Bad old days of women’s health
NORTHAMPTON — Coming to a PBS station near you this month is a BBC TV series entitled “Call the Midwife.” Reported by UK friends to be “a smash hit” and compelling viewing, it tells the true story of a young British nurse midwife working with the poorest of poor women and their families in the East End of London in the 1950s.
In anticipation of seeing the six-part series for myself, I have been reading the memoir on which the TV episodes are based.
“Call the Midwife,” the book, by Jennifer Worth, makes for compelling reading. Set in the London Docklands, an area heavily destroyed by bombs in World War II, Worth graphically describes the slum tenements where families, often with 13 or 14 children, one even with 25, lived in crowded and unsanitary conditions.
In the midst of this, she and her colleagues of a Church of England Order of Nuns, who are all trained nurse midwives, devoted themselves to safe childbirth at home. They also provided basic information on health care, hygiene and nutrition for the women in their care. Life choices were few for these women. Despite the fledgling National Health Service in Britain at that time, they had little access to resources for healthy living. Contraception was unreliable, abortion illegal and when it occurred, as it did, frequently unsafe and deadly.
Worth goes on to describe how all of this changed in the early 1960s, when the oral contraceptive pill was introduced, and then other reliable and effective contraception made available and birth control clinics established.
She writes, “In the late 1950s we had 80 to 100 deliveries on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to 4 or 5 a month. Now that is some social change!”
Worth’s is a powerful, moving and yet in many ways chilling picture of another world for women. One that is, and this is amazing to ponder, only some 50 years ago.
Chilling is also the world I would use to describe my response to a recent bumper sticker I saw on a car in front of me the other day: “At least the war on women is going well” it read.
This prompted thoughts about the gripping stories of the women in “Call the Midwife,” the recent policy statements on women and health care at the Republican National Convention and a sinking feeling of how gains of the last 50 years for women of all economic backgrounds, when it comes to choices and access to reliable, consistent and safe reproductive health care, could easily slip away.
Being free is a value that we hold dear in these United States and politicians of every stripe hold this up as an ideal. But to paraphrase Margaret Sanger, a pioneer of the birth-control movement in this country, “How can any women be free when she is not able to choose when and if to be a mother?”
We are heading into the final days of the presidential election. There is a stark contrast between the two candidates with regard to their policies for women.
I would urge all women, young and old, and their loved ones, to think very carefully about their vote. In many ways, this vote is a decision to continue the progress women have made over the past 50 years, or to return to a version of that chilling world so powerfully described in Jennifer Worth’s “Call the Midwife.”
Jenny Fleming is a certified nurse midwife. She lives in Northampton and has worked in the field of women’s reproductive health for over 30 years.