The recent, manufactured controversy over insurance coverage for birth control coincided with receipt of my copy of a small book with facts about my Irish ancestors on my mother’s side of the family. I have an 8 x 10 photo of a prim and proper looking family of nine children and their father taken in the living room of one of their homes, the lace curtains stained with oil lamp smoke.
Set off to the side of this grouping is a large photo of the missing family member, Anna Murray Loftus.
Married at age 25, Anna Murray Loftus delivered her first baby before her first wedding anniversary. She gave birth to nine more babies in the next 18 years and died in her 40’s along with the 10th baby. I can only wonder what her everyday life was like. Her husband was a farmer and then a carpenter, so I’m sure they didn’t have much money. I suspect she delivered all those babies at home without medical attention.
I had never given much thought to how much a pregnancy takes out of a woman until I got involved in the puppy mill controversy last year. I learned appalling facts about the damage done to the females by overbreeding. They lose most of their teeth early on. The muscles and bones deteriorate to the point that many of them can barely stand up. I heard that some breeders actually hang the female in a sling to inseminate her although I find this really hard to believe.
My great-aunt Mary, the oldest daughter, raised her siblings. She was only 17 when her mother died. She put off getting married herself until later so she could raise her brothers and sisters. One of the brothers had meningitis and lost the use of both legs. She took care of him as well as the youngest brother who was, for some reason, not able to function very well on his own. Aunt Mamie, as we called her, never had children of her own, probably because she married late in life.
One of the younger sisters was my grandmother, Josephine Veronica Loftus Rockwell. Her husband died in an accident and left her with two small children. Times were tough. “Nana” cleaned houses to earn enough to feed the kids and, after they were grown and married, she came to live with us. I have no doubt that, if her husband had lived, she would have had many more children. That’s just the way it was back then.
When I was married in the Catholic church in 1962, I assumed I would have a baby every year. My older sister was already on the 3rd of her 8 pregnancies when I married. In fact, any married woman who wasn’t pregnant by her first anniversary was the topic of worried gossip. Maybe something was “wrong with her.” Not to disappoint, I delivered my first baby almost exactly nine months after the wedding. Then a 2nd one 16 months later and a 3rd one 20 months after that. The second baby, a boy, was born with a serious heart defect, possibly because I was teaching school during the last major German measles epidemic in 1964-65 and many of my students contracted the disease.
In 1966, my husband was assigned to Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota, and the birth control pill was just becoming a common form of contraception. Knowing that my son would need heart surgery soon, I talked to the Catholic chaplain on base about using the pill. He had just returned from duty in Vietnam and had much more important things on his mind than birth control. Keep in mind, this was back when there were pamphlets in the back of the church saying that babies who died before being baptized went to “limbo” as well as all the “potential babies” who never had a chance to be born because of birth control. Limbo was not quite hell and not quite heaven and there was no getting out. The chaplain, a priest, told me my decision was between God and myself. I decided God would want me to be with my son after his surgery in a hospital 400 miles away, so I chose the pill.
Long story short, I stopped taking the pill after my son’s successful heart surgery and got pregnant again. Sadly, John Christopher died four months after surgery because his lungs couldn’t manage the increased oxygen supply. He suffocated at home in his own bed.
So I know what it’s like to have multiple pregnancies and to lose a young child. When I read stories of pioneer women dying in childbirth, I can “be there” with them. When I read about them burying their babies and young children along the trail westward, I feel their pain.
I can’t imagine why any compassionate person would want women to return to those days and that kind of suffering. I question whether men should even have the right to make those decisions for us. Prior to the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s, I never would have questioned a man’s decision. Now I question them all the time.
Susan Cunningham is a retired teacher of American history. She lives near St. Louis, Missouri.