Monday, January 5, 2009

When boiled jeans look better than an abortion...

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

There was a depressing article in The New York Times today about the intense need to hide abortion or birth control in some communities, particularly among immigrants. Women who don't have access to legal abortions, whether because they are illegal immigrants, they can't afford it, or because of the social stigma attached to entering a Planned Parenthood often resort to drugs or other "home remedies" to end their pregnancies. All of these alternatives are dangerous, and some are downright bizarre - women mix malted beverages with aspirin, salt or nutmeg, throw themselves down stairs, or even drink concoctions made from the boiled hems of denim jeans. Other women buy drugs like misoprostol, which is actually intended to treat gastric ulcers. Misoprostol is cheap and frequently used throughout communities which are traditionally anti-abortion. But the women who take it often don't know how to use it, and the side effects are very serious.

This article is distressing not just because abortions are relatively inexpensive and easy to access - the pregnancies themselves result from a culture which is anti-birth control, and which values women's health less than their perceived reputation. Instead of admitting to having an abortion, women can tell their family members that they miscarried. But at what cost? And how responsible were these women for the pregnancy in the first place?

In cultures known for their machismo, use of birth control is seen as a sign of unfaithfulness. “If I introduce the condom into a relationship, I’m basically saying I’ve had somebody else, and I’ve not been faithful to you,” said Haydee Morales, a vice president at Planned Parenthood of New York. Women are caught in a terrible double bind; they are culturally forbidden to use protection, but then must risk their lives in order to end the pregnancy and avoid social sanctions. But at the end, this is, very simply, a serious health risk. And it's widespread; the NYT reports that "in a study of 610 women at three New York clinics in largely Dominican neighborhoods conducted eight years ago, 5 percent said they had taken misoprostol themselves, and 37 percent said they knew it was an abortion-inducing drug."

It's easy to say that this is a cultural norm, and that to criticize it would be culturally insensitive. But on the other hand, women's lives are at risk, and I'm not sure how much it has to do with changing cultural standards about abortion - rather, everyone needs to be better educated about birth control so that women can avoid these situations entirely. And let's not forget that it takes two to cause a pregnancy, and that for the women to bear all of the risk in ending it is unfair and irresponsible, and certainly, if we're going to talk machismo, ungentlemanly.

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