Sunday, February 19, 2012

Birth control debate provokes sixties' flashback

Catholics of a certain age will recognize Foster Friess’s recent “aspirin solution” comment as a joke from an earlier age.

In case you hadn’t heard, Rick Santorum’s premier contributor, Foster Friess of Jackson, joked last week that back in his day, aspirin was the perfect birth control pill. Women were told (only half-jokingly): “Take an aspirin, and hold it between your knees.”


Although we didn’t say LOL then. We said hardy-har-har, or something similar.

In America’s pre-pill era, women, especially Catholic women, were screwed. They were sexual beings who were told by the men in their lives – boyfriends, husbands, priests, politicians – that birth control was not an option. It was their womanly duty to have sex and their bear the consequences – children. It was God’s will. Barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen was the reality of this “every sperm is sacred” mentality.

The guys were in charge.

That changed with the advent of safe birth control. And the women moved out of the kitchen and went to work and here we are today, debating this subject all over again.

But men, especially older white men, are being threatened as never before by smart and successful women. Minorities, too -- we have a black president! Technology and rapidly changing world events are scary. All hell is breaking loose! Women back to kitchen!

I grew up Catholic and am still, nominally, a Catholic. My coming-of-age was in the sixties. My parents were devout Catholics and they practiced the rhythm method.


This was the only birth control method available to church-going Catholics. Abstinence, too – can’t forget that. Thus, most Catholic families engendered multiple offspring. In the case of the Shay family, that was nine children (with two miscarriages). My mother used to joke, “I was pregnant for 15 years.” That would have been longer had she not had twins. In the end, she had a hysterectomy and that was that. She died at the young age of 59, two years younger than I am now. She lasted only 18 months after an ovarian cancer diagnosis.

My parents urged their children to be careful and judicious when it came to sex. My mother, a nurse, urged birth control upon her offspring. In the emergency room, she regularly saw the depredations of unwanted pregnancy. She cast a jaundiced eye on church fathers that urged sex-for-procreation-only and then turned their backs on the results. On the other hand, she was mightily offended whenever people would look down their noses at her brood. “Nine kids – heavens to Betsy!” It usually wasn’t elitist secularists and liberals making these remarks. In the South, it tended to be our Protestant brethren and sistren. They tended to have smaller families, whether the result of birth control or abstinence or sheer cussedness I cannot say. As I look back, I remember that we were a large family even among my Catholic high school friends. Three kids tended to be the norm, with a few in the five-seven range and some of us with whopping big numbers. But we were rare.

What kind of birth control did I practice in high school? Fear and guilt kept me from toiling in the devil’s workshop. We joked about the rhythm method or the aspirin-between-the-legs or chastity belts or whatever. Meanwhile, we only had lust in our hearts. Nothing could be done for it. In our senior year, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed head cheerleader got in trouble, courtesy of the football star. She was sent away to live with her aunt in Ohio, and she missed graduation. The football star did not. Both of these people were my friends. From what I hear, both have had more than their share of life’s struggles. But their fate could have easily been ours. Just say no! And that’s what I did until I was 21.

Catholics of a certain age know the tragedies behind the church’s procreation policies. There are tragedies repeated today, in a time when science has given us an array of dependable birth control, a time in which college students can purchase morning-after pills along with Twinkies in student union vending machines. Birth control has given us all more freedom. Women, especially. And they should have all possible means available to them.

What has happened to my brothers and sisters? Surviving members (we lost a brother in 2010) all seem to be leading useful and productive lives. Among the nine of us, we have 19 children. My two kids have plenty of first cousins, although they live far away in Florida. None of my siblings are devout Catholics, although some go to church. When my brother Patrick Kevin Shay (my son’s godfather) died in 2010, he had a secular ceremony in a park. I officiated. Good ol’ secular liberal me. There were remembrances and even a few prayers. We partied later and remembered the dead. We even argued politics, which we consider a contact sport.

Even when I was a practicing adult Catholic, I paid no attention to the church’s pronouncements of matters that were none of its business. The church cannot tell me whom I can sleep with, appropriate procreation methods, which candidate to vote for, what books to read, etc. Church fathers make it their business but they are regularly ignored, if recent polls can be believed. It’s interesting to note that most Catholics who have to live in the real world regularly ignore those who don’t.

Mr. Friess can joke about the aspirin solution all he wants. We know that it’s not a joke to most women. Women who vote, women like my wife Chris of 30 years, do not consider Foster Friess a comedian. They see him as a tired old man living in an imagined golden age. That’s the way she sees Rick Santorum, too, and all of his fellow travelers. They are throwbacks to another age. This is their last hurrah and they are being as loud and as obnoxious as possible. It’s up to us to ignore them, and then go to the ballot box to vote for people who believe in a future filled with intelligence and empathy and choice.

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