Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wisewomen, Witches, Midwives, and The Age of Ignorance , Part II

I began to write a follow-up to this post from last February about myths concerning men's reproductive health quite a while ago, but couldn't really find much besides vasectomy, tightness of underwear, and penis size. Next to the constant discussion of women's fertility, there is a relative silence on men's role in making babies. One can almost hear crickets.

Think about this: many of the attitudes regarding male reproduction seem to date back to Henry VII, historically, a rather low point for women's rights, and for medicine in Europe. What I mean by this is, in fertility issues, always assume it's the woman, not the off with her head part. Mothers are always to blame. With Henry, and with today's anti-women forces, women are always the problem.

There clearly was something genetically wrong with Henry Tudor. Though outwardly, he seemed healthy, and was quite athletic in his youth, many years before what appears to have been type II Diabetes and gout set in, and he became the morbidly obese glutton we have seen in so many films, he was in reality, a ticking time bomb.

Henry had six siblings, yet only three survived childhood. His older brother Arthur, died at fifteen, only six months after marrying Catherine of Aragon. Six months, that produced no pregnancies, and according to Catherine, was because the prince had been unable to consummate the marriage. A fifteen year old boy who could not get an erection? Only Henry's two sisters, Margaret and Mary lived to be adults, and had children that both grew up and produced children.

Henry himself had sex with quite a few women, as we all know, though, obviously not as many as in the series The Tudors, or he would have spent zero time actually ruling his kingdom, but I digress. With his first wife, Arthur's widow, Catherine, Henry had five children, but only Mary I lived past infancy. When she grew to adulthood, Mary never had more than a phantom pregnancy, and was mysteriously weak, and ill for some years, withering and dying at only forty-two. Anne Boleyn had four miscarriages, and two stillbirths, all of male children. Only her girl child, Elizabeth I lived.

Elizabeth was not really the Virgin Queen she pretended to be, (I give little credence to the bestiality with her horses stories, people were as mean-spirited then as they are today) for diplomatic reasons, though it was likely she was sterilized by her teenage bout of smallpox. (Smallpox was the reason for her big red wigs and pale, pale makeup too.) So if Elizabeth was fertile we'll never know, though she did manage to outlive most of her Tudor relatives, dying at sixty-nine years old. Jane Seymour's only child, Edward VI did not live to adulthood either. Edward died at only fifteen of lung disease and kidney failure, after a long decline that even the doctors of the day knew was ending in death.

No children, or pregnancies at all, with his final three wives. One was unconsummated, one was with a presumable healthy teenage girl, and last wife, Catherine Parr, had a child with the man she married six months after Henry's death.

The officially recognized bastard, with Elizabeth Blount, Henry Fitzroy, like his uncle Arthur, Prince of Wales, and his half brother, Edward VI of England died as a teenager, only seventeen years old. He also had a marriage that even before his illness visibly set in, he was unable to consummate. Again, a teenage boy who could not get an erection?

Even in those days, when the vast majority of the medical knowledge of the Classical World had been forgotten, or lost, and the ancient wisdom of the wisewomen, witches and midwives ignored by frightened, and bigoted male doctors, somebody still should have thought there were some really strange coincidences occurring here. One man, so many women, and so few healthy babies. A whole family, a royal family, with the best of everything, yet they couldn't reproduce, and died tragically young, and painfully. Royal physicians did have medical records on the Tudors, which is why we know all I've recounted.

The science of the time was promoting a version of Preformationism, in short, a form of the Homuniculus theory of heredity, that claimed that either the sperm, or egg held a miniature complete human being inside it. Pregnancy was just the magical way it transformed into a baby. There was disagreement on whether it was the sperm, or the egg that contained the mini-person. The Spermists concept was what seems more popular since it made a woman little more an an incubator for a man's child.

Such reproductive chauvinism would be a perfect excuse for writing laws that mimicked those of early Rome. Tudor England's-and honesty, most of Europe's laws were more oppressive than the Manus laws.

The Manus form of marriage was one where the woman went from being her father's daughter to her husband's. She was in manum viri-under her husband's authority. Then later there was coemptio, where a woman was literally sold by her father to her husband. Though this was for the Patricians not the Plebeians. Plebeian wives just had to live away from the husband for three days and nights and were after this able to remain part of their own families and retain their property rights. Plebeians had no money, so they were not citizens, and their marriages were not legal anyway at this time. They could live together, but not legally marry.

Now while, yes, a Roman matron had lots of freedom compared to a Tudor housewife, a Victorian one, or shamefully, even to an American woman in the early twentieth century-remember, we only got the vote in 1920-Rome set the precedent for male domination in reproductive matters codified by law. Matrimonium was a deal to produce children, and pass on property. Patria Potestas made a child male, or female subject to the father for as long as that father lived. The laws of The Twelve Tables that legally made a man head of household, also gave a father life and death over his family, were rarely applied. It was considered bad form to expose an infant, unless he or she was really horribly deformed. Though it was his right to kill any infant-to fail to accept it, for a child was yet another possession of the man. A paterfamilias essentially was the king of his own little castle.

While Roman Law gave us some rather useful things like birth registration, divorce laws, voting, the laws were clear in stating the importance of all things male. Law is the basis of society, the rule book so to speak for what is acceptable, and as Rome conquered most of Europe, North Africa, the Mideast these cultures grew more and more misogynistic. As the Catholic Church, which originated in Rome grew, so did the whittling away of the rights of women. This new church wasn't really what Jesus sanctioned, rather that of St. Paul, who was most definitely not a fan of women, and completely against women having power over their own lives. Because he was a Roman citizen, and an educated man, Paul set the tone for the new religion, not Jesus' "rock" Simon Peter, a poor, illiterate fisherman.

These conquered cultures had been by and large much more willing to allow women a place in their societies other than as babymakers. Most of these cultures had their own herbalist, naturopathic healing traditions that were often female-dominated. And most likely what knowledge was passed down was the remains of their aboriginal cultures. Many were something the English called Cunning Folk. Useful witches. They might drive out evil spirits, tell a fortune. Perhaps have some herbal remedy that worked better than bleeding someone, know what grasses to feed a sick sheep. Henry VIII hated these people, and made something as innocent as locating treasure or casting love spells punishable by death. So even though Henry was after fortune tellers and gypsies, the wisewomen, midwives, and other practitioners of the old medicines could be seen as falling under this umbrella. Not quite a witchhunt, but close.

As I noted in my previous post, when male doctors actively began to push women out of women's medicine, the mortality rates for both mothers and babies rose. Dramatically. Back then, as now, men in power made fear-based attacks on women's rights and healthcare options. Why did the medical and scientific establishment endorse such things as the Spermist theory, stripping midwives of the right to practice, and making abortion a crime, and not simply a private issue with the wisewoman or doctor? Why were birth-control methods that were known to the Ancient Egyptians illegal to discuss by the nineteenth century? Why was divorce, which was common and easy to obtain in Ancient Rome extraordinarily hard to obtain for a good half of the 20th century?

Two words. Power and money.

Why is it that at the same time that there is a chipping away of abortion access, and birth-control options, there is also a great deal of misinformation about fertility? Convincing women over 40 that they are nearly incapable of having a baby without medical intervention has resulted in the highest accidental pregnancy rate after teens will mean what? Giving teens and poor women less access to reproductive care and birth control mean what? These War On Woman restrictions, and attacks on institutions like Planned Parenthood mean what? The endgame for the Republican extremists is this: forcing woman back in to so called traditional roles and reversing the second half of the 20th century. Giving older women babies they don't expect and can't afford alone might reduce divorce rates. Young women scared they might not be able to have a baby might marry younger, and have babies younger, curtailing career ambitions. More unplanned for babies, mean more women making hard choices.

As for the money part of it...these treatments are rather expensive and when surveyed only 41% of American companies offer insurance that pays for the drugs. Most do not cover in-vitro fertilization. The experts recommend a couple come in early, so they can do extensive tests and start giving the woman drugs. All of those drugs mentioned in that article are for the woman. Like Henry VIII thought, it's gotta be the woman's fault.

Social conservatives get to set fertile women's lives back using misinformation and political dirty tricks. The industry that is fertility medicine gets to clean up on the infertile ones, or the ones who fear they are infertile. Motherhood is a wonderful thing, but being tricked into it, is not. Nor is having the truth about one's actual chances to have a baby kept from one fair. These lawmakers and interest groups are almost modern day Henry VIIs taking their personal ignorance and bias and imposing it on others. The world would have been quite different if Henry Tudor understood that switching wives every few years wasn't going to make him the father of a healthy son.