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America’s old and new abortion debate

Despite revolutionary changes in social attitudes and medical science, our modern debate about reproductive rights recalls much earlier battles. Last fall, Kate Manning published “My Notorious Life” (Scribner), an exciting historical novel loosely based on a 19th-century midwife named Ann Lohman, who was harassed for performing abortions in New York. To mark the paperback release of Manning’s novel next week, I asked her to comment on American attitudes about reproductive rights — then and now.

The following is an edited version of our correspondence.

How were women’s and children’s lives affected in the late 19th century by the unavailability of contraception and abortion?

To understand what it was like for women in the late 19th century, all you have to do is read a few of the 250,000 desperate letters that mothers wrote to Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer, asking for help to keep from getting pregnant. They’re heartbreaking in their detail and anguish. Repeat pregnancies could wreck a woman’s health, subject her to domestic abuse, ruin a family. Each new mouth to feed in a family that couldn’t afford it directly impacted the health and welfare of the rest of the children. As one woman wrote, after six kids, “I am thirty-three, but I feel like I’m sixty-three. I am almost a prisoner.” Another one asked, “Is there any use in living?” because she couldn’t care for all her kids. In New York City, there were 35,000 homeless children sleeping on the streets.

When you read the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case, did anything about it strike you as similar to the kinds of arguments that were being made more than 100 years ago?

The terms of our modern debate were set in the 1870s. Religious interests and business interests still trump the interests of women.

The 19th-century crusaders made no distinction between birth control and abortion. They believed all birth control was abortion. The Hobby Lobby owners also believe that certain forms of birth control amount to abortifacients. In 2014, this notion is still not scientific fact; it’s a religious belief. Yet the courts said that this particular religious belief — not a woman’s own belief, but her employer’s — takes precedence over her ability to make her own family-planning decisions. Hiding behind “freedom of religion” when what is really meant is “my religion trumps a woman’s freedom” is an old trick.

Five male justices wrote the Hobby Lobby decision affecting women’s access to some forms of birth control. Was it ever thus?

In “My Notorious Life,” a midwife-abortionist is put on trial. For that scene, I borrowed dialogue directly from actual transcripts of a real-life 1870s trial. The midwife and a woman coerced into testifying against her were the only women in the courtroom. The other witnesses were all men. The journalists who put the story in the sensationalized headlines were all men. Women did not then have the vote, couldn’t own property or keep their own money.

In 2014, by contrast, there are three women on the Supreme Court, and women are covering the story. Women will be voting on this issue.

But, yes, the five justices who wrote the Hobby Lobby decision are all men, and also, interestingly, all Catholic. Is their faith irrelevant? Maybe, but not if history is the guide. Religion has always been at the heart of the reproductive rights debate. The anti-birth-control laws grew out of church law with Puritan roots — the idea that, as Anthony Comstock said, “lust” was the “boon companion of all other crime.” He and other religious men were among the founders of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, responsible for the so-called “Comstock laws,” making it illegal to send anything “obscene” through the U.S. mail. Way back in 1873, they defined birth control and abortion or any information about it as “obscenity” because they believed it encouraged prostitution. But they gave zero recognition of the dangers to a woman’s health that were caused by pregnancy.

Do you see the spirit of Anthony Comstock alive in American culture and politics today?

Comstock is kind of a “whack-a-mole” figure in American life. He’s popped up all over the place in our times — recently, in the form of guys like Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, who is now out with a new memoir that says abortion is a greater moral evil than slavery and questions whether women claim rape just to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is another Comstockian figure. He recently made the surreal statement that the proposed Women’s Health Protection Act guaranteeing access to family-planning clinics is part of a “War on Women.”

Comstock has been reincarnated in the form of certain male members of the Supreme Court, who hide behind “freedom of religion” to declare that religion is free to decide for women. Justice Samuel Alito, for example, wrote that employers’ religious exemption “only applies to contraception” for women and not other religiously controversial medical decisions, like vaccines. If that’s not Comstockian, what is?

The 56 percent of House Republicans who support “personhood amendments” are also Comstockian folk. Such “life begins at conception” laws would turn women into criminals for having an abortion, for using an IUD or Plan B (the “morning-after pill”) or in some cases, for undergoing in-vitro fertilization or even for having a miscarriage. Would these laws put women on trial, as they were in the 1870s — shamed and interrogated about their family and sex lives?

While it’s depressing to see how stuck we still are in the past, it’s important to remember that contrary to our image of uniformly prim Victorians, there were journalists like D.M. Bennett, midwives like Ann Lohman, activists like Margaret Sanger and many regular Americans working to improve public health by giving women the right to make decisions for themselves. Recent legislation and court verdicts are alarming, and we should all — men and women — be freaked out at just what we are losing as the Comstockians have their way.

The debate about access to contraception and abortion is certainly passionate, but has it grown a little abstract since fewer people can remember a time when such things weren’t readily available?

Our mothers and grandmothers remember, but because they were taught to be ashamed, they don’t talk about it — women thrown out on the street for having sex, for being raped; women hurting themselves and risking their lives to end an unwanted pregnancy.

Going back to Homer, men have told war stories. Culturally, right now, we need the equivalent of women’s war stories — of fertility and birth, labor and delivery, and all that these entail — because we forget them at our own peril. Go ask your granny for a story about birth control in her day; write down what she says.

There are organizations, like Exhale Pro-Voice and the Sea Change Program, designed to change the polarized conversation around abortion by having women tell their stories and listen to all sides without judgment. Unlike polemical signs with pictures of anonymous dead babies, stories carry emotion and nuance and specifics, and they bring the debate down from strident rhetoric to a human scale, where there can be empathy.

In your novel, an experienced practitioner of abortions tells the Ann Lohman character, “A midwife must keep comfortable with the complexities.” Is that the heart of today’s impasse: the difficulty of tolerating the moral complexities of real people’s lives and desires in our stridently polarized political system? Can you see any potential for peace on this issue?

Tolerating the “gray area” is difficult for people who crave absolutes and want to impose their own views on others, so it’s hard to see how there will be peace on this issue. But life is messy. We often hear the expression that a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. Might it be true that a liberal — on matters of reproductive rights — is a conservative whose mistress has gotten pregnant, whose wife might die if she doesn’t terminate a pregnancy, whose daughter has been raped? The complexities are most apparent when the crisis is happening to you, and not some anonymous person you can judge in the abstract. And that’s because it’s only when you are immersed in the emotion of a personal story, the visceral experience of a particular woman in a particular predicament, that you can grapple on the middle ground between absolute right and absolute wrong and decide what’s best for you and your family.

The truth is, women do a very good job grappling with the complexities of their own lives, making decisions for themselves and their families, with their own doctors’ advice. It’s only when outsiders try to ignore those complexities, try to shame women, sensationalize a very sacred and important choice for political purposes, and issue blanket rules that take control over a woman’s personal decisions, that women’s lives, dignity and health are endangered.

Peace may come as a new generation sees what they stand to lose, when abortion and birth control are restricted, and they vote this current crop of Comstocks out of office.