Conservatives' Losing Bet on Birth Control: History Suggests They Might've Woken a Sleeping Giant

 Republican strategists and political prognosticators are quick to assure us that Romney’s gender gap—which at 19 points is now more like a gender chasm—will evaporate as general election campaigning gears up and the attention of voters returns to bread-and-butter issues like the economy. Even Romney seems to think it’s just a blip—assuring reporters that women are talking about “the debt that we're leaving the next generation” and “the failure of this economy to put people back to work,” not access to reproductive health care.

The Republicans seem to think they can erase the past four months and their “war on women,” but if history is any guide, this is wishful thinking. In fact, the historical record suggests we may be witnessing a re-awakening of the reproductive rights movement, especially among groups where concern about access to contraception and abortion has languished: young women and independent women. There is an eerie parallel between the awakening that is currently happening and the beginning of the reproductive rights revolution that resulted in the legalization of abortion in the early 1970s.

It all comes back to a scene that was unimaginably galling to women: a group of men sitting solemnly before microphones at a committee table testifying about whether women should have access to reproductive health care that they could never need. This may sound like the already infamous Issa congressional hearing that was ostensibly about “religious freedom,” but it wasn’t. This hearing happened more than 40 years ago and helped to light a revolution.

The late 1960s were still the dark ages for reproductive health. The Supreme Court had only just given married couples the right to use contraception; states could still ban unmarried people from buying birth control. Abortion was illegal in every state except to save a woman’s life. There was a small reform movement underway, run mostly by men, to make abortion more available under limited conditions:  in cases of rape or incest, if a fetus was severely deformed, or if a woman’s health was at risk. However, even under these reforms doctors would still control access to abortion — a woman would have to get the permission of two doctors, who in those days were usually men, to have an abortion.

These reformers were interested in making abortion more “humane” because of the extraordinary high toll of the one million illegal abortions that were performed every year. In 1967 alone, 10,000 women were admitted to New York City municipal hospitals suffering from botched abortions. Some were left infertile from their run-ins with back alley butchers; others died. Nearly half of all maternal deaths in the city were caused by illegal abortions. Other big cities also had whole hospital wards full of women recovering from botched illegal abortions.

By 1969, a dozen states had passed bills making abortion more available in limited circumstances with a doctor’s permission. That year New York State began considering a reform bill. On February 13, the joint Public Health Committee held an hearing on the legislation in New York City. The panel consisted of 14 men and one woman—a Catholic nun, who represented her religion’s position that all abortions should be illegal. The panelists dutifully presented their positions—some against any liberalization of abortion law and some in favor of limited reforms. Women sat mutely in the audience watching men discuss their reproductive lives. But then, just as a white-haired former judge finished speaking, a woman named Kathy Amatniek stood up in audience and shouted: “All right, now let’s hear from some real experts — the women.”

The men on the panel “stared over their microphones in amazement,” according to the New York Times, apparently like Congressman Issa, astonished that women actually wanted to have a say about what happened to their bodies. Then Amatniek made a demand that was just gaining currently among feminists: “Repeal the abortion law, instead of wasting more time talking about these stupid reforms.” A handful of women were demanding the end of abortion laws that left doctors as gatekeepers to the procedure.

Amatniek’s outburst ensured that the otherwise staid hearing got media coverage. Women were so incensed over their exclusion from the hearing that the feminist group Redstockings organized an all-women abortion “speak-out” at the Washington Square Methodist Church. There women on the panel did something that no women had done before: they went public about their abortions. They told of the fear, pain, and humiliation they endured. Then a really extraordinary thing happened. Women in the audience stood up and, unprompted, began talking about their abortions. Irene Peslikis, who was at the hearing, told historian Ninia Baehr that it was like a “bomb” went off in the audience. “All of the sudden they realized that this was something that had been bothering them for the longest time,” she said.

The publicity from the speak-out galvanized women across the country. They held abortion speak-outs in their living rooms. They questioned why they disproportionately suffered the consequences of sexual activity, why they had to risk their lives or health to get an illegal abortion or beg a man for a legal abortion. The result of this consciousness-raising was a sea change in how women perceived the politics of abortion. They started to see access to abortion as a right, an expression of their full personhood, not a favor to be granted by men. Members of New York’s feminist movement found a Republican woman legislator, Connie Cook, who was on their side and she introduced a bill in the New York Assembly to completely remove abortion from the state’s criminal code, making it an entirely personal decision. It failed, but it moved the debate from just broadening the circumstances under which doctors could dole out abortions to making women the center of the abortion decision. A compromise measure was proposed that would allow women to make the decision about abortion up through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy but banned it thereafter except to save a woman’s life. This law passed and became the model for Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationally three years later.

It was the anger of women excluded from the abortion hearing that created the impetus for the widespread decriminalization of abortion. Forty-three years later, a similar outrage has woken women up to the implication of men who want to make reproductive decisions for them. From the furor over Virginia’s vaginal ultrasound bill, which is reverberating in states like Idaho that just killed a similar measure, to the continuing fallout from the Komen Foundation’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, it’s a good bet that this issue isn’t going away any time soon.

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