Friday, June 22, 2012

Republicans Regulating Vaginas

If that isn’t a title to catch your attention, I don’t know what is!  This past week the word “vagina” certainly caught the headlines of major newspapers across the United States.  Michigan House Representative Lisa Brown was silenced for saying the word “vagina” in the House.  She was attempting to speak against a host of restrictive pieces of legislation that will make abortion in Michigan almost completely inaccessible.  Since then, a lot of progressive women and men have been speaking in support of Rep. Brown and the many others who are challenging the legislation and the supposed moral values that have led to its creation.

This morning I attended a press conference at the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis.  This Jewish synagogue has been at the forefront in witnessing to progressive moral values since it was founded under the leadership of Rabbi Susan Talve.  The press conference was hosted by State Rep. Stacey Newman (D) for the purposes of pressuring Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (D) to veto S.B.749, which attempts to supersede federal law and deny access to birth control and sterilization for women that work for an employer that has a “moral” objection to birth control.  The Governor has until July 14 to veto the bill or allow it to become law.
Thousands of us have been signing petitions to pressure the governor to veto this horrible bill, that allows an employer to decide whether the insurance provided to his/her employees will cover birth control.  This legislation will take what should be a private decision and makes it an employer’s prerogative.
I think it’s absolutely shameful that in the 21st century we still need to fight this battle.  Honestly, any church can proclaim whatever values they want.   I don’t care if a church says that birth control is a sin.  It’s their right.  That’s what freedom of conscience is about.  That’s what being in a democracy is about.  But no person should be able to force their religious values on another person.  That’s also what democracy is about.
Nothing has supported women’s equality more than access to birth control.  It has been one of the most important steps our society has taken to give women control over their lives.  It allows women to pursue higher education, career development, and to plan the spacing of children.  And, studies show that affordable access to birth control is the most effective way of decreasing the number of unplanned pregnancies and the number of abortions.   It seems pretty logical, doesn’t it?  But somehow, I don’t believe logic has anything to do with what the Republicans are doing now.
If this was about logic, this legislation would not exist.  The term “war on women” has become very prevalent in the news.  There have been many attempts to discredit this term from the Republican side.  But, given that the pursuit of their “moral values” is clearly irrational, then I think this is absolutely a war on women.  I think that what is being uncovered is the strong underbelly of sexism that never disappeared with the advent of the women’s movement.  It went underground, and is now reappearing, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  There are still strong pockets, mostly men and some women, who are deeply uncomfortable with women who are not under the control of men.  That’s it, pure and simple.  Somehow our equality, our ability to make decisions about our lives, our bodies, outside of the influence of men, is still deeply disturbing and it’s becoming more acceptable to express this discomfort in American culture and have it taken seriously.
One of the ways we take this culture back is by telling our stories.  How has birth control changed our lives?  How has it allowed us to make the decisions we needed to make?  It is time for millions of women to tell their stories.  And I’m gonna start by telling mine.  I know I’m a minister and that some of my parishioners are going to read this. I also know that some of my family may read this.  This may be a TMI (too much information) for some of you.  But really, all of us, every woman who wants for her daughters and grand daughters a world that will honor and respect them, needs to tell her story.   The culture that would say this is a TMI is the culture that silences us, that keeps our daughters and granddaughters from getting the information they deserve, it keeps the secrecy and the shame alive and leaves women vulnerable.   This is the same culture that is shaming Rep. Brown for saying “vagina” in the Michigan House of Representatives and that denied Rep. Stacey the right to speak on this legislation in the House.
So, I’m telling a bit of my story.  This is how we reclaim our place, a place that is being threatened by legislation like SB749.
Here goes.
I became sexually active at 16.   I was, admittedly, too young.  I should have waited, but hindsight is 20/20.   Fortunately, I had some sex education in the public school system between the ages of 10 and 16. It wasn’t the best education. It was age appropriate and very technical.  In high school, mostly it consisted of slide presentations of what happens to a body ravaged by different sexually transmitted diseases.  Our teachers emphasized the importance of using a condom to protect against these STDs.  I didn’t get any education about self-respect, how to say yes, how to say no, and how to know when it’s the right time.  But I did know that I sure didn’t want any of those diseases!  And I knew I did not want to become pregnant.  I wanted to go to university and be a career woman.  My plan was to finish my education and have my career going by the age of 28-30. I wanted two children in my 30s, while building my career.  I never planned to stop working.
When I made the decision to become sexually active, I may not have been emotionally mature enough, but I was intellectually smart enough to do my homework and make sure I had the form of birth control that I thought would work best for me.  The sex education I received may have been technical, but it gave me the information I needed.
At first I used condoms because I was afraid to go to our family doctor and get birth control pills.  I think that part of my reasoning included that I could tell myself that I wasn’t really fully sexually active.  I had condoms in case it happened.   Using the birth control pills meant that I expected it to happen and that I was a fully sexually active person.  I wasn’t ready to see myself that way.  I think deep down I was ashamed of being sexually active, and using condoms allowed me to see myself as only partly sexually active, and thus, more moral.
I am amazed now when I look back at myself in that time.  Self-perception is so important and we make all kinds of decisions not even aware of how our unconscious feelings and beliefs shape our lives
That lasted about two years, and I became more comfortable seeing myself as a sexually active person.  I wanted to be even more safe.  I decided I wanted to go on the birth control pill.  I made a visit to see my family doctor, the same doctor that cared for our whole family – my mother, father, three brothers and myself.  I was scared to see him.  I’d never had an internal exam and I didn’t know if he would feel obliged to tell my family.  I had the courage to ask the secretary when I called about confidentiality and she assured me that my doctor would not tell my parents unless I wanted him to.
I really did not want my parents to know, so I asked to borrow the car to go to school that day, saying I had some kind of meeting after school.  I really hoped that would work.  Unfortunately, my mother said she needed the car, and she would be happy to pick me up from school.  So now I was in a dilemma.  Was I going to lie to my mother or tell her the truth?  I decided to tell her.  I think she went as white as a sheet.  I was so very afraid of her judgment.  She was quiet for a while, and then she swallowed hard, and said to me, “Well, I raised you to be responsible and to be independent.  And you’re obviously being independent in a responsible way, so I will take you to the doctor.”
Bless my mother.  Honestly, I was relieved she knew.  I felt like I was carrying a big bad secret, and deep down, truth be told, there was in me the deep conditioning that “good girls” didn’t do this.  ”Good girls” didn’t have sex before marriage. Having her know, and tell me I was responsible, was a big deal.  I don’t think she knew what a big deal it was, but I have never forgotten it.
There is one thing I do regret, however, and that is that I did not tell my father.  I wish I had but I was too scared to.    I wish I had trusted him enough to share with him.  Not telling him was more about me than about him.  But, it was also my right to make that decision. Luckily there was no law that would force me, a minor, to get my father’s consent to get the birth control pill.
So I went on the pill.   I was on the pill from 17 to 21, four years.  In high school, I paid for my birth control out of pocket from money I earned during the summer.  I think it was about $20 a month.  (Prescription meds are much cheaper in Canada than the U.S.)  Then I went to university.  Both universities I attended offered birth control free to all their female students.  This was great because of course, as a student, I was on a limited income, and even the $20 a month would have been hard.  My parents were not in a position to help us pay for university so I was on my own.  I always worked full time in the summer, often had a part time job during the school year, got a whole series of paid internships, and took out student loans.  Getting my birth control for free was a god send.  It meant I had more money for groceries.
And I never got pregnant.  Not even one scare.   I could focus on my education, and I could have relatively stress free intimacy.
I think it’s also important to say that I had a lot of trouble with the birth control pill.  Some women have absolutely no problem with it.  I was not one of those women.  My hormones were all over the place.  I gained a lot of weight.  I got sick with a lot of feminine issues.  I finally spoke to my doctor about using a different form of birth control.  The doctor was resistant, with good reason.  Young women who are not on birth control have a much higher rate of unplanned pregnancies and abortions.  She did not want me to face that possibility. But in the end, we explored other ways for me to have safer sex.  I went off the birth control pill and decided to use condoms and a diaphragm with spermicide jelly.
Now I debated whether to include this because I am afraid that anti-choice forces will use this to bolster their case that birth control pills are dangerous for women.  But I’m not going to sugar coat the truth.  Birth control works for a lot of women with relatively few side effects.  It didn’t work so well in my body.  I also believe that it was my choice and my call to make decisions about my health.  My decision was between me and my doctor and no politician had any place in that process.  I had the right to try birth control pills and the right to make the decision to use another form of birth control.  There is nothing that needs to be legislated in that process.
I used the diaphragm and spermicide jelly for the next several years.  I had some scares, when I’d had none with the pill.  The diaphragm is a much more risky form of birth control.  But luckily I never got pregnant.  Then it became apparent that I was allergic to the jelly.  I went back to only condoms.  Then I decided to come out and by the age of 31 I was no longer engaged in intimate relationships with men.  At this time birth control was no longer necessary for me.  However, safer sex was necessary because you still have to protect yourself from STDs, and that became my priority.  Luckily I was in Toronto, a very cosmopolitan liberal city, and the women’s community had many resources to help me understand and practice safer sex, which I did until I entered into a monogamous relationship with my partner of 10 years, who I am now married to.
From the age of 16, I had doctors who listened to me, advised and counseled me, who treated me with respect and worked with me to ensure that I was fully informed and able to make decisions about my own reproductive health.  I had a university system that ensured I had access to birth control so that I could fully devote myself to my education.  I learned to trust myself and my ability to make those decisions.  I had a larger community and family that also supported me.   All of this became an interdependent web that helped me to make wise decisions about my reproductive health.
And in the meantime, I was able to explore, with relative safety, who I was as a sexual being.  This journey is already so scary and such a vulnerable thing.  Birth control gave me some safety so I could explore who I was, who I wanted to love and who I wanted to have love me back.  It allowed me the safety to learn boundaries, how to say yes and how to say no, all without the threat of having to put everything I wanted on the back burner because I got pregnant.  It saved me from the possibility of having to make the difficult decision of whether to carry a pregnancy to term or to end it.  I never had to make that heart wrenching decision, thank God.
I was valued as a woman and as a human being.  This is the most spiritual thing of all.  In my opinion, God appears in those places of respect and worth, whether in our own hearts or between people.  This is where God happens, and God happened in the whole series of institutional and personal support that I received as a young woman making decisions about my reproductive health.
This is what women are still asking for today.  This is what so many conservatives are trying to take away from us, the worth and dignity that is inherently ours, that is a god given beautiful thing.
Governor Nixon, veto the damn bill.  Every woman in Missouri needs you to do that.  I’m really sorry you’ve been put in this place because this issue should never be thrown in a politician’s lap.  It doesn’t belong there.   But, this is where we are, and where you are, so you’ve got a job to do.  I suggest you do it.  We are counting on you.
-Rev. Krista Taves