An ugly uproar can turn positive if you go back far enough to remember when things were worse, much worse.
For a women’s magazine editor of that time, the Planned Parenthood-Komen Foundation furor recalls half a century from introduction of the Pill when women, no matter what their circumstances, were without safe, reliable birth control and, before Roe v. Wade, had the choice of bearing unwanted children or being butchered by back-alley abortions.
From the start, those new alternatives, sanctioned by both science and government, were fiercely opposed by those of strong religious beliefs, who were not above using scare tactics to discourage their use. Ever since, women’s bodies have been a political battleground
By 1965, with five million women on the Pill after five years on the market, there was no reliable research about side effects and possible long-term dangers. As editor of McCalls, I put up $15,000 to find out what members of the American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists were seeing in their practices. They distributed a detailed questionnaire and analyzed the results.
Almost 7,000 gynecologists answered, and the overwhelming majority found oral contraceptives safe and effective. There were a few doubts that would become subjects of later study, but the clear result was to allay women’s fears about the Pill that were being spread by whispers.
In the early 1970s, Betty Ford was in the White House. Undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer, she spoke about it in public and wrote an article for me to encourage women to go for early screening.
Back then, a generalized fear of the unknown bound both surgeons and patients into accepting radical breast removal as the only acceptable choice. But Dr. William Nolen, a surgeon who wrote a monthly column for the magazine, reported on the effectiveness of less drastic lumpectomies, combined with radiation and chemotherapy.
This was followed by the account of a writer who tracked down the surgeon pioneering the treatment: “I said 'No' to a group of doctors who told me, 'You must sign this paper, you don't have to know what it's all about'" Her article brought an overwhelming response, although it took decades to turn around the medical profession to where it is now, saving untold numbers of women from automatic loss of parts of their bodies.
This week’s flurry of outrage, which has resulted in a rapid reversal, will leave behind not only bruised feelings but a spike in awareness of the need for cancer screening, contributions to both organizations involved and a heightened sensitivity about keeping zealots out of potential life-and-death decisions.
For someone who has seen it all, that’s some progress, although it does not answer the underlying question of how people who claim to be pro-life can be so fierce in protecting fetuses, while giving their support to politicians who “don’t care about the poor” and rail against a “a food-stamp president” in stigmatizing the needs of those children after they are born.