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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Still Relevant: Aunt Elsie’s Story

Planned Parenthood’s annual fundraising lunch in Tampa is next Tuesday, April 5, at the Straz Center. I go every year, and thinking about this motivated me to tell you about my Uncle Emil and Aunt Elsie.

I never knew her very well, as she died when I was eight, but everyone said she was an exceptionally sweet woman. Her maiden name was Volker, and Emil’s surname (like my mother’s) was Schultz. Almost everyone in my childhood world in Minnesota traced their heritage back to northeastern Europe, and many, like the Schultz and Volker families, came from some province of what was not yet Germany. They usually immigrated after the American Civil War and because of our amazing 1862 Homestead Act -- which gave free land even to non-citizens. Almost everyone was Lutheran or Catholic, but that didn’t make any difference when it came to controlling the size of families, as everyone was equally ignorant of contraception.

Elsie had rheumatic fever as a teenager, which left her with a damaged heart. She knew that when she married Emil in 1935, but nonetheless bore seven children – approximately one every other year – during their sixteen years together. Her heart gave up with the last pregnancy, and she died a month after the baby was born. Emil was left with seven children, the oldest of whom was fifteen. I remember the funeral and how everyone cried for those motherless kids.

As men did in those days, Uncle Emil soon took time to date and find a replacement wife, but it didn’t work out. She didn’t realize how hard it would be to cook and clean and wash and iron and more for a family of nine – as well as raise a big vegetable garden and care for the henhouse and the dairy, as farm women were expected to do. She soon left, and my cousin LaVonne, who was thirteen when her mother died, largely reared the younger ones.

Margaret Sanger, whose maiden name was Higgins, had an Irish Catholic heritage, but lived in an urban area. Despite a more sophisticated setting, her mother died after delivering eleven children – and suffering an unknown number of miscarriages. An older sister helped Margaret go to nursing school, and that profession provided her epiphany on the need for sex education and birth control. She dedicated her life to this work after the death of Sadie Saks, a Jewish mother of too many, whose religion did not prohibit contraception. Neither, for that matter, did my own Lutheran church. It was simply that physicians refused to share their knowledge.

They and pharmacists and other health professionals had valid reasons for ignoring the obvious needs of their female patients because the heavy hand of the law equated sex education with pornography. They could be prosecuted and jailed for speaking the truth, and thus – as in cases like the Dr. Vaughn of Aunt Elsie’s community -- they chose not to warn women that another pregnancy likely would be fatal. Nor did they call in the husbands who could have kept their wives alive by using some precautions.

One would think that farmers such as Uncle Emil, who bred livestock every year, could figure this out on their own, but that agricultural mindset also encouraged them to think of fertility as an absolute good, never to be prevented. Many years later, after I was a mother myself, I asked my mother why Emil – a dear, intelligent, and even adventurous man – had let Elsie be almost constantly pregnant or nursing or both. This conversation was in the 1980s, but Mom nevertheless was shocked at the very idea. Women of her time and place simply were fatalists who didn’t ask questions, and contraception was not a fit topic for discussion. Yet she (and her eleven siblings) very much approved of the smaller families that my generation had. They said so to us, but it never would have occurred to them to say so publicly, certainly not by supporting an organization aimed at the planning of parenthood.

Control, Censorship, and Choice

Even if Uncle Emil had wanted to use birth control, practicing it was all but impossible. If he and Elsie knew of Margaret Sanger’s activism in New York City (who, by the way, was the married mother of three), her example would be daunting. She and her sister, Ethel Byrne, were hounded by law enforcement and even jailed simply for distributing information that gave women basic biological facts.

And yes, the government not only condoned such censorship, but also employed people who ruined the lives of people who held other opinions. Federal legislation known as the “Comstock Law” defined birth control as inherently obscene, and Anthony Comstock – a professional moralist who never married -- successfully lobbied for a federal appointment with the post office to enforce the law. His agents opened and read mail, and if a physician or pharmacist or midwife answered the letter of a woman pleading for information on preventing pregnancy, the professional might well be prosecuted. Comstock was possessed of such an ego that he boasted he had driven fifteen people, mostly women, to suicide. He met his maker in 1915, but his legacy lasted long after.

Two years later, the US entered World War I – which essentially was a fight between Queen Victoria’s aristocratic grandchildren in Germany, Russia, and England. It caused millions of unnecessary deaths, as well as countless cases of venereal disease. I’ve no doubt that many American women died as a result of their soldier’s one-night stand in France. But most of these victims didn’t know why they were sick, and it was illegal to tell them how it could have been prevented.

So as they still have to do today, advocates for reproductive freedom went to court. Margaret Sanger, Mary Ware Dennett, and others risked their freedom to defy the law, and slowly, slowly broadminded judges began to rule -- in many states with many cases and over many decades -- that church and state were different, and Americans should not be silenced because they disagree with the creed of others.

We are free to make choices, and Tuesday’s lunch is cleverly called “A Choice Affair.” I’m especially pleased that we have come far enough on this issue that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman are the honorees. Both are fathers of girls, and both are especially committed to making proper health care available to poor women through the Affordable Healthcare Act. Wealthy women always have had access to reproductive choice; it’s the poor who suffer.

Finally, I want to end by making a point we rarely hear. Despite the glib rhetoric of too many priests and preachers, the Bible contains no prohibition whatever on either birth control or abortion. The next time you hear that assertion, please ask for chapter and verse – I’d love to know on what they base their theological tenet. You may remember I’ve said that I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover several times -- and recommend you do so, too. The only case in which the subject of preventing pregnancy comes up is in Genesis, Chapter 38.

As you are aware, polygamy was common in the times of the Old Testament, and tradition also mandated that a man marry his brother’s widow. For women in this culture, motherhood was all that mattered: her status in her community depended entirely on whether or not she was a mother, preferably of sons. The worst possible thing was to be barren – and thus the Bible’s only admonition on reproduction. In the Revised Standard Version, Genesis 38: 8-10 reads:

“And Judah took a wife for Er, his first-born, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s first-born, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord slew him. Then Judah said to Onan [another of his sons], ‘Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother. But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so when he went in to his brother’s wife, he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing to the Lord, and he slew him also.”

Onan’s sin was his refusal to give Tamar her choice of motherhood. It’s still all about choice and about treating women as full human beings who are capable of making our own decisions – without interference from government. Please elect candidates who will stay out of your bedroom and out of your doctor’s office, candidates who promise to let you plan your parenthood.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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