves to be supported. We need to build a society that respects a woman’s ability to choose for herself, and that provides her with the education, support, and resources she needs to make the best decisions possible. A pro-woman, pro-child society offers FREE and comprehensive sexual and health services to anyone who needs them. This includes access to abortion, access to a range of contraceptives and protection against STIs, education about all aspects of sexuality, health, and the human body. Beyond creating accessible resources and institutions that provide necessary services, we need to redefine the underlying values of our society. We need to create a popular culture which values women’s lives in a holistic way, and trusts them to make their own choices. A culture that supports open dialogue around sex and sexual health, so that everyone has the information they need to make the right decisions for themselves. A culture that can help collectively heal the trauma that comes from a system which steals basic freedoms and agency from women everywhere.