Contraception and Women’s Health

The debate over contraception and abortion has raged around moral issues such as whether or not destruction of a conceptus (a fertilized ovum) is equivalent to destruction of a human life, and whether or not the use of contraception promotes promiscuity in women. I have yet to see the issue of promiscuity in men addressed except as it relates to rape; I have never seen it referenced in any contraception discussion I have read, heard, or watched.

Several issues of major human concern, which I have never seen addressed by those who are anti-choice or against birth control, and which are seldom considered even by pro-choice advocates, include:

  1. women’s physical well-being,
  2. human social well-being, and
  3. environmental well-being (quality of life on this planet).

In the next three blogs, I will address these three issues, which are effectively at the ethical core of the debate over contraception and abortion. These are larger issues about long-term human survival, unlike the false debate about whether a cell (or a cluster of cells) with 46 chromosomes is a human being.

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge up front that the reproductive system, unlike all other bodily systems, is NOT designed for the preservation of the individual. All other systems of the body—for example, gastrointestinal, endocrine, and urinary systems—contribute to the maintenance and well-being of the person in whom they are found.

The function of the reproductive system, by contrast, is procreation and preservation of the species. It does not contribute to homeostasis; indeed, it frequently throws off the metabolic balance of the individual. A pregnant woman may develop gestational diabetes, for example—or osteoporosis, or circulatory problems, or pelvic floor damage, or lower back problems. So whatever else a pregnancy does, it takes a serious toll on the body of the woman carrying it, which can lead to long-term health problems.

Indeed, under circumstances “in the wild,” where no medical care is available, the likelihood of a woman dying in child-birth over her lifetime is about one for every seven to ten women. This dismal maternal death rate persists in many parts of Africa.

Comparable maternal mortality was also the case in the U.S. in the 1700s and early 1800s. Oddly, in the late 1800s, childbirth death rates actually increased substantially, largely because physicians replaced midwives as childbirth assistants. “Doctors” were often ill trained, were inclined to use instruments, and did not use aseptic technique. So the incidence of puerperal (childbirth) fever rose alarmingly, in some places as high of 40% of all deliveries.


Figure: Annual death rate per 1000 total births from maternal mortality in England and Wales (1850-1970)




J R Soc Med. Nov 2006; 99(11): 559–563.

These figures fit well with information from my own family history. My great-grandfather, an immigrant from Cornwall to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the late nineteenth century, had a total of twenty one children, with three (sequential) wives, two of whom died in childbirth. And only seven of the children survived to adulthood, one of which was my grandfather.

So it certainly was dangerous to be a woman prior to the mid-twentieth century. And the past high mortality among women may account for much of our culture’s patriarchy; it has always been debilitating and/or limiting to carry, bear, and care for children.

Along with improved medical care, the availability of birth control has enhanced the health and productivity of women in this and all other modern nations. Those who wish to limit women’s access to birth control apparently do not care about women’s health. To try to turn back the clock on the past century’s improvement in the well-being of women is cruel, unthinking, and barbaric.

Posted in Abortion, Being a Woman, blogs, contraception, Women and Men, women's health | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Women, Writing, and Blog Hops

woman-writing-poetry1  About a month ago, I agreed to participate in a blog hop focusing on the Writing Process. For those (few?) of you who haven’t participated in a blog hop, it goes something like this. One person writes a blog on a designated topic and, in the writing, links back to the original blogger as well as to one or more other bloggers, who then take up the baton and write on the same topic from their own perspective and for their own blog followers. This becomes a blog version of chain-mail; it’s way to promote blogs and books as well as friends’ blogs—and to increase internet interest in a specific topic or issue.

This particular blog- hop, started by Lynne Hinkey, was intended to promote the blogs and the books of Indie writers. So I agreed, having both a blog and a book I’d like to promote. Then I tried to line up a couple of author-bloggers to whom I could pass the baton, which became more problematical . Two writer-friends came quickly to mind; however, one has a blog  but her book is not yet in press, and the other has a book  but does not blog.

So I went further afield to a couple of writer-acquaintances, both of whom have blogs I follow  and books I’ve read. However, neither one had time to participate in a blog hop, which I understand, having passed through a harrowingly busy month of April, myself. And a couple other blog-acquaintances I thought of asking had been involved in recent blog hops, so I thought they were probably not up for another right now.

Since I try to keep my word (although sometimes belatedly), I feel compelled to continue this thread, but with no future promises. In this and the next post, I’ll be linking to several wonderful women writers; you can check out their sites and then pass them forward in your own blogs—or not, as you wish.

In the process of thinking about this topic and a way to frame it, I have also been mulling over women writers as a group—the ways we write, our major subject interests, the kinds of books we write, and why men seldom read books written by women whereas women often read books written by men.

So let me first fill in the blanks about the Writing Process.


Currently, I have two major projects in the works. One is a self-help book on Caring for Your Body, which brings together information on the structure and function of the body with tips on how to communicate with health-care professionals. The other is a book of short stories set in scientific labs, tentatively titled “Laboratory Notebook.” It is neither science fiction, nor truly main-stream fiction (few love affairs or dead bodies and no extraterrestrial creatures nor gruesome battles). I’ve posted a few of those stories in another blog site.


Both books I’ve published so far have been non-fiction. One is a travel memoir that takes a historical view of Korea, a country where I lived and traveled for two years. The book has a (mature) female perspective, as I compare my experiences with those of another female travel writer who visited Korea a century before I did, when she was the same age as I. The other is a book of meditations on the nature of spiritual experience, as viewed from a scientist’s perspective.

Neither book takes a traditional view of its subject matter: one is about the adventures of female travelers; the other is about spirituality from a scientist’s perspective.


I write about subjects viewed from a female scientist’s perspective, which means that I’m trained to think logically and linearly and yet can think with both sides of my brain. So I’m willing to intimate in writing the messy emotional under-story in a mesh-work of experiences described objectively. I write for others who might learn something interesting or valuable from the stories.


Unlike more economically successful writers, I take a rather scatter-shot approach to writing. I’ve actually been writing since age thirteen, when I began a journal in which I write to this day–if only occasionally–more than sixty years later. This habit has promoted an approach of introspective observer, some of which comes out in short fiction, my chief writing activity (besides scientific papers) during the decades I worked as a practicing scientist. At the time, I worked on stories when I had snatches of “free” time–for example, in airplanes on the way to and from scientific meetings. And I revised them during many evenings as after-hours mood-adjustment in place of drinking alcohol. The patient reworking of written words was deeply soothing.

Nonfiction has become a writing focus since retirement.  I’ve culled journals, letters and emails for topics of books and blogs. There seems to be endless material available.

In terms of discipline, I’ve rarely been able to specify a time each day when I write. As a consequence, my output is spotty, my blogs often lag or become temporarily abandoned, and I feel perpetually guilty and backlogged. My main discipline involves writers groups. At any one time, I usually belong to two or three groups which meet once a month, and I feel compelled to produce something new or revised for those. So—as in my prior work life—deadlines, whether external or self-imposed, seem to inspire the writing.

Moreover, I almost always have more than one book project in the works – two and sometimes three or four. I work on whichever one captures my interest at the moment, but then I may let it lie fallow if it seems to flag. When a project nears completion, though, I usually focus on that to the exclusion of all else (including housework), spending hours each day trying to revise a chapter or word-check a reference list.

So this is the writers’ blog hop I promised to do. Please click on the links in the text above (preferably opening in a new window) and read about some very interesting women writers and their work. More on women and writing in the next blog post.

Posted in Being a Woman, blogs, travel, women writers | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

Are Men and Women Wired Differently? Part 2

This was my response to the blog on gender differences in brain wiring introduced in the last post.

I read your rant with a sinking heart, in part because I can understand where you’re coming from. I understand the annoyance and pain of feeling once more disempowered because you’re “different” from the “dominant” cultural type.

obvious problem

obvious problem

I don’t know how old you are or what your experience has been of the various efforts to bring into being greater human justice, including allowing women to have choices in careers and finances and marriage and child-bearing. So I will just try to relate my own background and experience, with the hope it may help you to be less angry about such studies as the one you linked to.

I am a biomedical scientist, trained as an anatomist and cell biologist during the 1960s, at a time when there were virtually no women in the field; those who existed were embattled, and almost all were single. When I received the Ph.D. and was introduced to prospective employers, the dominant attitude was, “What do you think the future could possibly be for a woman in Anatomy?” It was a rhetorical question, as the obvious answer was slim to none.

I did an end run around the reluctant Anatomy Department chairmen by doing post-doctoral studies – first in biochemistry and then in histo-chemistry. It was while working in this latter lab (with a very good boss) that I was lucky enough to get a faculty job in Anatomy because someone had died and they needed to fill the faculty position in six weeks or lose it. It was during one of those periods of 1970s belt-tightening. It was also in the ’70s, that the women’s movement of the late 20th century took shape, and I was actively involved in trying to help pass the ERA in my state (of course, receiving some grief from male colleagues). The ERA failed to pass the requisite number of states (including mine) and I was devastated, probably feeling even greater disappointment than you felt reading the article on gender differences in brain wiring.

gender differences - salary

However, one of the things I learned by that effort (the ERA)–and its failure–was that feminists, when they are up in arms, often don’t pay attention to reality, especially biological reality. I believe that, to a considerable extent, we–and the ERA–were defeated by other women, who felt threatened by the idea that their roles as wives and mothers were being denigrated by women whose worldview they simply didn’t understand. Many feminists of that era seemed to feel contempt for the natural, biological roles of women. I wasn’t one of those, as I was a biologist, and a wife, and a mother. And I tried to dampen some of the really negative, hysterical rhetoric that seemed to characterize the waning of ’70s feminism. But I was simply too busy with my life to be able to do much about it.

Another thing I learned after the denouement of ’70s feminism was that many of the changes that feminists were calling for actually did happen, despite the defeat of the ERA. Women now have the option of going into almost any career available to men. And women can, with enough grit and determination, become successful at almost anything they chose to do. Of key importance is that we should have choices–you know, the old “pursuit of happiness” thing.

If you had read the article carefully, you would have found several very positive comments on the skills that can come from normal female brain wiring. For example: “the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there’s a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better,”

Indeed, if women are in high positions in an enterprise, and/or if they make up a sizable minority of mid-level workers, the whole operation is likely to be more successful, both financially and in terms of working environment. Business school faculty know this–even if many of their former students don’t. Female monarchs such as Elizabeth I and Victoria in England, as well as Catherine the Great in Russia, reigned over countries that grew enormously in size and wealth while those women were on the throne, partly because they knew how to negotiate before fighting.

Males and females of mammalian species are constructed differently, and that difference includes not just genital anatomy, body size, muscle mass, and distribution of body fat; it also includes behavior, which is controlled by the brain. Look at all the connections in those brain maps, especially those cross connections in the frontal part of the female brain, the region where creativity and conscience seem to arise. Think, as a sociologist, about the differences in male and female behavior. Which gender is the most violent? Which produces the most mass murderers?

So I beg you, don’t declare war on biology. It will not do you or your prospects as a woman much good, and it may blind you to some aspects of reality you need to take into consideration when making decisions. The enemy is not biology nor the finding that the sexes function differently; it is those people (usually non-scientists) who try to use scientific studies to influence a social agenda.


I guess I was lucky as a female child. My father was a scientist; the family was not religious; and I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted to do with my life (as long as it wasn’t destructive). I had one husband who tried to reverse that trend, and another who supported it to a considerable extent. I felt that I was not locked into any stereotype or situation. The key present reality (at least in the West) is that we women have choices. We are not bound culturally or biologically to doing or being what others think we should do or be.

Posted in Being a Woman, Women and Men, working mother | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Are Women and Men Wired Differently?


A few days ago I came across a blog by a woman who is clearly intelligent and is a feminist in the best sense, but she seems to be resistant to the idea that men and women may be different in their minds as well as their bodies.

The writer was incensed by what she perceived as just one more attempt by males to marginalize and belittle the attributes of women by comparing them (unfavorably?) with those of men. This despite the fact that several coauthors of the study were female, and the qualities attributed to women in the article are highly valuable in our contemporary culture. This is the report that led to the angry response.

We, as human beings, need to stop being so defensive–so eager to be in denial–about scientific evidence, and particularly about biological evidence. Scientific data should be inherently value-neutral. It is we who add the value to any interpretation of scientific results. It makes no sense denying the reality of things. Is the average world temperature rising or not? Are the polar ice fields melting? Yes it is, and yes they are. Those data are supported overwhelmingly.

It’s like asking whether or not the earth is round (O.K., spherical or eliptoidal, if you wish). It is what it is. It’s certainly possible, even desirable, to ask WHY something is as it is. And if it is an unpleasant reality, it’s certainly useful to ask if and how it can be changed. Indeed, that willingness to question reality–and to address it at its core–is the source of almost all human progress.

As with other differences between human beings, mental differences are broadly distributed, and no two brains are identical in composition or wiring (no, not even in twins). Moreover, brain wiring is highly plastic and is strongly influenced by environmental experiences.  But it is becoming increasingly clear that at least a large part (maybe not a majority) of mental functions find their origins in our genes. And these mental functions are reflected in behavior. I was struck one time when I heard a cousin laugh in another room and thought it was my brother. Those two laughs were identical in pitch and cadence. They were somehow wired to sound like that, and that wiring has some genetic component, probably like bird songs.

So I responded to her commentary with a long comment of my own, which will form the substance of the next blog post.




Posted in Being a Woman, Women and Men | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

2013 in review

I’ll be back to original stuff soon, but this seemed like an easy way to start this year’s blogging, which has flagged in recent months. This is partly because I’ve spent so much time on a book which came out late in 2013. Check it out!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 27 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Mother to Daughter: A Questional Legacy – Part 4

This is the final installment of a set of meditations that began here/.

There was a time, when I was much younger, that I resented my mother a bit for not teaching me the rules about how to be a girl. I had to learn all that stuff all by myself—from books and experience. She didn’t tell me not to fight with boys, and she didn’t tell me not to climb trees or get dirty. She didn’t curl my hair so I’d be pretty, and she didn’t dress me like a doll. She didn’t tell me I wouldn’t be able to do things when I grew up. When, in the fifth grade, I decided I wanted to be an astronomer, she got me books on the planets and took me to meetings of the amateur astronomers’ club in a nearby city. I was totally unprepared for the “You can’t do it, you’re just a girl” attitude I would encounter later, beginning in high school, and continuing into college and graduate school.

My mother was a housewife, to be sure, but she was a housewife by choice and not by default, and that was always clear. My mother was very aware that she had a choice in matters that affected her life, and she felt quite free to exercise her options. She had had a career as a college English teacher, which she gave up when she married my father. But she didn’t passively give it up; she chose to become a housewife (although she hated housework). That was the kind of cruel choice that confronted women in those days. I have a great deal of admiration and respect for several other women of that era who made that choice another way and, against all odds, became competent and respected professionals. Unfortunately, none of them I know has daughters—or sons either, for that matter.

As a graduate student in English at Bryn Mawr, my mother wrote a master’s thesis correlating the events of Elizabethan England with the themes of plays from Shakespeare. In her thesis, she suggested–based upon some coincidences she found, and the point of view of several of the characters–that the author of some of the Shakespearean plays might have been none other than Queen Elizabeth, herself. When my mother first mentioned this to me, I was in high school, and I thought it was just some kooky idea of hers.

Later on, I heard and read numerous arguments supporting the hypothesis that the man we know as William Shakespeare could not have written the Shakespearean dramas. Several alternative authors have been suggested, among them Marlowe and certain male members of the court. But I have never heard or read the name of Elizabeth I of England mentioned in this context by established critics or scholars. Elizabeth was a brilliant woman as well as a devotee of the theater, and her father, Henry VIII, was a highly talented, creative man who wrote music under a pseudonym.

Just imagine, if you can, the greatest monarch of the English-speaking people and the classic master of the English language, both embodied in a woman! If that is even possible, then anything is possible.

The hardest question to answer is: How can a daughter examine the legacy she has received from her mother in a wise but critical way and question those aspects that diminish her sense of self-worth? Perhaps the first step is to stop and analyze the situation any time she feels a conflict between self-esteem and femininity—for example, between accomplishment and the favor of some man of the moment—and do the thing that enhances her sense of self-worth.

There is a temptation to take the easy way out, to try to find a man through whom one can obtain a vicarious sense of self-esteem. The hardest but most rewarding route is to take life into one’s own hands, to live it event-by-event, to take advantage of the real opportunities for choice which one does have and, in the process, to become convinced of one’s own worth as a unique human being.

Then, pass that legacy on to your daughters!


Posted in Being a Woman | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Mother to Daughter: A Questionable Legacy – Part 3

This series of blog posts began here/:

So what are some of the consequences of the images and roles that women learn to appropriate, and what kinds of conflicts and losses are thereby created for a woman herself, for her family, and for society as a whole?

For the woman herself, I would venture to say that the greatest loss she suffers is the loss of self-esteem. If a woman is lucky, she may be repaid for some of her losses by leading a life that is relatively protected and less demanding than she might otherwise be forced to endure. These days, less than half of the female population is so lucky.

Her family, too, pays a price. The children spend the majority of their time during their young and formative years with someone who doesn’t have a very high opinion of herself, and this is likely to make them feel quite insecure. The husband may pay a greater price than even he realizes. In addition to being legally attached to someone who does not value herself highly, he often comes to value her less and less as years pass, believing her story about herself. Moreover, he is often the victim of the sort of passive-aggressive tactics so commonly used by people with no power or authority—by slaves, disaffected employees, and women. These tactics consist of such maneuvers as doing something destructive because, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know any better.” Or allowing something to become irrevocably damaged because, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know how to fix it.” Or not doing something that really needs to be done because, “I’m sorry, that’s not my job.”

As for society, well, the loss to society is manifold, particularly in this technological age when it is crucial to have competent individuals operating the many gadgets and machines with which we are surrounded. When the females in the population are convinced that they are not competent to operate anything more complex than an on-off switch, there’s certain to be trouble. The loss of mind-power and creativity available to society when half the population has learned not to live up to its potential is staggering. And the genetic loss to society by forcing women to choose—or by making them think they must choose—between family and career, can hardly be measured. Many of the most intelligent and talented women of years past did not reproduce; this may have resulted in an irretrievable brain-drain.

So, the key question is: How can a mother teach her daughter to become a woman and a real person, a person with genuine self-esteem? Perhaps the most important gift a mother can give her daughter is the sense of possibility, the sense that she can do or be anything she chooses if she is willing to work for it. I used to think that my motivation and ambition were primarily the influence of my father. My father was from a poor family, but he worked his way through college, and he worked his way into one of the top executive positions in one of the major corporations in this country. But over the past few years, I have come to appreciate increasingly the role my mother played in allowing me to appropriate some of my father’s ambition.


(the final installment here)

Posted in Being a Woman, Motherhood, working mother | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments