by Ellen Walker
On this dark day for women’s rights to reproductive health, choice, and privacy, I cry for American women of reproductive age, but I also weep more private tears for my mother, Lena Levine, who joined Margaret Sanger as a young medical intern and worked with her in the early days of what would become The Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
She devoted most of her life to giving women control over their bodies, from decriminalizing contraception to educating women about their sexual and reproductive rights. My tears for her are guilty ones: I, and my generation, were unable to hold fast to those principles of equality and justice for women which her generation fought so hard to establish and secure.
My mother’s generation of pioneers labored under the shadow of what were known as the “Comstock Laws,” named for Anthony Comstock, a firebrand conservative and moralist who succeeded in convincing politicians and judges that any kind of sexual relations without the intention of making a baby were obscene, hence laws which criminalized the manufacture, sale and use of contraceptives. Margaret Sanger’s insistence on dispensing birth control information and procedures put her in jail.
Imagine, if you will a world in which abortion is illegal as is the use of birth control. That was the world into which my mother was born. She feared that the aim of those laws was to keep women “barefoot and pregnant.” Thanks to her, it was not my world, although when she died in 1965, the use of contraceptives was illegal in two states, and I was living in one of them. We bought ours in the state next door and then broke the law by using them. That year, in Griswald vs. Connecticut, that law was struck down. Abortion was still a distant dream.
My mother imparted to her daughter many bits of wisdom and many expressions of assurance and affection. One she repeated often, was “You were a wanted child. We planned for you.” That’s what “planned parenthood” is, and what assures that children will be cherished. I felt loved and cherished, even as my mother pursued her admirable and time consuming career in pursuit of women’s autonomy and control of their bodies.
We labored along the paths they established and we extended those routes as far as achieving abortion itself, almost an impossible dream for the early birth control advocates.
Now, not only have we lost legal protection of the right to an abortion, but also, in an entirely gratuitous note in Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion, he tries to link the use of contraception to eugenics and racism with an eye to re-criminalizing even the use of birth control. Anthony Comstock rides again, and my mother’s legacy will be erased along with any rights women might have besides the right — perhaps we should say obligation — to procreate. A woman’s rights end at conception, and soon conception may not be a choice.
My mother fulfilled her obligation to me and my generation of women and men in America and internationally, making our lives better, healthier and more fulfilling, and giving more children the chance for a safe, healthy life. I thought we had accepted the obligation to continue the struggle, and we had. But today those gains, and perhaps even those made by my mother along with many other brave men and women, have been wiped out or are in a shudderingly precarious state.
What does one generation owe, not only to future ones, something I can barely contemplate at this moment, but to the preceding one? At the very least to protect their legacy. We have failed. I feel not just anger and fear, but guilt. This decision is, for me, personal, private, piercing. We couldn’t keep the road open, and I couldn’t pass on my mother’s gifts to me. I feel, as a result, a very personal, private, and piercing guilt as well as deep grief. I’m sorry mom, so sorry.
It is a sad and sorry time, But we have not given up. We will fight back. It is our debt, and our obligation to the past and the future.
Lena Levine earned her MD in Obstetrics and Gynecology, one of 25 women in her medical school class of 400. She worked at the Margaret Sanger Bureau in New York through its long history to becoming the Research Center for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, developing and dispensing contraceptives, overseeing clinics, working with international doctors from countries without contraceptive facilities. Read more here.
Ellen Walker is Professor Emerita of the Department of English at California State University, Chico, and founder of WORD: Women on Reproductive Defense, a local group that has, since 2017, worked to support and defend a woman’s right to choose.