Society and the law need to respect women’s choices

“What does a woman want?” – Sigmund Freud

Freud’s question obviously has many answers. Some women are happy with their role as wife and mother, the picture that some men still have of “the perfect woman.”

My mother, who was born in 1903, decided her future when she was just 8. She told me that she asked her third-grade teacher what they had just read. “That is a story” was the teacher’s reply.

“No, what is it called when you study all sorts of stories?”

“That’s called ‘literature.’”

“When I grow up, I want to teach literature.” And she did for almost 40 years in the Philadelphia Public Schools.

She graduated from high school at 16. Her father believed that the woman’s place was in the home, so he disapproved of higher education for my mother. Nevertheless, she went through teacher training with no support from her family. She had to be top in her class to receive one of only two scholarships. At age 18, she was teaching a class of 40 fourth-graders.

During the last century, a woman’s role in U.S. society has changed drastically. For example, when I entered medical school in 1965, there were only six women in my class of 125. Now, there are equal numbers of men and women in medical schools. My specialty, OB/GYN, used to be ruled by men, but now women make up the preponderance.

More important, women increasingly take leadership roles. Whereas males used to preside over politics, we’re seeing more and more women in Denver and Washington, D.C. Many captains of industry and of education are now women. Indeed, it was Dr. Dene Thomas, the first female president of Fort Lewis College, who inspired this column.

In our country, the movement for women’s suffrage started in the late 19th century. Colorado was early in recognizing a woman’s right to vote – in 1893!

This movement ended in 1920 with passage of the 19th Amendment to our Constitution. It reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Unfortunately, there are still people who think that a woman’s place is at home, and women must be subservient to men. Some candidates in the last election came up with some really stupid statements.

“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” As a specialist in reproductive health, I am not sure what “that whole thing” refers to, but I suspect that Todd Akin, last year’s unsuccessful Republican candidate for Missouri’s U.S. Senate seat, was referring to a woman’s ability to conceive.

Thirty years ago, I investigated a statement in the anti-abortion literature. Anti-abortion people maintained that women don’t get pregnant from rape. I tracked down this untruth to a statement that 200 women who had been raped were followed and none of them conceived.

The man who started this falsehood admitted to me that it had no basis in reality. The reality is that rape often leads to pregnancy.

Last fall, the Republican Senate candidate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, said: “When life begins with that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” Was he implying that God intended the rape to happen?

Akin and Mourdock disagree whether rape can result in pregnancy. I cannot agree with either of their attitudes toward women. Neither could 55 percent of female voters, according to exit polls at the November election, because a large majority of women voted for Democratic candidates. How could Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have tolerated being associated with these clowns?

Fortunately, President Obama has recognized the importance of contraception to America’s women. Starting in 2012, all insurance plans must pay for any birth control without copayment. This mandate has the great promise of decreasing our atrociously high rate of unplanned pregnancies, and of slowing growth of our population.

Why do women value family-planning services? They say that access to contraception allows them to take better care of themselves and of their families, helps them support themselves financially, and permits them to complete their education and to be employable. This information is from a recent survey of more than 2,000 women using family planning clinics across the country.

Obama has just been inaugurated for his second term of office. His popularity confirms that people want a change from archaic concepts of the role of women. We want health care for all, freedom to access contraception and, when necessary, safe abortion services.

Richard Grossman practices gynecology in Durango. Reach him at richard@population-matters.org. © Richard Grossman MD, 2013.