Witches, midwives, & reproductive freedom

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Are you a good witch, or a bad one?

Historically speaking, this was a trick question, with no hope of a Halloween treat. During the time of the European witch hunts, you were condemned to death either way.

It was a battle by the patriarchy against pre-Christian, communal traditions in which women were leaders and carriers of culture. Some of the accused were healers. In 1621, Robert Burton wrote that good witches will “help almost all infirmities of body and mind.” Local practitioners had time-tested herbal remedies to relieve pain, help in digestion and reduce inflammation. Some were midwives, who could relieve the pain of childbirth, and knew what plants to use for birth control and abortion.

Quite good witches, indeed! Yet these very skills condemned them in the eyes of their persecutors.

Age of Reason? A war on witches flourished between the 1400s and 1700s, from feudalism to the Age of Enlightenment. While Sir Isaac Newton was publishing his works on gravity and the motions of the planets, people in England were being hanged for witchcraft.

When the accused had healing abilities, it was a double loss. Peasants, almost universally illiterate, passed down their knowledge by word of mouth. So burning healers was akin to burning a human library. By the end of the terror, most of Western herbal medicine was destroyed.

The poor and powerless didn’t stand a chance against a slaughter sponsored by wealthy Catholic and Protestant leaders and god-appointed authorities.

Time eventually passed. And the iron-grip of the nobility and the Church was replaced by the rising capitalist class. There were only limited benefits to women. Both old bosses and new ones agreed on the need to keep females oppressed. And one of the best ways to do this was to control their sexuality and reproduction.

Doctors versus midwives. The murder of midwives and healers in Europe helped the rise of professional physicians. Over the centuries, the status of doctors grew in Europe. Both the nobility and the emerging, wealthy bourgeois class saw being attended to by a doctor as a status symbol.

For a time in the United States, midwives and “irregular” or homeopathic doctors flourished. In part, they filled a much-needed medical void because there were few “regular” doctors. In addition, they were often safer. Professional doctors and their extreme practices — such as therapeutic bleeding and huge doses of mercury-laced laxatives and opium — could leave patients permanently harmed or dead.

The factions fought it out in the early 1800s for the hearts and minds of the U.S. public. It was unclear who would emerge victorious until the rise of the American Medical Association (AMA) in the 1850s. The AMA set out to systematically destroy the competition, and damn near succeeded.

In the early 1900s, the vast majority of births in the U.S. were at home, many with a midwife in attendance. In state after state, the AMA, aided and abetted by politicians, conducted a smear campaign and lobbied for heavy restrictions on midwives. They were labeled as ignorant, untrained and incompetent. Shockingly reminiscent of earlier times, Black midwives in the South were sometimes accused of witchcraft.

The end result? By the 1950s, over 95 percent of all births were in hospitals with doctors in attendance. An industry was born. Today, hospitals advertise special birthing wings. Babies are big business!

Our bodies, our lives. The fallout from the witch hunts still haunts us today. Women lost the rights over their own bodies and sexuality. Homosexuality and gender deviation were deemed wicked. Witches were condemned for being sexual beings. All carnal urges, male and female, were women’s fault. In the 21st century, women are still too often asked what they did to deserve harassment and rape.

The 1970s feminist movement fought to change that. Feminists organized against rape, demanded safe, legal abortion, birth control and an end to forced sterilization. Radicals called for broad, inclusive reproductive freedoms. Midwives, while small in numbers, pushed for women to be able to give birth naturally and for fathers to be let into delivery rooms. They held birthing classes and revived breastfeeding for the health of the newborn and mother.

The current battles. Today, women are still fighting for the right to call their bodies their own.

Right-wing politicians, religious fanatics and billionaire owners of craft stores (i.e., Hobby Lobby) all feel they have a right to tell a woman where, when and how many children she will bear. They cry buckets of tears for the unborn and claim, like the witch-hunters of old, that they are only doing god’s work.

The fetus fetishists demand an end to abortion but don’t want to pay for pre-natal care, or provide housing, food and education for the born. In the U.S., the infant mortality rate is a national disgrace and the maternal mortality rate is rising. Once again, it’s predominately poor parents and women of color who are hardest hit. Enough already.

We need affordable health care for all. Instead, politicians give us vitriol. Republican congressmen are currently holding a hate-filled, House Judiciary Meeting entitled, “Examining the Horrific Abortion Practices at the Nation’s Largest Abortion Provider.” Yeah, that’s going to be fair and balanced. The goal is to convince voters that women would be better off without Planned Parenthood, an organization that serves almost 3 million clients a year. It’s Orwellian.

Radical Women calls for unrestricted abortion and birth control on demand. We call for free, quality prenatal care, and birth choices including midwives and doulas. How about paid parental leave for at least six months and job-site childcare paid by the employer?

Practically speaking, it would cost far less and benefit society far more than what has already been spent on the sham war on drugs, wars for oil, and bailing out Wall Street banksters.

Halloween is the witches’ New Year. Let’s resolve to rededicate ourselves to the fight for reproductive justice and the liberation of all parents, all genders and all children.

Send feedback to Bernadette Logue at FSnews@socialism.com.

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