I just started reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, about a woman whose cervical cancer cells were harvested without her knowledge and grown in a lab at Johns Hopkins and subsequently shared with labs all over the world, leading to a phenomenal array of medical discoveries and cures, all while Lacks’ family remained impoverished and without health care of their own. I learned about the history of the Pap smear (named after Greek doctor Georgios Papanikolaou). Then I went to the doctor for my own annual gyn exam, where a wonderful doctor I’d never seen before gave me much more detailed and helpful information about ovulation and conception than any previous doctor (and I’ve spoken with many) has provided. I told her about the book. She was interested and told me what she’s reading. Then I got in the car and the story on NPR was about women giving birth in Mozambique and how access to a drug called misoprostal has dramatically changed life for women there by reducing bleeding after childbirth, which is a leading cause of maternal death there. The story featured traditional birth attendants as well as World Health Organization doctors. The traditional birth attendants concluded their interview with a song of thanks for their training and a request for more misoprostal.
The struggle to have babies or not to have babies or not to have too many babies is universal, but it’s easy to forget how much luxury we have in this country, in 2011, when we are white and middle class and have health insurance, to get help in making these choices and acting on them. We may not be able to control whether or not we have a baby and when, but we can come pretty close. Our system is far from perfect, but I’ll take it.