Word to the Wise: Breaking Silence.

March 5, 2019
Mary Ware Dennett 1915

For centuries, despite silence around contraception and abortion, women have passed information along. They have spoken in euphemisms such as “bringing on the menses” or “taking the trade,” which meant taking a powdered abortifacient.

For contraceptives, they used condoms made of animal intestines, rubber condoms, chemical suppositories and vaginal sponges. For abortions, they have swallowed substances such as pennyroyal, tansy, ergot, and seneca snakeroot.

In the early 19th century, women considered abortion a way of restoring the menstrual cycle. It was legal until “quickening.” If contraception failed, women could go to a practitioner who specialized in performing instrumental abortions. Madame Restell was one such practitioner. She provided abortion services for 35 years in New York and later in Boston and Philadelphia.

But, as more women were able to control their fertility, more men became concerned about the “disintegration of the family.” (Does that sound familiar?) In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Law. This Act criminalized the usage of the U.S. Postal Service to send any of the following items: obscenity, contraceptives, abortifacients, sex toys, personal letters with any sexual content or information, or any information regarding the preceding items.

In 1915, Mary Ware Dennett wanted to educate her sons about sex and sexuality. She wrote a pamphlet, “The Sex Side of Life.” She based it on research and interviews with doctors. She passed it along to friends. The pamphlet included controversial topics such as masturbation, sexually transmitted diseases, and support for the use of birth control. It said nothing about abstinence. In 1918, it was published as a pamphlet for adolescents. Four years later, the Post Office informed Dennett that the pamphlet was obscene. Because of the Comstock Act, it was banned.

Dennett inquired more than once about what was considered obscene in the pamphlet. Lacking responses, she continued to mail it out. Eventually, in 1928, she was indicted. The jury, composed entirely of “middle-aged family men” convicted her. Six months later the Circuit Court of Appeals set aside the verdict. Decision: the pamphlet was not obscene. Mrs. Dennett was released from her bond.

Now, 90 years later, we are still fighting. We fight for what healthcare providers and sex educators can say. The Title X Domestic Gag Rule makes it illegal for providers in the program to tell patients how they can safely and legally access abortion. That includes doctors, nurses, hospitals, and community health centers. Title X sex education curriculums push people toward abstinence programs or “fertility awareness methods” like the rhythm method.

The difference today is that women are no longer willing to be silent! We will protest against these actions at the federal and state levels. So, watch out world! Women and girls, old and young, are speaking out about these personal matters. Let us GRR together!

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