At Sunday dinner today, my mom shared a story about a woman in the German farm village where she grew up.
This woman and her family, like my mother’s, were ethnic German refugees from Yugoslavia, who came up around 1944, when the Russians invaded the Vojvodina province where the Germans had lived for some 200 years. The woman had two sons, about the same age as my mom and her younger sister. And she had a husband who, not to put too fine a point on it, was ein richtiger Mistbock–a real fucking bastard.
Every day at noon, whether she felt like it or not, the woman’s husband demanded sex of her. If she protested, he beat her. She was his wife, and that’s what she was there for–so ran his reasoning. He had “needs”. Her job was to cater to them. Period. End of discussion.
After two children, the woman decided that she didn’t want another; they were not rich, after all. The war had been over for three or four years; they were refugees; times were hard. They had two rapidly growing sons to feed and educate. And she worked so hard in the fields; she was so scrawny and so tired all the time. Another pregnancy on top of all that? Nein, danke.
But the husband had his “needs”, and she had to submit, or else. Every day at noon, the same thing.
The result was sadly predictable. She got pregnant for the third time.
But this time, she was determined not to stay that way. She did something to herself; no one knows what exactly, but it went wrong. By the time the doctor saw her, it was too late for him to help her. The woman died.
What followed was, in my mother’s words, a real circus. There was weeping and wailing all the way from the little Protestant funeral chapel to the graveyard and back. It was customary at old-timey German funerals for all the women to cry loud and hard; there was even a word for those that did–Klageweiber, literally wailing-women. They were remarkably like the professional mourners at Egyptian pharaohs’ funerals, only they weren’t paid; they were volunteers with an exaggerated sense of propriety. For a person to be buried unwept was a terrible thing; the more black-clad women there were sobbing at your funeral, the more important you were. Pillars of the community could count on a veritable cathedral choir of cryers to show up at their last leave-takings.
But this was something else. Under all the howling and the tears and the carrying on, the wailing-women also whispered. The Klageweiber were also Klatschbasen (gossipy dames). But what they gossiped about was not fit for the children’s ears. So they had to hush it up. Frau So-und-so had died, suddenly and horribly and tragically young, but of what? Don’t ask, it’s too terrible to tell.
My mom was maybe 10 years old when this happened. And she was curious as all girls that age are about the facts of life, and also bewildered by all the whispering around the village. She was also an obedient child; she never pestered anyone for answers. But many years–decades–later, she finally worked up the nerve to ask her mother what had really happened to poor Frau So-und-so. And so her mother, my grandmother, finally told her.
Frau So-und-so had tried to abort herself. No one knew just how except maybe the doctor, and he was certainly not about to tell. Had she survived with his help, he would have had to answer to the authorities. He might have had to report her. Both of them could have gone to jail if he had saved her life. It was just as well for him that she was too far gone. The doctor, like all the village Klatschbasen, was an old fuddy-duddy when it all came down to it; his sense of propriety, like everyone else’s, was offended by what Frau So-und-so had done. Why hadn’t the silly woman just had the baby? All right, it would have been inconvenient, but so what? At least she wouldn’t have died…and so scandalously! One would think she’d been some stupid unmarried Flittchen, instead of the respectable farmwife she was.
There are several reasons why she didn’t, of course. Several reasons why she felt desperate enough to risk death rather than another birth. And another, and another, and so on until her horny goat of a husband finally kicked the bucket, or she did, from the cumulative effects of one unwanted pregnancy after another. The way he was going, it was obvious that he meant to keep it up until exactly that happened. Condoms? A vasectomy? An insult to his manhood! One might as well ask him to give up his daily lunchtime sex sandwich. Which he was not about to do.
Nobody talked about marital rape in those days. Nobody talked about spousal abuse, either. There was no such thing in the eyes of the law. Sure, people might gossip about what a swine Herr So-und-so was, but that was as far as it went. They might pity her, but they could not intervene on her behalf. No one told him to lay off her. It was his marital right, and her marital duty, and that was that.
It was rape. It was spousal abuse in every sense of the word. Nobody who saw her pale, drawn face at noon could doubt that. She must have gone around looking like a victim of shell shock, or a survivor of a death camp. How hard must it have been for her to meet the eyes of her village, knowing that everyone knew just what kind of a man her husband was…and no one did anything about it?
And then there were her children. One might think he would concern himself more about that…but no. He had to have what he had to have, and that was all there was to it. Her job was to bear child after child until she died or hit menopause, whichever came first.
Her sons could not help her; they were too young to understand, and they were at school. Given time, one of them might have put himself between him and her, but neither of them was big or strong enough yet to do so.
She was utterly alone in her plight.
Given that this was her life, can you blame her for thinking it worthwhile to risk death? In a sense, that poor woman was dead already. Or might as well have been, for all the care and concern her husband showed. And for all that anyone else was willing to do for her. It as not as though she hadn’t made some pretty desperate noises. The doctor might have slipped her a diaphragm, or given her an IUD (the Pill was still more than a decade away), but he did not. He didn’t even take the husband aside and tell him to buy condoms. What happened between those two was none of his business. Until he had to show up at her deathbed, of course. That much, he seemed to have no problem doing.
I could write volumes about how fucked up you have to be to accept such things as “normal” or “proper” or whatever other idiotic adjectives people were willing to attach to such atrocities then. Maybe, compared to the death camps and the war, this sort of thing was small potatoes. After all, women have died aborting unwanted pregnancies since time immemorial; and while their cumulative numbers are staggering, ultimately every such woman dies alone. Many have died shunned, especially if they were not married. If it was rape, it was always somehow her fault, never his. And even the unhappily married ones, like Frau So-und-so, died essentially as outcasts. The reason? They had shirked their wifely duty, which was to provide sex on demand and children willy-nilly. Hard evidence, if you will, of Herr So-und-so’s manhood. If a woman says no to that, what other taken-for-granted duties might she renege on? And if all the women just do what they want, won’t society crumble? So goes the thinking.
That’s fucked up.
A fucked-up mindset is what you need in order to accept the illegality of abortion, especially in a time when the procedure can be done safely by doctors, nurses, paramedics or midwives, and all that’s needed is the proper training and a few pieces of surgical equipment. Had Frau So-und-so been able to ask the village doctor legally for an abortion, she would have survived. But she could not, and therein lies the other half of the tragedy. Medical science had advanced sufficiently by the late 1940s and early 1950s that a surgical abortion, done correctly, would have been quite safe. And even an unsafe, self-administered abortion need not have killed her. If she hemorrhaged, she could have received a transfusion, and if there were infection, intravenous antibiotics could have cleared it up. But if abortion had been legal, she would surely have gotten one, legally and with dignity, and not waited to see the doctor until she was so far gone that there was nothing left for him to do but shake his head and pull the sheet over hers.
Abortion was not legal. Years would go by before even the stupidest little concessions would be made: exceptions in the case of rape or incest, or if her life was demonstrably at risk. But for that, she would have had to go before a panel of doctors and tell them why she wanted the abortion, and do you think they’d agree? Marital sex, however coerced and abusive, was still not considered rape. It was your wifely duty to submit. And if you didn’t, you were a bad woman. No abortion for you, Jezebel.
Not even under the extreme circumstances in which Frau So-und-so was living would she be allowed any dignity or autonomy or life-saving treatment. It would have been illegal, immoral, unthinkable. Church and state both inveighed against it. Women were supposed to stay under the thumb of men, and be content with that. If they couldn’t, there was always the ultimate wage of sin. There was always death.
And that was all the choice you were given, back in the “good” old days. Do your duty, or die. Or die doing your duty, since your own right to life as a woman was never guaranteed. Or do your duty, and go through life with a dead spirit. The “pro-life” choice somehow always ended up as death.
It’s terrible stories like this that confirm why I can never be nostalgic for those “lost” times. Those times can stay lost, as far as I’m concerned. Any ideology which restricts a woman’s choices is a terrible waste of a valuable human life; I not only believe that, I know it. I have always been pro-choice for this reason, from the moment I first learned what abortion was (and I was not much older then than my mother was when Frau So-und-so died!) I did not need to hear this story in order to know why I could never be any other way. As a woman who has spent all of her fertile years avoiding unwanted pregnancy, I already know the reasons. I know them the way I know my own body, its cycles, its lunar variations. I know them the way I know my body is mine, totally and unequivocally. Mine to do with as I will, harming none (myself included; the Wiccan Rede is just eight words, but it covers an awful lot of territory). Mine to give freely and mine to take back just as freely when the giving is done. Mine to withhold, if I so choose, with no excuses or further explanations needed.
Given a real choice, I would never choose to die like Frau So-und-so. I don’t think she would, either. And I don’t think anyone should.