By Donella Meadows
–July 20, 1989–
Twenty years ago I was legally forbidden, as a married woman living in Massachusetts, to have an abortion or to use contraceptives. I was a low-income but privileged member of society (a graduate student), and I obtained the Pill with no trouble. My university health service dispensed it quietly, as did many doctors throughout the state.
I was not personally inconvenienced by the laws (which were overthrown a few years later by the Supreme Court), but I considered them unjust and intrusive. So every year I attended hearings on bills that tried, never successfully, to take reproductive decisions out of the hands of the state and to put them into the hands of the family.
Those hearings were always a circus. Picketers on both sides marched in front of the Statehouse. Busloads of nuns occupied the front rows of the hearing room, saying their rosaries. Pickled fetuses in bottles were passed around, as were pictures of well-loved babies who would never have been born if…. Weeping women, married and single, of all ages, talked about the devastation an unplanned child or a botched illegal abortion had caused in their lives. The one time I tried to testify, the presiding legislators, all male, thought it humorous to ask me prurient questions about my sex life. They did that to all the young women.
Now the latest Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade has guaranteed that such hearings will take place annually in all fifty state capitols. I don’t know anyone who is happy about that, but I don’t know anyone on either side of the abortion issue who will let it rest. We seem condemned to go on and on — defying, accusing, picketing, litigating, fire-bombing, hating, while talking of morality.
Why? Why has this particular matter got us so monumentally stuck in hopeless contention?
I suspect that the abortion issue remains unsolvable because the questions we think we are fighting about are not what we are really fighting about. The real questions are larger than abortion, larger than — but connected to — women’s rights, prayer in school, sex education, gun control, affirmative action, all those battle-torn beachheads upon which we are fighting a greater war.
What is that war about? Here’s my guess, derived from looking deep inside to see what it’s about for me.
I feel that I am swept up in huge, historic changes, way beyond my control, changes in who men and women are, how we should relate to one another, how we should bear and bring up children.
What I learned as a child about the stability of marriage, my role as a woman, the importance of family, all has been deeply shaken. My society pours into one ear prudish standards of behavior and into the other ear hundreds of sexual come-ons. Sometimes I hear that I am liberated; sometimes I am treated as a body with no mind or soul. I have to be virtuous but attractive to men, to bear children but earn a living, to be independent but subservient.
My confusion comes, I think, from Pandora’s boxes that were opened long before I was born. Three boxes, to be exact: health care, industrialization, and the political idea called democracy. All three brought wonderful benefits and unexpected side effects to which we (I, anyway) still haven’t adjusted.
Because of modern health care spouses live together for a longer time, over more life changes, putting great strains on the idea of marriage-for-a-lifetime. Nearly all children now survive, driving home the fact that death control is unfeasible without birth control.
Industrialization is systematically moving traditional family functions into the commercial market. Bread, garments, repairs, cleaning, even child care and elderly care are now products of industry. Men and women must be workers outside the home, to afford what they used to produce for themselves, which they no longer have time to do, because they have to work outside.
Our democracy began with the words “all men are created equal,” which women finally heard as “all human beings are created equal.” Two hundred years later that idea is still sinking in and creating upheavals in the self-images of both women and men.
These enormous changes hit home, impacting every family. We don’t give ourselves credit for surviving them relatively sanely; we also don’t offer ourselves or each other much compassion for our remaining, understandable, disorientation. More often we bash each other for our different ways of reacting to this upsetting time.
Some of us accept or at least are resigned to death and birth control, the fragility of marriage, the industrialization of the family. We favor birth control, day care, easy divorce laws, court-enforced equality for women. We may not like abortion, but we see it as part of the historic tide. Like the Pill in Massachusetts twenty years ago, it will be available no matter what the laws say, at least to those who are privileged.
Some of us are willing to accept only half the package — death control but not birth control, democracy but not equality, industrial growth but wives at home and men bringing home an occasional deer with a gun — not because we need the housewifery or the deer, but because we need to feel like women and like men.
Most of us feel caught in the middle, wondering how others can sound so certain, wishing the emotional, intransigent ones would just shut up.
I suppose all historic social changes look this messy. I guess it’s human to turn our inner struggles into outer strife. But I do wish we could calm down for a minute and look at each other with some patience and sympathy. It’s a hard couple of hundred years we’re going through.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989