Celebrating Fertile Bodies as Well as Fertile Minds

Dedicated to Barbara Seaman/Women’s Health Pioneer and Author of The Doctors Case Against the Pill

In the early 1970s I was lucky to teach teenagers not much younger than myself at the Walden School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Many of the parents were interesting people such as Walter Matthau and Hal Holbrook, and one I was particularly interested in — Barbara Seaman — was the mom of one of my young women students. Barbara was working on assuring that women would be warned about the dangers of birth control pills and she earned a lion’s share of credit for the “black box warning” on prescription drugs through her tireless work, campaigning and her book The Doctors Case Against the Pill.

I saw Barbara again last year at a dinner meeting in New York sponsored by the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership. Together with about 20 other women, Barbara lead a discussion about her work and her attitudes about current women’s health issues. The HPV vaccine Gardasil had just come out and she had brought many concerns about its safety. Her general advice on new innovations for women: “wait 5 years” until we know if it’s really safe.

Barbara died a few days ago and I felt lucky to have had a chance to see her again, still working tirelessly on issues of women’s health, after almost 35 years. I’d written a post recently which was clearly waiting for this moment to honor her, though the specifics are indirectly related to her work.

As a woman who had a unique part issues of women’s health care and as a mother, I hope she would have found the following comments useful as we approach the coming election. I feel compelled as a woman health care professional myself to honor her work and her life.

Culturally, we spend more time worrying about problems related to fertility and reproduction than we do celebrating and enjoying healthy fertility, reproduction and family life. If we really valued families and family life the way we claim to, all the candidates for president would be expressing outrage and idealism about the lack of universal paid maternity (and paternity) leave in this country. A really appealing “choice” would be for people to feel encouraged to have strong well-nourished families, supported in complex ways by the whole society. I’m looking back to the days when Planned Parenthood sent me a button which said: “Love Carefully…Plan Parenthood.” I’ve kept it for many years. In today’s climate it feels so UP: Four positive words: Love, Care, Planning and Parenthood…all wrapped up in a good feeling phrase that happy parenthood with carefully respected fertility is possible.

These days, young people from a very early age are bombarded with the problematic aspects of their fertility and their reproductive systems. When I mentioned this at dinner the other night to two young women I know, one of them said “Oh my God, you’re so right. Just last night I had to sit and listen to a whole show about how my eggs are going to be going downhill for the rest of my life starting in about 2 years. (she’s 26).” She also agreed that thoughts of pregnancy for many young women are distressed by worries about sagging breasts, stretch marks, weight gain, pain, confusion and leaking milk, instead of wonder and awe. This afternoon a friend of mine who teaches sexuality and reproduction-related topics at a prestigious nearby boarding school, told me that her students get really tense and yucky feeling when she talks about how much she loved being pregnant and nursing her babies and the whole wonderful fertile gamut. They are, I suppose, there to get an education, and celebrating fertile bodies just isn’t as comfortable for them as celebrating fertile minds and intellects.

This reflects a cultural preference with a too-narrow sense of what education is. It’s part of how we got to the “no paid maternity leave” situation.

What’s missing from education, culture and the cautionary mix, is positive awe at the wonders of reproduction, which, to offer a possibly insanely romantic angle, might actually make people more careful about their bodies and their unbridled fertility. We would especially need men to sign on to such a trend. Population planning is a basic need worldwide, but millions of women are still having babies, so we should enable them to plan them wisely (and have lots of well funded resources to do so!) and then celebrate the whole reproductive messiness with joy and amazement….. and support.

That’s not a new idea, but it’s not said enough to our children, to our teens, or in our culture in general. Our reproductive life is too fraught with worry. Of course we should also be teaching our kids to appreciate and use the technologies that are available to prevent unwanted pregnancy and disease. Unfortunately, these haven’t changed much in a generation, and still pose some health threats, threats which Barbara Seaman’s work educated us about. The considerable health threats of birth control pills seem to be hardly considered today as a huge percentage of young women take them as an almost routine part of adolescence. As it’s turned out now, safe birth control is still highly politicized, often unavailable, AND the dangers of the existing technologies are largely ignored, AND we don’t celebrate fertility and happy reproduction enough.

In America today, women have pretty much been convinced that they are incapable of giving birth to their own babies without complex technological intervention, including drugs. I believe that this has subtly undermined both their own self-love/self-reliance, and also some essential quality of their connection with their babies. When I talk about the births of my own children, supported by a wise and skillful midwife, I can sense sometimes that this is threatening.. There were no intervention of any kind in my births except encouragement, feta-scope monitoring and warm olive oil hot packs and massage that allowed the births to proceed without episiotomies or lacerations. No fetal monitors, no drugs, no nothing but a supportive midwife and friends who “knew” I could do it…(and nearby hospital back-up). All this made it more likely that I could do it. It doesn’t always work out as the “perfect,” “natural” birth, but studies have shown that if we believed that it could go well, and supported women in that belief, that it would at least be more likely to proceed without intervention. That’s what doulas, friends and midwives are for. It is one aspect of love and of reproductive freedom.

We’re so busy appropriately worrying about unwanted pregnancy (not to mention STI’s) that we tend not to emphasize the awe and wonder of pregnancy and fertility until infertility becomes an issue. Bio-logically speaking, stressed populations have reproductive problems. Part of the stress in our population is confusion and ambiguity, as well as financial and social stressors around reproduction. If we had nice long paid parental leave like other “modern” societies which value coherent family life, some of these stress would be less. I say again…I don’t hear enough talk about that topic in the current political campaign.

As always, I’d like to encourage us to think of the right to choice and reproductive rights and health as just one part of everyone’s inalienable right to “live healthy,” a distinctly different right than the right to disease care. Living healthy includes, when we love carefully and choose thoughtfully, healthy and joyful pregnancy, childbirth and suckling. On the other hand, when people choose not to have children, I know they can still love carefully, honing the expression of respect, esteem, compassion, gentleness and joy in their lives. It would also be nice to see more of those qualities infused into the upcoming presidential campaign Our need for them is the same as our need for paid parental leave, safe health care, including safe contraception, and involves socially providing for basic human needs.

As it is, we worry first about getting pregnant, and then we turn around and find tens of thousands of women worrying about not being able to GET pregnant. Issues of love and loving carefully and the awesome juicy wonderful qualities of reproduction aren’t big enough aspects of this mix.