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The Briar Patch | The Myth of Reproductive Agency

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As I read through the leaked draft of the opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, which is said to be the document that will eventually overturn Roe v. Wade as part of the court case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, this short passage stood out to me:

“American law followed the common law until a wave of statutory restrictions in the 1800s expanded criminal liability for abortions.”

When I saw that passage, my curiosity was piqued, mainly because of the levels of psychopathy and hubris it must have taken to launch an anti-abortion campaign when millions of children were suffering under a chattel slavery system, when Black babies were ripped from their mothers’ arms and sold away. Doing some more reading and further research, I discovered that the anti-abortion movement in the 19th century really took off in the 1850s, and peaked in the 1880s, with the majority of states enacting laws banning the practice that, up until the mid-1800s, had been common, only becoming illegal when a woman could feel movement in the womb — a highly subjective litmus test at best.

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So while Alito brazenly coughs up a reason for overturning abortion on a moral issue related to the 14th amendment and the legalities surrounding unenumerated rights, let us never forget: Black babies born to enslaved women were considered property while the abortion debate was raging in the 19th century. J. Marion Simms, the so-called father of gynecology, was performing horrific medical gynecological experiments on enslaved Black women who had given birth and were suffering from fistulas, holes in the birth canal, with no anesthesia.

Also consider that control of women’s medical practices was wrested away from midwives, who also performed abortions in some instances. In 1910, midwifery practices in this country were outlawed and duties remanded to male doctors when it was revealed that the nation had the third highest infant mortality rate in the world — and, more cynically, when doctors realized there was a buck to be made on medical practices that, up until then, had been considered beneath them.

However, these practices were paramount in women’s ability to have some level of governance over their own bodies.

Well, it is now 2022. Women’s OB-GYN practices have been ensconced in western allopathic medical traditions for over 110 years, and the United States still has some of the worst infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. We stand on the precipice of a time in which the reproductive rights of millions of teenage girls and women hang in the balance in the shadow of a disintegrating medical system and toxic patriarchy.

According to the website, “the number of women who die giving birth in the United States has doubled in the last two decades and this country has higher rates of maternal death than 45 other countries.”

The United States also has the distinction of being the only “developed” nation with rising maternal mortality rates. The sliver of good news is that we are seeing a return to more natural methods of birth practices that involve both the re-emergence of midwives and doulas, who will be welcoming many of us to the front lines of a battle they’ve been waging for women’s reproductive freedom for decades.

Women — particularly those who are nonwhite — are the collateral damage of a centuries-old culture war of attrition, a continued siege that has whittled away a woman’s agency to govern her own health, including her choice to terminate a pregnancy. As we slide scarily toward dystopian “Handmaid’s Tale” scenarios — no, I pause on the usual symbols of coat hangers and slogans for a moment to say, simply, that agency for control over our own bodies, even with the passage of Roe v. Wade, was always a myth.

History has shown us that women of means have always been able to obtain safe abortions. As for the rest? Women more likely to seek an abortion are nonwhite and poor. In short, this law has serious implications based on race and class — Black women in the U.S. are, on average, three to four times more likely to die during childbirth. In New York City, they are 12 times more likely to die than white women, according to an online 2018 Longreads article.

Mix in a little voter complacency and misinformation, add lack of strategy involving candidates who say they care about women’s health, but have yet to prove they can actually win elections on a local and state level — ground zero for this culture war — decrease civics education in schools, and here we are.

This wasn’t the column I planned to write. I completed an artist in residency program at United Plant Savers Medicinal Herb Preserve outside of Athens, Ohio, in April. I wanted to write about that experience, and explore a critical need to expand and preserve healing traditions that reconnect people to the land through spiritual practices centered in herbal medicine and art. I will save it for another column, knowing that the need for this approach has become more prescient than ever.

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