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Deena Bess Sherman

Deena Bess Sherman is a columnist for the Beacon News and mother in Aurora, Illinois

June 29th, 2012 4:11 PM

Anthony Comstock Would Be Proud

Anthony Comstock would be so proud!  When House Speaker James Bolger and Majority Leader, Jim Stamas, silenced Representative Lisa Brown in the Michigan Legislature for using the word, "vagina," I couldn't stop thinking about Comstock--head of the New York Society for Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) and author of the 1873 Comstock Laws which forbade the discussion of contraception. I'm sure Comstock was applauding from wherever he was sent in the afterlife for all of his hard work to ensure women's voices were never heard and their bodies were not their own.

So much has changed since 1873, yet so much has stayed the same. Women now have the right to vote, they even hold high public office, and birth control is far more accessible, yet it seems some men would still like to impose their legal will on women's bodies without giving women so much as the opportunity to speak.

We saw it last February when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, refused to let a woman address the all-male panel that was discussing whether religious groups had to offer health insurance which included contraception. A week later, when Sandra Fluke was allowed to speak to another policy committee on the topic, Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut" and other derogatory names. It feels like being transported in a time machine to watch women being subjected to ridicule and name-calling for speaking out to defend choices they thought they had won the right to make for themselves long ago.

A century ago, Comstock spoke for the NYSSV which was basically a political action committee, founded by wealthy New Yorkers to lobby for legislation which would impose their idea of morality on everyone. Their idea of morality included making sure women were powerless to limit their families through any sort of birth control. Women were not even allowed to have basic information about contraception.

But a nurse named Margaret Sanger had watched too many women die from the exhaustion of bearing too many children, hemorrhaging after a self-induced abortions, or the hunger and poverty that usually accompanied very large families. So she stood up to Comstock and tried to give information about contraception to the women who so desperately begged for it, some with their dying breaths.

She used biologically correct words like "vagina" and for her trouble was called immoral and indecent (and probably "slut"), and ultimately had to leave the country to avoid spending the rest of her days in prison. In the end, she won the right to give women the information they needed to plan families rather than spending their childbearing years perpetually pregnant.

Is this what we're rushing backward toward? A world where men can tell women their opinions don't count when discussing their own bodies? A world where women are forced to bear the children of their rapists? A world where religious authorities can impose their values on people who don't even choose to follow that religion.

Lisa Brown is Jewish. If you listen to her entire speech in context, you will see that she makes an excellent theological point about how, historically in Judaism, the life of the mother took precedence over the life of the fetus. She also noted that she was not trying to impose her religion on anyone else and would prefer that others would give her the same consideration.

In recent months there has been an unprecedented push on both the state and federal levels to limit the availability of birth control and send abortion back to the days of coat hangers in back alleys. Make no mistake--if it becomes illegal here, it only means rich women will go elsewhere and poor women will die. Women know this and have been standing up all over the country to say--in the words of Lisa Brown and spirit of Margaret Sanger-- "I'm flattered that you're so interested in my vagina, but no still means no."

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