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A Gift Worth Unwrapping

I've watched and listened to the banter about proposed slashes to funding for Planned Parenthood and sexual health services here in the US with some interest these last few months. The geography was different, as was the outer skin of the cultures involved, but the rhetoric, and the way citizens' sexual health, male and female, were politicised and dragged onto the public sphere for any number of moral, religious reasons, were familiar. The larger, louder discourse was about abortion; whether federal funding is used and could be used to fund them, and if that funding should be cut. The debate happening in the background, for which abortion was only a small fragment, was if federal funding for family planning services should be cut. That would have deprived millions of underprivileged people from essential reproductive health services, including family planning consultations that prevent unwanted pregnancies, and the need for abortions in the first place. Federal funding was not eventually cut for those services, but the few weeks of raucous public debate, where people's private choices were dragged into the open, all that unecessary trauma, did its damage.

Just a few months before, the US House of Representatives was bantering about redefining rape, in large part to restrict federal funding for abortions for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, and situations where a pregnancy endangered the life of a woman. This idea, that rape has to be redefined in a spectrum of differently forcible crimes, was eventually scrapped. Again, the weeks of public debate, of the sheer insanity of even arguing that rape has degrees of devastation that can be quantified on tax forms, dragged people's private lives into the public sphere unfairly.

Underlying all this was the strong idea that the real fight wasn't against the right for an unborn child to live (or even whether it was alive or "ensouled"), but whether people had rights over their reproductive health in general. Does society have the moral obligation to step into people's private lives and scrutinise when, how and why sexual relations occurred, for everyone's safety? If one could say that what a person does with his or her sex life is private, then why is what one person does with his her or reproductive health a matter of public interest? I say public interest here in the broadest social sense, from adminstrators to voters to the people on the street with opinions to sling who won't care who gets hurt.

In Malaysia, abortions are banned except in cases where the mother's life may be in danger. Discreetly, abortions happen behind the scenes, from sympathetic doctors who can't turn their backs on mothers who for one reason or another, simply are unprepared to raise a child. Women have discovered the morning-after pill, and those with the means to do so consume it, legally, via maternity clinics, on the pretext of missed periods. Morning-after pills are far more dangerous to a woman's health in the long term than say, oral contraceptives, as the dose of hormones involved is much higher. But that's a choice some women feel compelled to make, because the social stigma attached to a child born out of wedlock, or even the idea of sex out of wedlock, leads to such high levels of social ostracisation for them and their families that it's a necessity.

I do hear the point that having sex out of wedlock is a choice, and by extension, a child resultant from that union is also the fault of the parties involved. I hear it, and I think once sex happens, it's a chicken and egg argument, one that completely bypasses the welfare of these people involved.

It doesn't matter if you believe in more progressive sexual education for youth, or abstinence, or abject religious piety as a reign on lust, once the sexual relations have happened, it's not about whose fault it is. It's whether the people involved are safe, can be kept safe and will remain safe.

And the big deal here is that sex does happen. Unwed Malaysians are having sex. The growing number of teen mothers and abandoned babies that have alarmed the religious authorities so proves it's happening with our youth. The numbers unseen, of much older, more savvy Malaysians, are not. If we get caught up in the rhetoric of why sex happens, based on whatever moral failure seems pertinent, we'll fail to address any of the causes at all.

Malaysia once had a strong public family planning programme in the 1960s, helped in large part by the Pill. That programme was 90 percent on its way to meeting national family planning targets before funding was decreased and the programme largely ignored in subsequent National Economic Policies throughout the 70s. Around the same time, Islamic fundamentalist ideology entered the public pysche in the country, growing to influence everything from the way women dress to how our children are taught national history. Family planning was an uncertain, borderline topic that may be un-Islamic to certain Muslims, even if Muslims were the main beneficiaries of family planning policies prior to that era. By the time I was born, the country was driving itself full tilt at industrialisation, which needed a workforce and consumers. The only way to get both was unmitigated childbearing. There's a certain irony here, as the Jakarta Globe article points out -- Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah, spouse of ex-Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, was one of the pioneers of the original family planning programme. Three decades later, her husband would work towards its undoing in the name of national efficiency.

By the 90s, when I was a teenager, people didn't talk about sex. Most parents, based on conversations I remember having with my peers, largely assumed we'd figure out the basics naturally. Talking about sex made you have sex. The only real dialogue people had about sex in schools from teachers involved either sanitary pads clogging up the toilets and how shameful this was to hire male plumbers for; and the exam subject Biology chapter Third and Fifth Form on the human reproductive system.

People didn't talk about contraception. This latter point is very important indeed, since Malaysia has not and never has actually ever banned contraceptives, or citizens' access to it. In fact, public family planning programmes or services never went away either -- they still exist, and as far as I know, wouldn't turn away anyone who seeks them out. The Pill and current generation contraceptives are available from health professionals, public and private. In the official Malaysian Muslim discourse, although the relevant religious authorities will largely only condone sex between married husbands and wives, family planning is actually encouraged, along with the use of IUDs and even morning-after pills for rape victims.

According to an article published in The Star on International Women's Day 2010, "the Ministry of Health recently released a national policy document allowing single and underaged girls provisional access to the Pill." This is spurred by reports in recent years that babies born out of wedlock are on the rise, with the widely understood notion that the mothers for these babies are underage teenagers. The other, unspoken reference behind having to release a new policy statement at all, since contraceptives were never legally barred from any citizen since their introduction, was to counter the notion that there were in fact restrictions on who had access to family planning services, and particularly, the Pill. The same article notes the rumours that certain health practitioners only prescribed oral contraceptives to married patients, for example, that gives the impression unmarried people did not have legal recourse to contraception, even though such practitioners were always obliged before the law to assist their patients.

In 30 years, we went from a progressive culture of reproductive health access to one of regressive silence, ignorance and the firm belief that somehow, everything will be alright if we will it to be.

Fighting that culture of silence, on the rights to reproductive health for all citizens, married or unmarried, to pursue the full breadth of options available to maintain their sexual health, to build and space their growing families as they see fit and to gain access to any information or services necessary to do these things, is a pursuit that will ultimately create a healthier society overall, as sexual health is also a part of a human being's holistic wellbeing. It is a society that will, because citizens feel empowered over their reproductive health, see a natural decline in unwanted pregnancies, which will put less strain on all citizens to pay for the effects of these unwanted pregnances materially and otherwise -- because let's face it, if anyone really wanted the children born out of wedlock, if the same people who openly denied reproductive health services to the social segments most at risk were willing to take in these unwanted children and their unwanted mothers, we wouldn't have an unwanted problem.

Family planning and the right to contraception, from both the public and private sectors, is a gift worth taking. We have it. Some countries, far bigger and far more powerful than ours, have to fight tooth and nail for it. Let's not make these rights disappear because we've forgotten.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 19th, 2011 11:18 am (UTC)
That's why I mail out packages with barrier protection to anyone on my LJ friends list who requests it.
Apr. 19th, 2011 10:16 pm (UTC)
For all the conservative ranting about the use of federal funds for abortion, it's worth noting that laws already exist prohibiting this. Snarky and cynical liberals hold this fact up to point out that conservatives are (just as cynically) manipulating their evangelical power base. That's because people have no goddamn memory these days.

It's much more simple, really: to that set of conservatives, contraception doesn't simply encourage sex, but is also a form of abortion. They fully believe that the Pill nukes and ejects fetuses.

Some liberals are also very sure that this attack on reproductive rights is an (also cynical) attempt to build a huge lower-class workforce for wage slavery, similar to the push you mentioned in Malaysia, and I could only wish that were so, because it would imply that someone had spared a thought about how to get this nation manufacturing and working again. I think it is again more simple--the urge to push the evangelical "Go forth and multiply" quiverful credo on American women.

For many social conservatives, the downfall was feminism, and reproductive freedom simply followed; I fully believe they intend to curb reproductive freedom to roll women's rights as a whole back, as part of that religious agenda.
Apr. 19th, 2011 10:39 pm (UTC)
I think you've hit the nail on the head there. The fight against abortion is also a fight against contraception, more so in fact. It's a misunderstanding, but a common one, that contraceptives destroy conceived children (by preventing implantation, in the case of oral contraceptives). Great article about that I just read today here.

I get that people are wary about making the fight against abortion in the US a fight against contraception though, because that would isolate too many people even in the conservative power base. The use of family planning tools crosses all political lines. Even religious women may use IUDs or the pill. Many women of our mother's generation, in the US or Malaysia, can remember a time when families were immensely big, when mothers risked their lives with each subsequent birth, and certainly when the size of families may have personally, actively prevented them from enjoying the care or resources smaller families offer. Simply put, without family planning tools, the economy of raising a family would be too much in this day and age.

I do think that this is why, in Malaysia, family planning is still discreetly promoted on the official line, certainly by health administrators who genuinely believe in these policies. The problem is that the social stigmas and misunderstanding related to contraception have been left unchecked as well, due to the politically sensitive nature of this subject. It's not a winning situation, but we still have public funding for family planning.

Now, if people were to talk about contraception, to make known that family planning services are available, that would help erode at least some of the resistance to accessing this right.
Apr. 19th, 2011 11:59 pm (UTC)
That's exactly it--they've gone after contraception before and found they didn't have the support they anticipated having, because religious and conservative women do use it. Also, as many pointed out, birth control pills have legitimate medical uses apart from contraception, and there's nothing like someone trying to ban your medicine because of politics to piss people off.

Many women of our mother's generation, in the US or Malaysia, can remember a time when families were immensely big, when mothers risked their lives with each subsequent birth...

YES! One thing that's renewed my faith recently is seeing old folks speak up and say, "You weren't there. I was, and I don't want my children and grandchildren to go back to that."

There's been a real effort in this direction (if I may tangent briefly) in response to the antivax parents--older folks, some polio victims, explaining what it was like to live through that epidemic, to lose their brothers and sisters, to see empty streets where kids used to play...

We youngsters forget so easily, y'know?
Apr. 20th, 2011 01:08 am (UTC)
Yeah. There's no romanticism to dying of smallpox, or any number of diseases we can vaccinate ourselves from. Likewise, losing a mother -- one of the pillars of the nuclear family the conservative right idolises -- is by far more detrimental to the family unit than the loss of a child. The loss of a parent directly lowers the viability of all the children in that family, and the viability of the family's structure itself, as one parent (and perhaps older sibilings) juggle more roles than they may naturally be able to handle.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )