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S.O.S., Different Year

Happy New Year, all. Took me only 5 days to get angry about something; a new record for me! Well, more annoyed than anything else. Who can really afford to get angry about all the stupid crap we see in the media? Us WoC gotta watch that blood pressure, after all.

This article in the NYT is what’s annoying me. It starts off innocently enough with a classic “duh” moment, noting that many women take dangerous risks to end their pregnancies sans medical attention or prescribed drugs. It guarantees a surge in such homemade abortions by pretty much telling the readers what drugs to ask for and how to ask for them, then how to administer them (which sounds seriously problematic to me, but fine, they’re the Times, they can afford lawyers if someone tries it, dies, and the family sues them). It goes further into “no shit, Sherlock” territory by noting the reasons women might do this: cost, shame, a desire for privacy, distrust of hospitals, yatta yatta yatta.

Very quickly, though, it becomes clear that the article is specifically focusing on a certain subset of women: primarily Dominican women in the Washington Heights area. OK, makes sense; that’s who made up the primary focus of a study by Planned Parenthood cited in the article. But see if you can spot the point in the passage below where I started to get annoyed.

One study surveyed 1,200 women, mostly Latinas, in New York, Boston and San Francisco and is expected to be released in the spring; the other, by Planned Parenthood, involved a series of focus groups with 32 Dominican women in New York and Santo Domingo. Together, they found reports of women mixing malted beverages with aspirin, salt or nutmeg; throwing themselves down stairs or having people punch them in the stomach; and drinking teas of avocado leaf, pine wood, oak bark and mamon fruit peel.

Interviews with several community leaders and individual women in Washington Heights echoed the findings, and revealed even more unconventional methods like “juice de jeans,” a noxious brew made by boiling denim hems.

OK, look. Let’s just get this out in the open. Women have been aborting unwanted babies since the dawn of human intelligence. It probably didn’t take much for homo erectus women to cotton to the fact that “scarce food + 10 other mouths to feed + coming baby = bad idea”, or “trek across continental land bridge + coming baby = bad idea”, or any of the other dozens of equations that might cause them to conclude that a pregnancy should be terminated. That’s the unfortunate consequence of our species not having a nice convenient breeding season; sometimes it’s a bad time, or flat-out dangerous, to breed. As a result of this, every culture has its methods of helping women figure out a solution to this problem. Some of them are cockamamie; I have never understood why any woman would think a coat hanger was the way to go, but those certainly happened, and killed their share of women. When I was a student at my predominantly-white, middle-class, “good” high school, the rumor mill had it you could induce an abortion by douching with Coca-Cola. (I guess the rampant yeast infection that would result might kill everything down there, was the idea.) This is not something unique to any one culture.

And indeed, the people who ran the study seem to get this:

“Some women prefer to have a more private experience with their abortion, which is certainly understandable,” said Dr. Daniel Grossman, an obstetrician with Ibis Reproductive Health in San Francisco, which joined Gynuity Health Projects in New York in conducting the larger study. “The things they mention are, ‘It is easier.’ It was recommended to them by a friend or a family member.”

Dr. Carolyn Westhoff, an obstetrician at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, said the trend fits into a larger context of Dominicans seeking home remedies rather than the care of doctors or hospitals, partly because of a lack of insurance but mostly because of a lack of trust in the health care system. “This is not just a culture of self-inducted abortion,” she said. “This is a culture of going to the pharmacy and getting the medicine you need.”

Emphasis mine. This doctor seems to be emphasizing that self-sufficiency, not a some sort of Latin obsession with terminating pregnacy, is the cultural trait that’s important here. Good solid American value, that, right? (Well, wait. Is there any culture that doesn’t value self-sufficiency in one way or another?) And the studies make other important notes: namely that cost, convenience, privacy, and a do-it-yourselfer paradigm are things which might induce any woman, of any culture, to try home abortion. But here’s where things start to get annoying:

It is impossible to know how many women in New York or nationwide try to end their pregnancies themselves, but in the vibrant, socially conservative Dominican neighborhoods of Upper Manhattan, the various methods are passed like ancient cultural secrets.

Hmm. Why do I feel like the article’s authors almost said “ancient Chinese secret”?

Yeah. I smell some exotification goin’ on up in here.

The article goes on to cite “machismo”, tradition, and other strange, exotic reasons why these women might resort to doing it themselves. While the doctors and others who conducted the study take pains to point out that this is not some unique cultural phenomenon, the article seems to go out of its way to imply the opposite — that this is some bizarre practice in which only those freaky brown women would engage. It might as well replace the term “home remedy” with “witch doctoring”. The latter would fit the article’s tone better.

The Planned Parenthood study concluded that women in both nations “seemed to see inducing the termination of pregnancy, or abortions, as a part of the reality of their lives,” in a community where, as one interview subject put it, “we are all doctors.” The report noted that in a culture steeped in machismo, birth control is generally seen as the woman’s responsibility.

Remember what I said about that whole dawn of human intelligence thing? Abortion has been a part of every woman’s life, since about then. Whether she chooses it or not, whether she has the choice or not, whether it’s safe or not, the potential is always there as long as she can walk around and do what she wants with her physical person. So why is it worth noting that Latina women in both the D.R. and America see this as reality? And how, exactly, does a “machismo-steeped” culture differ from any other patriarchial culture in seeing Lessina or some other birth control as the woman’s responsibility? Until every nation on earth starts issuing its pubescent boys condoms as a universal manhood ritual, this, too, is something all cultures deal with.

There are a lot of issues for which a culture-specific focus is valid. But, um, last I checked? Every culture has women, however well or poorly it treats them. Therefore every culture has its “home remedies”, its abortifacient folklore, its stupid abortifacients, its traditions. If home aborting was something new, or unique to any one group, the culture-specific focus would be valid, but this is obviously not true. This article’s unnecessary obsession with cultural specifics suggests to me that the New York Times is not actually interested in noting the reasons why women, period, might choose to home abort, period. Instead this article presents yet another chance for the dominant culture to waggle its finger at a strange, scary, “primitive lesser culture” and reassure itself of its own superiority. c.f. Western women griping about “misogynistic” Muslim culture even as they carve and starve their own bodies in accordance with Western men’s wishes; history books which howl about footbinding and neck elongation but never whalebone corsets; and so on.

So often WoC are held up not as people in and of themselves, but as symbols of their culture’s backwardness and need for “guidance,” i.e. domination. It doesn’t make me angry very often anymore, because it happens so damn much I’d blow a gasket if I did. But I’m tired of it. I really am.

13 thoughts on “S.O.S., Different Year”

  1. Delux says:

    Why Many Latinas Don’t Participate in Clinical Trials:

  2. Delux says:

    hit click too soon. seriously, could that article be more textbook about why Latinas dont trust medical hierarchies?

  3. pearl451 says:

    thank you for this critique!

  4. Pingback: it’s a woman’s world « rising phoenix
  5. Trackback: it’s a woman’s world « rising phoenix
  6. jess says:

    this is a great article. multiculturalism is good in the abstract, but too often even the purportedly most inclusionary parts of western culture use “awareness” of other cultures as an excuse to continue applying really appalling primitivistic assumptions.

    and how demeaning a term is “cultural awareness,” anyway? “oh, dominicans? yes, we’re aware of your people. please read our list of studies in which we have included them.” it’s as though the inclusion of WoC in research is enough to call the research progressive, and blinds so many readers to the actual content and conclusions within.

  7. Nia says:

    Maybe my problem is that I’m Spanish and English is not my native language, but I get the impression that English has two synonyms to refer to sex discrimination: “sexism” is universal and “machismo” is what Latinos and sometimes Mediterranean people (ie Italians) do. I don’t know if that’s the actual use but I find it extremely racist, as if it was implying that “Hispanic and Mediterranean people are so sexist that they need a special word all for them”.

  8. akacocolopez says:

    good take Nia, I never thought of

  9. Duncan says:

    Nia, “machismo” and “macho” became a buzzword in American English in the early 1970s as I recall, but it was applied to *American* men. A lot of the gabachos who used the term didn’t even know how to pronounce it (I often heard it said as if it were spelled mako), or thought that “machismo” was an adjective, or thought that “macho” meant “machismo.” (See, for example, Michele Wallace’s book “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman,” first published around 1979.)

    Further, “machismo” is not a synonym for “sexism.” I’m not so sure of all of its connotations in Spanish – I’m just now becoming confident enough of my Spanish to begin looking at the literature in that language — but in English it refers to a particular style of aggressive, impenetrable masculinity. This style is commonly associated with Latin men, but as I said, we find it in enough gabachos that American English took “machismo” as a loan word and applied to American men as well. So I’m afraid your impression is mistaken.

  10. Adrienne says:

    I get the impression that English has two synonyms to refer to sex discrimination: “sexism” is universal and “machismo” is what Latinos and sometimes Mediterranean people (ie Italians) do. I don’t know if that’s the actual use but I find it extremely racist, as if it was implying that “Hispanic and Mediterranean people are so sexist that they need a special word all for them”.

    I’d tend to agree with this (and I’m white, and English is my first language). I understand what Duncan is saying, but my experience with the word has been closer to what Nia said.

  11. Diatryma says:

    I have usually seen ‘sexism’ to mean ‘women are less than normal’ and ‘machismo/macho’ to mean ‘manly man! Manly man of awesome manliness!’ The first tears down one sex/gender, the second builds the other up. Macho/machismo doesn’t have anything to do with women. It is all about the manly men and their manliness.

    This is only how I’ve seen it used, though.

  12. Asada says:

    “que lastima”,
    shun birth control, abhor abortions, but expect women to be sexy.

    IT’s seems few women have mastered the art of being sexy while not having sex.

    I sympathize with young girls who get pregnant and have no where to go. I can’t understand how we allow teenagers to carry babies to full term. I think its nutz. Why not have honest sex ed? I and my friends had honest sex ed and we are not parents.

    I grew up in a culture that also shunned abortions ( many girls leaving church for about a year coming back with a baby) and birth control ( Sunday message-girls have sex because they are lonely , not horny, so love them and teach them to avoid sex!).

    Maybe it was a combination of proper sex ed, religious influences, sheltering parents, a desire not to derail my life- but I’m 22 and not pregnant. I’m a virgin who has amassed over 50 condoms ( from health fairs, GLBT parades, and college “sexperts” presentations) and I give most of them away.

  13. Debbie Nathan says:

    The Times article had some grievous journalism problems: mischaracterizations, serious errors, placing the piece in the News section in the first place when there was no news. See this:

  14. Nott says:

    I never thought that way about corsets. : /

    Lame comment, I know. As always, you’ve got an interesting blog. Thanks :]

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