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Joanna Weiss

In ‘Our Bodies,’ a right to knowledge

IT’S HARD, in this age of oversharing, to imagine a time when “Our Bodies, Ourselves’’ was a revelation. Today, women share details about their bodily secretions on “trying to conceive’’ message boards, “vagina’’ is a common word on network TV, and everyone knows how IVF can produce eight babies at a time. But in 1969, at a women’s liberation conference at Emmanuel College, a group of Boston-area women shared personal stories and reached a then-radical conclusion: Their doctors weren’t telling them enough.

“You couldn’t get information,’’ said Judy Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the group that still produces the book and consults on women’s health. “They’d pat you on the head: Don’t bother yourself, don’t ask questions.’’ If a woman had a sexually transmitted disease, the doctor would tell her husband, not her. And it was nearly impossible for an unmarried woman to get her hands on birth control.

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The women did their research and produced a pamphlet, which later became a book, with detailed diagrams, plain language, and lists of friendly health care providers. The first edition was called “Women and Their Bodies,’’ but that felt too distant, imposed from above. So, 40 years ago, the second edition used the name that has became iconic. At a recent anniversary symposium, a slideshow featured knockoffs: “Our Teddies, Ourselves.’’ “Our Cars, Ourselves.’’ “My Body and None of Your Business.’’

That last sentiment might be more common today, but the work isn’t done. Today, alarmist pregnancy guides drive women to distraction. Mississippi voters might pass a “personhood’’ amendment that, by conferring human rights on a fertilized egg, could outlaw many forms of birth control and fertility treatments. Herman Cain, who has turned out not to be the best thing to happen to womankind, accused Planned Parenthood of a crazy eugenics plot to eliminate black people.

Plenty of women still need frank, dependable guidance on women’s health - here, and around the globe. The world population got plenty of attention last week when the 7-billionth person was allegedly born, possibly in the Philippines, though Vladimir Putin is claiming it was Russia. And amid the jostling for recognition, and the fearful talk of food and resources, one fact became clear: a huge factor in population growth is lack of information for women.

Education - not sex education, but regular education - is the biggest contributing factor to family size, said Dr. Dorothy Shaw, an OB/GYN in British Columbia who works with the international group Partnership for Women and Maternal Health.

Globally, Shaw told me, if you’ve finished secondary school, you’re four times as likely to use birth control. (Abortion rates, meanwhile, are lowest in Scandinavia, where schools offer comprehensive sex ed.)

In many ways, it’s the same old battle: Where women lack access to information, they often lack control over the basic boundaries of their lives.

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Meanwhile, in some developing countries, girls are married as young as 15, at which point proving their fertility becomes a point of family pride. In Bangladesh, Shaw has met 19-year-olds who already had three children, and were asking for permanent contraception. In Guatemala, she spoke to a doctor whose patient had just suffered a miscarriage. She was 43 and hadn’t wanted the pregnancy, but her husband wanted more children. She begged her doctor for a form of birth control that her husband wouldn’t know about.

In many ways, it’s the same old battle: Where women lack access to information, they often lack control over the basic boundaries of their lives. For that reason, “Our Bodies, Ourselves’’ now has a global reach. The latest edition features international partners, such as an NGO of Jewish and Palestinian Israeli women, who are putting out their own versions of the book in Arabic and Hebrew. It also contains more anecdotes and testimonials; Norsigian said the editors concluded that women learn through stories.

They also learn from one another. In Ethiopia and Pakistan, Shaw said, governments have unleashed teams of young women - supported by their governments and foreign aid - to enter remote villages with contraception and information, sometimes presented in pictures for women who can’t read.

The health care workers are talking to religious leaders and local men, too, pointing out the health risks, to both teenagers and children, when girls give birth too young. Cultural change takes work from everyone. But it can start when a few women realize how little they know, and decide to find out more.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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