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Birth control, culture and the control of women.

Birth Control, Culture and the Control of Women

While I was working on the cover article, a woman in the office read the first page and left me the following note, "On the cover topic I can get quite heated! All these hormonal and chemical |breakthroughs' are still questionable, have side effects both immediate and who knows about long term? Worse, they're all designed for women! The same guinea pigs every time!! Why don't |they' investigate male hormones to speed up sperm maturation or knock out sperm production for a goddam |one to three years'?!! Sorry, but the scientific community is so used to thinking of women in terms of incubators, breeders, etc. that they have no qualms about |manipulating the dials' to control fertility."

A letter from a sister midwife around the same time adamantly concurred, "Our present emphasis on family planning is an example of our focus on adding objects or medications to our bodies so we won't get pregnant. No one is questioning whether we might be able to choose not to have sex in the first place. Our thinking completely accepts without question the sexual and political serfdom women experience worldwide. Our thinking is geared toward practical short term goals vs deep philosophical and lasting concerns for women and the planet."

As is evident by the impassioned responses which the topic of birth control is engendering, many women are asking questions. Why is the research on hormones for men and better methods of vasectomy so minuscule compared to the percentage of the copulating population which is male? What forces determine which methods of birth control get researched, funded and approved? What is the morality of producing and funding birth control methods in third world countries that are not approved for American women? These are obviously rhetorical questions, for we know that profit rules the drug companies and the FDA is hopelessly bogged down and inefficient--not to mention unscientific or quirky in its applications. Why was there such concern about the safety of the cervical cap, which could have been studied from decades of use in Europe? Why did the cost of the cap go up sixfold once it was approved? Who's making the profit? And you can be sure that third world women aren't paying $275 to $600 to have Norplant inserted!

One of women's greatest problems remains the fact that birth control information, methods and legislation remain in the hands of men. Some women of color find birth control (in the form of sterilization) foisted upon them, while others are totally unable to penetrate the system and come away with any method of contraception. In working with women in the Arab community, I am impressed to what extent "biology is still destiny" if you don't speak the language or can't access birth control information and methods for reasons of culture, language or money.

Lest we think that women's access to birth control is not a political issue, I would like to share the following information reported by columnist Ellen Goodman about reaction to the recent approval of Norplant:

"On the very morning the FDA approved the long-lasting contraceptive implant, Dr. Segal [Dr. Sheldon Segal, developer or Norplant] found himself in a taxi between television studios listening to someone on a radio talk show loudly proclaim that every girl should have it stuck in her arm at puberty.

"The cab driver uttered his full-throated agreement and the man who developed this new birth-control method shrank down into his seat: |That was Day One,' Segal says.

"On Day Two, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial about Norplant saying that readers should |think about' Norplant as a tool in the fight against black poverty. The message, spiked with a volatile mix of race, class and contraception, kicked up a storm.

"Segal sent off his own outraged letter-to-the editor. But before it was published, the story struck again. A California judge ordered a convicted child-abuser to use Norplant as part of her sentence."(1)

The order was issued to Darlene Johnson, a 27-year-old mother of four who pleaded guilty to beating two of her children with a belt. The order was issued at her sentencing, with no notice to either the woman or her lawyer. The device was not yet even on the market.

Dr. Segal never intended the device to restrict human rights. He added, "I'm also bothered because this is a prescription drug, with certain side effects and certain groups of women for whom it may not be appropriate. How does the judge know if the woman is a diabetic, or has some other contraindication to the drug. That's not his business."

Mrs. Johnson's lawyer states that she is diabetic, as well as being seven months pregnant at the time of sentencing.(2)

Experts in medical ethics fear that other judges may be tempted to order its use in cases where women are on welfare or are seen as unfit to be parents.

"Norplant presents a special temptation to judges because it's so long lasting and doesn't require any cooperation after it's implanted, and can be monitored by a parole officer just by looking at the woman's arm," said Dr. George Annas, director of the program on law, medicine and ethics at the Boston University School of Medicine.(3)

The Johnson case is the first case involving Norplant, but not the first to impose contraception. In November, 1990 a 17-year-old Florida girl who admitted to smothering her newborn daughter in the hospital was sentenced to two years in prison and required to use birth control for 10 years after her release from jail.

In another case in California, a woman who adhered to a very strict macrobiotic diet which had caused neurological damage to one of her children was ordered to use birth control as part of her sentence; in this case the California Court of Appeals ruled that a woman who had been convicted of child endangerment could not be ordered to use contraceptives as a condition of probation.

The issue also centers around finances. In Kansas this past February, the legislature held hearings on a bill that would pay welfare mothers $500 to get the implant. It would also pay for the Norplant, plus an annual checkup and a $50 check a year. And a December 12, 1990 editorial in The Philadelphia Inquirer with the headline "Poverty and Norplant--Can Contraception Reduce the Underclass?" suggested that because of growing poverty among blacks, welfare mothers should be offered incentives to use Norplant. So many members of the newspaper's news department denounced the editorial as a racist endorsement of genocide that the paper took the unusual step of printing an apology.

Other governments attempt to influence the decisions families make about fertility all the time. In India, they offer "expense money" to citizens who get sterilized. In France, they give bonuses for each baby. The line between incentives and coercion is fuzzy, and women are urged to read Adrienne Rich's work Of Woman Born for further discussion on these issues.

Goodman summarizes, "It took 24 years to develop, test and approve an implantable device that can prevent pregnancy for as long as five years. It took less than two weeks for Norplant to be billed as a new method of coercion.

"Yes, the team that worked on Norplant had been concerned that a government would misuse the device to enforce birth control. But frankly, they were worrying about China, not California."(4)

Ideally, methods of birth control give a woman more control over her own health and body and help a couple to have the number of children they feel they can support, spaced in a way that helps their ability to parent? However, the fact that the medical establishment and the government remain in the hands of men, means that developments in this area will also be used to manipulate and control women's fertility according to the needs of the dominant (male) values at the time.

As women, we need to inform ourselves and educate our sisters about contraceptive technology. And we need to support the women's health networks which are beginning to be invited to represent women's perspectives at scientific gatherings on reproductive health and development. Perhaps by so doing we can change the tide of reproductive technology toward the research and design of more user-controlled non-systemic methods with fewer side effects, both physical and psychological. Contraceptive methods go far beyond the regulation of fertility and impact a woman's mental health, her pleasure and sexuality, her relationships with her partner and her children. The most appropriate judges of these factors are women themselves.

To keep informed on such issues on an international level, we recommend subscribing to the Women's Global Network on Reproductive Rights, Nieuwe Zijds Voorburgwal 32, 1012 RZ Amsterdam, Netherlands; send $25 US in a bank draft, international money order or cash in a registered letter.

Another invaluable resource is the Women's Health Journal from the Latin American and Caribbean Women's health Network. Contact Isis International, Casilla 2067, Correo Central, Santiago, Chile.

(1)Ellen Goodman, "Using Birth Control To Control Women," The Ann Arbor News, Feb. 22, 1991. (2)Tamar Lewin, "Implanted Birth Control Device Renews Debate Over Forced Contraception," The New York Times National, Jan. 10, 1991. (3)Ibid. (4)Goodman, loc.cit.

PHOTO : 19th century woodcarving of a sigurlykkja or victory loop, a band tied over Icelandic women to expedite labor and ease its pain.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Association of Labor Assistants & Childbirth Educators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Baldwin, Rahima
Publication:Special Delivery
Article Type:column
Date:Jun 22, 1991
Previous Article:Cervical cap fitting.
Next Article:Creation of National Coalition of Midwifery Educators.

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