Poor Women Should Be Allowed to Speak for Themselves

DAUPHIN, PENNSYLVANIA. — Dauphin, Pennsylvania. -- "It's too important to become taboo," wrote Jonathan Alter in Newsweek. But in the almost two years since that comment, few have had the courage to revisit the topic: Norplant and poor women.

One can well see how it became taboo. Shortly after Food and Drug Administration approved Norplant, a long-acting, reversible contraceptive, in December 1990, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a well-meaning but misguided editorial suggesting that it could help stem the ever-growing number of black children born into poverty.


Charges of racism and of promoting state-sponsored eugenics came pouring in. The outcry was so great that the Inquirer finally did what few newspapers ever do: It published an editorial-page apology.

Next, the Kansas state legislature introduced two bills: one that would have paid $500 to welfare women who agreed to use Norplant and another that would have required Norplant's use by women convicted of drug offenses involving cocaine or heroin.


Further west, a California judge offered a woman who pleaded guilty to child abuse a choice: four years in jail, or one year in jail if she agreed to use Norplant while in counseling.

New outcries erupted. Outraged women charged these legislators and judges with bribing poor women and taking from them their right to control their body.

I continue to have mixed feelings about whether the actions of those legislators and judges were wrong. To protect innocent people, we take driving rights away from convicted drunken drivers. To protect innocent people, we take away the right to own a gun from those convicted of violent crime, or from those with a history of mental illness. To protect innocent children, doesn't it make sense to temporarily take away reproductive rights from those convicted of child abuse or drug abuse? The only injustice I see is the lack of a "male-Norplant" so that judges could impose the same sentence for men convicted of child abuse.

And as for offering -- not mandating -- Norplant to poor women, was that such a bad idea? Does it really deprive poor women of control over their bodies?

As a former counselor at a women's health center, I learned first-hand about the "lack of control" poor women have, not only over their bodies, but over their day-to-day existence. Many poor women told me of an existence at the mercy of government programs, at the mercy of community compassion (or the lack thereof) and at the mercy of the men who wonder in and out of their lives -- sometimes providing a little food or money, but most often providing yet another unplanned pregnancy.

Control? How can an impoverished woman be said to have control of anything? How can she possibly have the same choices you and I have -- not only reproductive choices -- but basic choices such as health care, housing, what schools her children attend, or even what to have for dinner tonight?

Moreover, child care, counseling and job training seem like futile pursuits to poor women who live with the constant risk of becoming pregnant again.

To make matters worse, 1991 seemed to be a politically ripe year for "welfare reform," with some states cutting additional benefits for additional children. Some states, luckily only a few, do not fund birth control. And the federal government, which succeeded in gaining the Supreme Court's approval to withhold federal funds from family-planning clinics that say the "A" word, has taken its toll, too. According to the Center for Population Options, the spending power of family-planning clinics is down 50 percent from a decade ago.


Meanwhile, poor women want Norplant. Their demand has surprised some public-health officials and family-planning clinics that report having "long waiting lists."

One problem remains -- Norplant's cost. How many poor women can afford $350 for the kit and $250 for the doctor to insert it? Not many.

We should be asking ourselves, "Did our outcries help or hurt poor women?" It appears undeniable, our outcries hurt. Some of us were touchy about the Norplant incentives; yet, when others charged that welfare women have more babies merely to get more money, we retorted, "That's bunk!"

Well then, isn't it equally bunk to counter-charge that welfare women would relinquish their reproductive rights for a mere one-time sum of $500? Sure seems so. Especially, since as already noted, poor women want Norplant -- even without incentives.

What about the outcry of racism and eugenics? A 1991-1992 Women of Color poll found that "76 percent of black women reject the idea that birth control and abortion are tools intended to help eliminate the black race."

Given all of this, we should also be asking ourselves, "Who were we to speak on behalf of these poor women? What gave us the 'right' to decide what was or was not in their best interests?"


It seems the only outcry that should be heard is an outcry for federal and state funding of Norplant, and all other forms of birth control, so that poor women will have what middle- and upper-class women have -- reproductive choices and control over their bodies.

And it seems that in the future poor women ought to have the right to speak for themselves.

Nancy Datres is a free-lance writer.