When I was a child, growing up on an island in the Caribbean, an island whose inhabitants were mostly descendants of people forcibly brought there from Africa, I noticed that from time to time my mother and her friends, all of them women, would gather together at some spot in our yard and talk and sip and drink some very dark hot drink that they had made from various leaves and bark of trees that they had gathered. Without them telling me anything directly, I came to understand that the potions they were drinking were meant to sweep their wombs clean of anything in it that would result in them being unable to manage the day-to-day working of their lives; that is, this clearing of their wombs was another form of house keeping.
Strangely enough, or perhaps not so strange at all, an important ingredient in the potion, the only one I can now clearly remember, was a bushy plant with small white flowers and deeply cut leaves that were not nice to smell . I now know that this plant was an Artemisia, belonging in the wormwood family. A good size clump of this plant was often cut down and tied together so that it made a broom and this broom was used to sweep the yard clean of any unwanted thing to be found in it. And the sweeping of the yard was a part, a very important part, of house keeping.
It is with astonishment and anger that I, now 63 years of age, find myself living in a country quick to mobilize an army to go off to the ends of the earth to make some people free and yet seek to make me not free to resolve all by myself any issue surrounding my reproductive organs. My decision to bear or not to bear a child is not a right given to me by anybody. I do not find this right, one way or the other enshrined in the writings of John Locke or Thomas Hobbes or The Holy Bible or the Holy anything. I do not find this right in the American Constitution. I find this right in my very own being, in my very existence. I find this right and I take this right in my ability to understand and to take into account all that is the reality of my life.
I am a woman. From the time I was 14 years of age until I was 57 years of age, every twenty-eight days or so, I had a menstrual period, which is to say, blood flooded out of my body through my vagina. I dreaded this event from the beginning of its occurrence, first because it was so frightening and then because it made me feel that before it occurred and while it was in its full bloody present, I was not a self, not a person I wished to be.
But this event, menstruation, defines me. Biology may be destiny or not, but my menstrual cycle determined much about my every day life. If because of something I had done or because of some unknown mal-function of my body had occurred, my menstrual cycle was interrupted, the many darts, ellipses, dreams, imaginings, ambitions, joys, delights, and innocent transgressions that made up my ordinary, always on the border of impoverished life, would have come to a screeching halt.
There are people who would like to attach something they call personhood to every form of being as they imagine it: a lone sperm wandering around anxiously in fluid that is sticky when touched and on meeting a lone female egg, they mingle and fall down into an hour glass and then are immediately a presence, a completed reality residing in the world of Others. Those ‘Others” and their world are, in particular and especially, made up of women and it is women who have bourn and labored under the burden of bearing these “personhoods.”
To carry the load of anything that grows and grows inside of you is frightening. But when the load is a someone, for women recognize fully what is inside them, the feelings can only be so full of complications, even when the load in the womb is fully desired. I have carried two children in my womb. I wanted very much to do that and felt so happy when I learnt both times that I was pregnant. I was 35 five years of age when I became pregnant with my first child and 39 years of age with my second.
My mother was 30 years of age when I, her first child, was born. In the place I am from, it is unusual, almost unheard of, for a woman of her social position, poor, to be so old when bearing her first child. Not too many years before she died, we were having a conversation over all sorts of things and in it she told me that she had had nine children. I noticed that she had said nine children, not nine pregnancies.
If a woman, left to herself, decides to regulate the contents of her womb and in doing so commits a sin, will God not forgive her? Is her sin so great that God places it above all other sins? If God and the rest of the world can forgive the German people for their real and true and public transgressions, can God not forgive a lone woman faced with the tumult of her life, no matter its circumstance, be it poverty or inconvenience or even sheer frivolity? Can a woman not be forgiven for wanting to shape her life?
I have no doubt that President Obama would not agree with my formulation of a woman’s right to control her reproductive life to such a degree, that it would not at all be part of any public debate; that to speak of it, what a woman does in this sphere of her life, is so private, that it would be a violation of an amendment that cannot even be quite articulated. And yet, his simple, firm, clear support for a woman’s right to choose, her right to weigh and judge and decide what would be in her own best interest, is what makes me committed to his re-election.
Jamaica Kincaid is a writer who lives in the Free State of Vermont, a state that has never known and has, from its very beginning, expressly forbidden any establishing of the degraded institution of slavery.
This essay originally ran as part of 90 Days, 90 Reasons. For more essays, written by people such as Khaled Hosseini, Russell Simmons, Edwidge Danticat and Majora Carter, go to90days90reasons.com. Follow 90 Days, 90 Reasons on Twitter: https://twitter.com/90days90reasons Or like them on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/90days90reasons
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(Photo: Courtesy of University of North Dakota)