I was born in 1968 in a Catholic home for single mothers in Philadelphia. Books have been written about these houses located in the United States and, until recently, in Ireland. An estimated 1.5 million single mothers were forced to give up their children for adoption in the United States in the 20 years before Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
My biological mother was 15 when she got pregnant. She was forever marked by her experience in one of these houses. She was 16 when she gave birth and had no say in what happened to me. The decision was solely up to my grandparents. Let it sink in: my mother was completely helpless about what was happening to her and her child. She was in labor (without any form of anesthesia) for nearly two days and when that baby – that was me – finally left her aching body, she was not allowed to see me or hold me. We told him it would be easier that way because I was going to be adopted.
She and I had things in common besides genes. None of us received sex education. She told me she didn’t know she could get pregnant if she wasn’t married. It may sound ridiculous to us today, but it really happened.
The first time I had a health class that dealt with menstruation was in freshman year in high school, a little too late for pretty much every girl there. There are many statistics and variations for ethnic subpopulations, but to date, the average age of menarche among girls in the United States is 12.06 years. This means that most girls start menstruating around the fifth year.
I was very lucky to grow up with wonderful parents. But despite my repeated requests for information, I received none. We didn’t have the internet back then. If you wanted to look up something, you had to go to the library and use the card catalog. There was no generalized title “birds and bees” because my mother referred to anything sexual. When I got my period, my mom gave me a “sanitary belt” that was a holdover from the 1960s. They didn’t even make the kind of pads that those belts were for anymore.
I was on the swim team when I started getting my period. Good luck hiding a towel in a bathing suit. I asked about tampons and was told they could only be used by married people. Thanks to my older cousins and my friends with older sisters, I learned through them how to manage my periods and that Planned Parenthood existed. A dear friend of mine and I took the bus to Planned Parenthood. This is where I had my first pelvic exam. I was asked if I wanted to see my cervix. I didn’t even know I had one!
Fast forward a few years. I suffered from periods so debilitating that my mother finally gave in and took me to a gynecologist, but only because our family doctor told her it was necessary. Her dominant thought was that women did not need gynecological care before marriage, because our religion taught that sex outside marriage was a sin.
At the age of 18, I was informed that I had severe endometriosis and that it could become very difficult for me to carry a child. My condition was managed with high doses of hormones, which had a plethora of side effects, including an increased risk of reproductive organ cancers and blood clots. I started needing laparoscopic surgery every one to two years throughout my twenties and early thirties to remove painful scar tissue from my abdominal/pelvic organs. I asked several gynecologists for a hysterectomy and I was repeatedly refused. I was told that I was too young to make this decision and that I might want to become a mother later in life (even though these same doctors told me that the only way to do that was through fertility treatments).
I was not empowered to make decisions about my own reproductive organs. It was after Roe.
These personal anecdotes highlight how religious attitudes towards sexuality and lack of sex education can lead to unwanted pregnancies. There are a multitude of other ways an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy can occur. There are endless scenarios in which a woman can choose to avoid a pregnancy or terminate a pregnancy. The most important word in this last sentence is the word Choose.
We must be responsible for our bodies, and we must be free to make our choices.
There’s a big difference between sex education and sexual arousal, but it’s common for people to confuse the two things. If this country really wanted to reduce the number of abortions, then sex education would be compulsory in all high schools. It would be presented in a simple, age-appropriate and factual way before children start menstruating or having sex. Safe and reliable contraception would be freely available to everyone.
If people were truly pro-life rather than pro-birth, every person in this country would have universal health care. I’m in the medical field and I see people dying all the time because they can’t afford treatment.
If it was truly a family-friendly country, then there would be guaranteed paid maternal and paternal leave. There would be social safety nets to ensure that, in the richest country in the world, children are not starving, homeless or without medical care.
Hopefully Americans will start to realize that only by working together to elect people who will make these issues a priority will we see abortion rates drop significantly. Imposing religious beliefs on our school systems and codifying them through our laws will only lead to more unwanted pregnancies and the return of clandestine abortions.
When I pointed out to a friend that I was going to attend a rally for women’s rights in Flagler County today, I was asked if I was scared and warned that I had to be very carrefully. We should never be afraid to speak out in support of what we think is right, but we should be very afraid to remain silent when we see injustice. My dysfunctional uterus never carried a child and I will use all my power to ensure that other women have the freedom to say what is or is not happening with their reproductive organs.
Kathleen Brady is a longtime resident of the Hammock.