Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Roe, Abortion, And The Assault On Women



(This week’s episode of THE BODY IN THE WELL BESIDE ME was preempted by the stunning overturns at the SCOTUS. The series will return in 2 weeks).

America’s chilling retreat to the past

Assault on women such as this black woman in Victorian dress
 Woman during the Victorian era
      (Image: DowntownLALife*) 

Assault on Women: how the Supreme Court joined in

In a 5-4 decision on June 24 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark ruling that permitted abortions during the first two trimesters of pregnancy. The regressive decision was courtesy of far-right Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Coney Barrett, and Cavanaugh, all of whom during their confirmation hearings expressed in one way or another that Roe v. Wade was precedent they would not overrule. 

Birth control: as old as history

To understand why this reversal of Roe is so appalling, we need to get reasonably familiar with history’s timeline of birth controlGenesis 38:8-9 tells the story of Onan, who spilled his semen on the ground to avoid impregnating his brother’s wife, a contraceptive maneuver commonly known as coitus interruptus.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) may have been the first to propose using natural chemicals such as cedar oil, lead ointment or frankincense oil as spermicides.

In his memoirs, Casanova (1725-1798) describes his experimental forms of birth control using the empty rind of half a lemon as a primitive cervical cap.

In 1827, scientists had a major breakthrough as they discovered the existence of the human ovum (egg). Prior to that, scientists had only known that sperm must enter the female body for pregnancy to occur. 

The Comstock Laws

Anthony Comstock was head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, established in 1872 and financed by several wealthy philanthropists. Comstock used the funds to lobby the New York Legislature and Congress for laws against adultery, premarital sex, and other so-called vices. His lobbying worked, and on March 2, 1873, Congress passed the Constock Law, an anti-obscenity act that designated contraceptives as obscene material and outlaws the dissemination of them via the postal service or interstate commerce. 

Sanger and McCormick

The story of Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick is long and somewhat involved, but are summarized here with the highlights, for brevity’s sake.

  • Margaret Sanger, was a New York City nurse who, in 1912, wished there was a “magic pill” to prevent pregnancy.
  • She ran afoul of the Comstock Laws with the June 1914 issue of her then-radical journal, The Woman Rebel, where she penned the term “birth control."
  • Two years after fleeing to England, Sanger returned to New York where authorities dropped her charges. She opened the country’s first birth control clinic, which was promptly raided.
  • In 1917, Sanger met Katharine McCormick, a wealthy woman who began to support Sanger’s cause. 
  • In the case of People [of New York] v. Margaret SangerJudge Frederick Crane ruled that physicians could supply contraceptive materials to married couples, but upheld Sanger’s conviction, as she was not a physician.
  • At 72 years old, Sanger met Professor Gregory Pincus who claimed to have suppressed ovulation in rabbits using the hormone progesterone. Sanger convinced him to collaborate with her to develop the “magic pill."
  • McCormick personally funded what became The Pill Project.
  • Whereas some sang Margaret Sanger’s praises for her work on birth control, she was also connected to the eugenics movement and the elimination of the “dysgenic horror story” of blacks who reproduced “carelessly and disastrously.” In 2020, Planned Parenthood of Greater New York removed Margaret Sanger’s name from their Manhattan office.
Plaque marking previous location of Margaret Sanger’s clinic
(Image: Warren Eisenberg/Shutterstock)

In the 1950s, although the majority of physicians approved of birth control, anti-contraception laws in effect in thirty states still prohibited or restricted the sale and advertisement of contraceptive devices. In Massachusetts, it was a crime to "exhibit, sell, prescribe, provide, or give out information" about contraception. In Connecticut, it was a crime for a couple to use contraception. 

In 1954, Harvard professor and hormone expert Gregory Pincus, whom Sanger had met at a dinner party and persuaded to help create the “magic pill," joined forces with Harvard obstetrician-gynecologist John Rock, who had long been interested in birth control and fertility problems, and together they began the first human trials on a progesterone pill in fifty women. Not a single subject ovulated while on the drug. The new “Pill,” called Enovid by the Searle drug company, began spreading to the general public and drug companies. The FDA approved of Enovid for therapeutic purposes in 1959, and after a trial on 897 women, Searle applied to the FDA to approve use of the drug for contraception. In 1960, that’s exactly what happened.

In 1965, Estelle Griswold, director of the Connecticut Planned Parenthood, and Dr. Lee Buxton, chair of the Ob-Gyn Department at Yale Medical School, were arrested in Connecticut for opening four Planned Parenthood clinics. The case went all the way to SCOTUS, and in 1965, the landmark decision of Griswold v. Connecticut overturned the Comstock Law, finding it unconstitutional to restrict access to birth control, because it interfered with a person’s right to privacy.

The Pill: A blessing or another assault on women?

At a time when women’s consciousness was giving rise to feminism and the women’s liberation movement (derisively called “women’s lib”) in the 1960s, the contraceptive pill gave women a new financial independence and/or the ability to join the work force. On the face of it, the Pill and the women’s movement might have seemed a perfect fit. But there are two sides to the Pill, as it were. Its history is laden with the damage and danger it exposed women to--most prominently blood clots, thrombophlebitis, and pulmonary embolism. For a long time, neither drug companies nor physicians informed their female patients of this major, potentially lethal health hazard. Women who complained of such symptoms as depression, headaches, and muscle cramps while on the contraceptive pill were dismissed out of hand by mostly male doctors. In effect, what was a savior from pregnancy for some, became a medical and physical assault on women for others.

During the 1970 hearings on the birth control pill, not a single woman was present on Senator Gaylord Nelson’s panel, leading to vocal protests during the hearing from women in the audience who were part of the collective DC Women’s Liberation. Their question was: Why were we not told of all these dangers? What resulted from their persistence was a package insert along with the birth control pill warning about the blood clot risk. 

Roe v. Wade

In 1970, 22-year-old Norma McCovey (1947-2017), who became known as “Jane Roe” to protect her identity, sued District Attorney of Dallas County, Texas, for enforcing a state law that prohibited abortion except to save the pregnant woman’s life. Roe claimed the Texas law violated her constitutional right to personal privacy. The question before the court was this: Does the US Constitution recognize a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy by abortion? The 7-2 opinion found an absolute right to abortion during the first trimester. At the time, abortion was legal in four states and restricted in sixteen. The ruling nullified abortion bans in the remaining thirty states.

In the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court held that a Pennsylvania law requiring spousal awareness prior to obtaining an abortion was invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment, because it created an undue burden on married women seeking an abortion. The basic framework of Roe was left intact, but the chipping away at it by pro-life activists never ceased. Too many people took Roe for granted and failed to see the ground eroding at their feet. Along came June 24, 2022. Using the decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that sided with Dobbs’s denial of abortion beyond fifteen weeks, SCOTUS held that both Roe and Casey had been wrongly decided, and that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion. In one fell swoop, they erased an almost 50-year-old law.

NEW YORK CITY - AUGUST 22 2015: anti-abortion activists, who believe abortion is an assault on women and their babies, squared off against pro-choice demonstrators in front of Planned Parenthood's Margaret Sanger Clinic
                           Anti-abortion activists square off against pro-choice demonstrators in front of Planned Parenthood's Margaret Sanger Clinic, Manhattan

Male supremacists get their long-awaited assault on women

There is white supremacy, but there is also male supremacy. Together, they are a deadly combination, and they are, to a varying extent, likely operant here. Male supremacy is an ideology advocating the rigid gender roles, and subjugation of women. Reversal of Roe is a male-supremacist move. The idea is to diminish women by showing contempt and removing their once-established right to terminate their own pregnancies. 

Recently, a 10-year-old impregnated girl had to leave Ohio to travel to Indiana for an abortion (and soon Indiana will no longer be an option.) To these cruel pro-life men and women, even if a girl of 10 is raped by her father, she must carry the pregnancy because the fetus is a “precious life.”  In many states, e.g Missouri, there is no exception for rape or incest. Why? Because men are the purveyors of rape and incest. They want to shift the focus away from the offender toward the woman. 

Pro-life activists are also looking to ban the "morning-after pill,” e.g. Plan B, on the claim that it prevents the embryo from implanting itself in the uterus. This is an outright falsehood. The medication is not an abortifacient. It prevents ovulation and therefore fertilization. 

Why is this happening now?

The stars have aligned in a way perfect for the two main types of supremacy to drag the country back to an earlier time--perhaps back to the Comstock Laws?--and inflict maximum possible damage on the lives of women. Don’t worry that there are also many pro-life women--they are not coming from the same place as men, even if they seem to be.

Between 2016 and 2021, the culmination of several events spawned the backlash from white and male supremacists. The Black Lives Matter movement, started in 2013, came into prominence, especially after the murder of George Floyd. The #MeToo movement became red-hot headlines around 2017. Men--some very powerful men, all of whom proved to be cowards--were vilified, and rightfully so, for assaulting and raping women. Then came Covid, a time of uncertainty, intractable division, and frustration. Quarantining at home is a good way for a male supremacist to become progressively angrier. When #45 lost the election, this ire came to boiling point and the male supremacists redirected their fury at their favorite target--women. And up there on the Supreme Court, the male and white supremacists were exactly where and when they were needed.


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

My Abundance of Books and Durians

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

Notice Singapore's huge fines for smoking, eating, drinking and bombing or burning stuff on our public transport? And notice too that the only other thing specifically banned on public transport is durians. No doubt this says something about our national passion for cleanliness--but maybe even more about our national passion for durians.
It's interesting, too, that there's no $$ fine for the offence, maybe because it would be lèse majesté to fine someone carrying the 'king of all fruits'.

But what I've been thinking about is whether I'm having too much of a good thing when it comes to durians and books.

There was a time when I would have sworn I could never have too many books or too much durian. I couldn't imagine such a state.

When I was growing up and both books and durians were precious and scarce, I remember loading up my library card (as well as my mother's) to borrow the maximum number of English books allowed on once-a-week trips to the National Library at Stamford Road--only during school holidays, of course. During term time you had to depend on the school library that was really pathetic. You'll get an idea of how pathetic when I tell you I even read all the Chinese and Malay books in there--both shelves worth.

That library's long gone now. There are new libraries now of course. Good, clean, well-organised libraries, but they don't smell or feel as exciting.  

It was the same thing when, during the durian season, my father came home with the car boot full of spiky, deliciously stinky durians. I ate all I could get my fingers on. We all stuffed ourselves, but there was never, ever enough.

When something's in short supply, whether books or durians, every word, ever morsel is precious.

Back in those days I think there was one major durian 'season' between June and September, and, if we were lucky, a 'minor' season around Christmas--though the fruit always cost more then we always had some then too. But there were sometimes 'offers' at the end of the day, when sellers had to get rid of fruit since it doesn't keep overnight. My Dad would hear from his 'lobang' (Singlish for insider connection) and we would tumble out of bed to feast in our pyjamas. 

Like with books, there was one big bookshop in town--MPH (Malaysian Publishing House) also on Stamford Road--that issued the book vouchers that were the only presents I wanted for birthday and Christmas presents. But even more exciting was the illicit thrill of second hand bookshops along Bras Basah Road. (Illicit only because my mum feared 'germs' almost as much as she disapproved of 'Enid Blytons' though she couldn't say why). Anything that I could pick up there and smuggle home was extra precious.

But fast forward to today when I have access to more books than I can read and more durian than I can eat, and all year round without needing to wait for seasons and school holidays.

So how do I choose where to get my durians?

For years Uncle Lee was the main 'supplier' to my addiction. He worked into his 80's and was very proud of the customers he'd kept through the years. Even during the off season he would often sit in the kopitiam near his stall talking about how the durian trees were doing, whether they were flowering too early or whether it was raining too much or not enough. 

Uncle Lee was very proud of only selling durians from trees he knew, 'no GM stuff' 'all old tree only'. He was one of a dying breed and he died of a heart attack in the middle of the season a few years ago. Some of us loyal customers helped buy up his pre-ordered stock so his last contract was honoured. But his nephew didn't want to carry on the business so that was the end of that. 

Now you can get durians all year round, almost everywhere. They're in supermarkets now, packed in sealed styrofoam packets so they don't smell. You can order them online and have them delivered, vacuum packed.

And venders are online and send updates on prices as efficiently as betting odds. Also, with guarantees of odourless packing that will get you past any checkpoints 'even on airplane'.

But it feels almost too easy. Like buying books on BookBub or elsewhere online or at Kinokuniya (my idea of what heaven looks like) or at a charity pre-owned book booth... I'll grab: 

1) books I've loved but don't own 
2) ebooks editions of books I own only on paper (in case I want to read them on the go) 
3) paper editions of books I own only on Kindle 
4) books by writers I've read before and liked 
5) books by people I like even if I haven't read their books before 
6) books that sound like books I've loved before 
7) books that sound like nothing I've enjoyed before (because I want to expand my reading horizons and this is a cheap way to get more options than I'll ever read) 
8) books by local authors because I want to support them 
9) books by foreign writers because I want to learn more about other cultures 
10) books about writing, food, plants, dogs, fish, languages, drawing, painting, yoga, cycling, swimming...

Okay this didn't go the way I intended but it feels like exactly the same issue. 

These are all good books and worth reading. Like there's nothing wrong with durians--they're full of vitamins, minerals, fibre and other good things. And I want to support the people selling them (a neighbour and friend is part owner of one business and the chap who sends the daily price update has the cutest little daughter in Malaysia, who he didn't see for two years during the Covid ban on travel). 

It's just that there's almost too much of a good thing. Without a period of scarcity it's hard to remember to appreciate how lucky I am. It makes me want to spend some time in that (totally gorgeous and isolated!) Meteora monastery Jeff wrote about on Saturday. 

In the old days the 'aunties' of our neighbourhood would gather around this tree 

 on the slope just outside our fence, watching the durians ripen and waiting for them to fall. Monkeys watched from nearby trees too. 

Even though there would be at most one or two seeds for those who were lucky enough to be on watch when the ripe fruit finally fell everyone said they were the best they ever tasted.

Maybe I should go back to only eating durians I collect myself in season? And maybe only read books that I order by mail and get delivered by sea... no. That's not going to happen.

But maybe a short fast might be a good idea...

Monday, July 4, 2022

A Pean to My, Albeit Challenged, Wonderful Country

Annamaria on Independence Day 2022

I ranted here last week.  I still have words to say about recent events, but I want us all to be happy today.  And grateful for the things that are good about the US of A.  I don't know anything that I can say to make us feel optimistic, other  than this 4th of July greeting that I send from my heart.

We'll go back to the fight for progress soon, but let's be glad today. 

HAPPY 4th of July. 

Saturday, July 2, 2022

More Magic of Greece, Meteora Style

Here's another of my favorite places in Greece that I'm sad to say I haven't visited in quite a while.  So, today, let's visit Meteora together! 
Once upon a time, or more accurately sixty million years ago, a sea existed in the middle of northern Greece.  Then the earth started pushing the seabed up toward the sky and, with the help of water, wind, and temperature, massive pillars of gray stone emerged near the northwestern edge of today’s Thessaly plain by the mighty Pindus mountain range (the “spine of Greece”) and the wide and fertile Pineios river basin.

Carbon dating conducted in a cave by those natural rock towers revealed human presence in the area 50,000 years ago.  But that cave of Theopetra is not the big draw to the region (in fact, the cave has been closed to the public), nor is it what makes that complex of sandstone and conglomerate cliffs among the most revered sites in Eastern Orthodoxy, second in Greece only to Mount Athos (See, Prey on Patmos).

To find the reason for Meteora’s significance you must look heavenward two thousand feet or so.

Welcome to the scene of more than twelve-hundred years of monastic life “suspended in air,” the literal meaning of meteora.  The first recorded dwellers among the cliffs were 9th Century hermit monks, and although no one knows precisely when the first monastery was built, by the beginning of the 12th Century a rudimentary monastic state had evolved around the church of Theotokos (the mother of God).  That church still stands today.

By the end of the 12th Century many had come to join the community, but it was not until the 14th Century that work began on architectural contributions that still stun the imagination.  The Byzantine Empire was crumbling and Turkish pirates were on the rampage—notably against vulnerable Mount Athos monasteries sitting on an Aegean peninsula 150 miles northeast of Meteora.

Three Mount Athos monks fed up with battling brigands left in search of what they’d heard was a place of miracles and prayer in the land of the “great rock forest.”  There they scaled the heights of the cliffs and with the Serbian emperor as benefactor erected the Grand Metereron (aka Monastery of the Transfiguration). By the 16th Century twenty-four monasteries were built on Meteora, and of the six that survive, Grand Metereron is one of them.

Today, the cliff-side monasteries welcome visitors with roads, steps, and paths, none of which existed in Meteora’s heyday of isolation from the world below.  To shuttle between their fields and flocks down in the valley the monks relied upon ladders as long as 130 feet and hand-cranked hoists to lift baskets and nets well over 1000 feet in the air.  Everything going up and down in those nets, particularly the monks, trusted their fate to the strength of their brethren.

Scary huh?  But wait, there’s more.  Legend has it that the ropes were only replaced “when the Lord let them break.”  Now that’s the sort of workday commute I’d call a true leap of faith.

But the glory years of Meteora’s 15th Century monastic life faded as the unscrupulous plundered the monasteries, squatters took over, and moral direction deteriorated to where one monk lived in a monastery with two women dressed as monks.  There were brief interludes of monastic revival but by the 18th Century it was more a refuge for Greeks fleeing Ottoman overlords and later for 19th Century Greeks fighting Turks in their battle for Independence.  The most serious toll on the monasteries and their treasures, though, came during Greece’s occupation in World War II.

Meterora in the crosshairs
But all that’s in the past, and today Meteora is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an absolute must see for anyone interested in architectural brilliance amid magnificent natural beauty.  Particularly if you’re female, because Greece’s other site of such wonder, Mount Athos, forbids women.  Ibid, Prey on Patmos. 

And for those armchair travellers among us, you can catch a bit of it in the James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only, where one of the monasteries serves as the bad guy’s hideout.  The more things change…


Friday, July 1, 2022

A wee taste of the good stuff


I’m reading a book for blurb purposes. The person who wrote it is an ex journalist and an award winning writer, very political and sensible. Feminist and all round jolly good human being. They write books of a very high literary standard, the words float of the page and into your head. It’s all rather magical. Normally nobody dies unless they are dying in a ‘Beaches’ kind of way. Or of TB while leaning on a mantlepiece.


My idea of literary fiction......having never read any!

Their books are normally…  err… books that not crime books – I have no idea what to call them. They are fiction and socially relevant, beautifully written but after 13 years of constantly reading crime fiction, writing crime fiction and immersing myself in the stuff, this ‘proper writing’ is an unusual thing for me to look at.

 Oh yes, literary fiction.


                                                   Questioning was what going on in this book

                                               Older man drawn to younger, scheming female beauty?

I think one of the reasons I was asked to have a look at it is that the book is set in a fictional police force. The squad are trying to solve a fictional crime, the serial killer called The Butcher, a thinly disguised very famous crime, and as time has passed, it has come to light that… (well has it come to light or are we looking at the past through the prism of today) with regard to the case in question, the sexism of the police force prevented a serial killer (who only killed women) from being apprehended much earlier.

With regard to the real case, I’m not sure it’s true that the case could have been concluded earlier than it was – in the end it was sheer luck. This was pre digital age, pre HOLMES ( Home Office Major Enquiry System) and its successors. The investigation was the biggest ever, the police were swamped with paperwork. The investigation room had to have the floor reinforced due to the weight of the documentation.  Yes, the media took great exception when the killer killed a ‘nice girl’ rather than the  prostitutes/sex workers that he had killed up to that point.  But the fact was the killer had changed his MO, it wasn’t only sex workers in the red light areas the police were warning to take care, it was every woman out after dark. One chief officer was quoted as saying that woman should stay in, or go around in pairs.  The response nowadays to that was it was victim blaming and  men should have stayed in to allow women to go out. If all women  kept their men at home, then the killer would also be kept at home.

Yes, because that would work?? Sarcastic emoji.

I do recall the actual case  from the front of newspapers when I was a very small child. The rest of my knowledge has come from all the subsequent documentaries. The writer of the book I’m ‘reviewing’   is just a little older than me, maybe an early teen, maybe older, maybe old enough to have been on her own on a university  town while all this was going on.

On her own.


                                                 Nasty book of mind, but there's a symbiotic relationship;

                                                a feeder and a feedee. The genders, I think are irrelevant.


The book is incredibly powerful,  the struggles of a young female cop trying to make her way in a police force that really has no idea what to do with a young female except ask her to make the tea and comfort young children caught up in trauma. The portrayal of the heroine is subtly drawn. It would be so much easier to make her ballsy, witty,  a tour de force where nothing is going to get in her way as she strives to the top. I can name loads of books with that going on. Including a few of my own.

But this heroine belongs in literature, there’s a sadness about her, a melancholy, a lack of self almost. I’m half way through and, as the song says she still   hasn’t found what she’s looking for. When her clever observations make a break in the case, the male partner takes the credit. It’s not done maliciously; it’s the way they operated. Our heroine  notes it, but says nothing. She has her own battles on the domestic front to fight, and she’s not winning any of them.  She’s not fighting them on the page, it’s all a dark but largely invisible thread that weaves through her professional life.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen to her.  Emotionally, she’s caught. On one side are her male colleagues, who might be joshing with her but, I hope, will start to see her as an equal human being. Even if they do go on about her nice legs, I’d like to think they’d run to her aid if needed, as they would any other colleague.

Her new ‘mates’ are feminists  of various degrees of extremist ideology. Our heroine is a bit of a fox in the hen house, listening to her housemates criticise the way the police are dealing with the atrocities of the Butcher. She can’t say what she does for a living – one of her pals thinks she works in the police canteen.


                             Book 1 Young female cop bottom of the tree, 2 male superior colleagues.

                             Book 3  Female boss. Male, them female, then 2 male underlings.


And of course, she herself is on the run from domestic abuse.

 I’m fascinated to see which way the story goes.

It’s like Margaret Atwood writing a serial killer drama.

It’s very good.

I’ve been imagining my own ending ( not my own ending, I'm imagining how I would write the ending in this book from the 75% mark)…. The heroine makes her point but dies in the process…. At the hands of the Butcher or the hands of her domestic abuser, I’m not sure.  I think her feminist pals will let her down when they find out  she’s a cop. The fact she’s a woman making it in a man’s world will pass them by.  But her friends, either gender, those who respect her will, in some way, tip the scales of justice and morality in her favour.

I wonder how close I am to what a really good writer has written. I suspect I’m nowhere near the ‘right’ ending…. 

Watch this space.


Thursday, June 30, 2022

The caves that keep on giving

 Stanley - Thursday

When I was a kid, my family went on a BIG outing to Sterkfontein Caves, about 40 kms northwest of Johannesburg. We, the kids, were eager to see if we could find Mr Ples, husband to the legendary Mrs Ples.

To set the stage for the visit, I need to go back a few years.  In the late 1800s, some limestone miners were the first to notice fossils embedded in the rock at Sterkfontein. They were smart enough to bring them to the notice of scientists. 

However it was only in 1936 that the first of a series of startling discoveries were made at Sterkfontein. Students of Drs Raymond Dart and Robert Broom from my alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand, unearthed the first adult Australopithecine, which reinforced Dart's claim that remains found at a place called Taungs by quarrymen and named Australopithecus Africanus - the southern ape from Africa "was an extinct race of apes intermediate between living anthropoids and man". The paper appeared in the 7 February 1925 issue of the journal Nature. The fossil was soon nicknamed the Taung Child. For a variety of reasons, most scientists initially rejected Dart's theory. (If you are interested in conflict and dissension in the scientific community, it's worth reading Taung Child.)

Taung's Child

It was the discovery of the Australopithecine at Sterkfontein that caused the tide to turn with respect to acce[ptance of Dart's theory.

Back to Mrs Ples! After World War II, Broom continued to work at Sterkfontein and found a nearly complete female skull, which was classified as Plesianthropus transvaalensis, but quickly came known as Mrs Ples. It is now classified as an Australopithecus Africanus, and was thought to be about 2.1 million years old, much more recent than Lucy, the Australopithecine found in Ethiopia by Donald Johnson, which is thought to be 3.2 million years old. (It's interesting to note that Lucy got her name because the Beatle's song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was played incessantly at the dig.)

Mrs Ples

So, off my family went in search of Mrs Ples's wayward husband. We were unsuccessful.

However, Sterkfontein was not finished with what it had to offer. In 1997, a nearly complete skeleton of a second species of Australopithecus was found in the caves by Ronald J Clarke. Extraction of the remains from the surrounding breccia is still ongoing. The skeleton was named Little Foot, since the first parts found (actually, in storage, in 1995) were the bones of a foot.

Little Foot

To date, Sterkfontein has yielded over 500 hominids, making it the richest site in Africa and one of the richest anywhere.

In 1999, UNESCO declared the area around Sterkfontein  a World Heritage site, which currently occupies 47,000 hectares (180 sq mi) and contains a complex system of limestone caves. It is known as the Cradle of Humankind and has a fascinating interpretative centre.

But wait, there's more.

On 13 September 2013, while exploring the Rising Star caves in the Cradle of Humankind, two cavers, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, found hominem fossils, that were to become known as Homo Naledi, dated to about 335,000–236,000 years ago.

Artist's rendering of Homo Naledi.

You can read about this amazing discovery, as well as the remarkable actions that had to be taken by lead investigator Prof Lee Berger and his team of cave astronauts - all female! - in Michael's wonderful blog written in September 2015.

Remarkably, the Naledi discovery followed another astonishing find - by Berger's son Matthew in 2008 - namely Australopithecus Sediba. The skeletons are about 2 million years old and almost complete.

This is Matthew Berger

This is Australopithecus Sediba

Needless to say, each find ignites discussion and controversy as to where it fits into both the historic timeframe and genealogy of modern humans. It has been generally accepted that Lucy is about 3 or so million years old, while the oldest finds at Sterkfontein were thought to be considerably younger. This then led to the belief that East Africa was the more likely origin of the earliest hominin that eventually evolved into the Homo genus we belong to.

But wait, there's even more!

A study published this week found the some of the Australopithecus fossils are a million years older that previously though and are about 3.4 million to 3.6 million years. This puts them around the same time as Lucy and others in East Africa. The researchers, including experts from Johannesburg and France, examined radioactive decay in rocks buried at the same time as the fossils, whereas earlier estimates were based on calcite flowstone deposits.

The study indicates that the South African hominins, which had been considered “too young” to be ancestors of the Homo genus, were actually “contemporaries” of those in East Africa and had the time to evolve, said Dominic Stratford, director of research at the caves and one of the paper’s authors.

“This important new dating work pushes the age of some of the most interesting fossils in human evolution research, and one of South Africa’s most iconic fossils, Mrs. Ples, back a million years to a time when, in East Africa, we find other iconic early hominins like Lucy,” he said.

Quite frankly, I don't understand very much about any of this, but what I do know is that the caves I crawled through when a kid, looking for Mr Ples have yielded unbelievable riches in our quest to understand our origins. If you visit South Africa, a visit to the Cradle of Humankind should be near the top of your list.

Maropeng Visitor Centre at the Cradle of Humankind

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The "Wife's Help"; Writing about abortion in historical fiction

 Sujata Massey

About two years ago, I started work on a new book in the Perveen Mistry historical mystery series. The beginning is a lot of fun. Searching for historical events and themes to explore is typically a magical period of big dreaming. To coax out story ideas, I reach into the messy purse that is my brain, the spot where memories and idea fragments coexist like torn candy wrappers and soiled pennies. 

What I pulled out of the bag was the notion of reproductive rights. It didn't take long for me to realize I could become passionate about writing a story that illuminated these health and freedom challenges faced by women in 1920s India. How would their choices be different than a modern woman's? Especially if laws existed to punish those who tried not to bear children, either through contraception or abortion? 

In the vintage photograph above, women of the Kurni (tilling) caste pose together for a colonial photographer. How many of the women are mothers, and how many children do this group collectively have? Surely some of them are mothers and daughters. And I wonder--do the small girls flanking the ends of the group already have husbands? 

I believe that abortion is an understandable part of reproductive life—just like menstruation, childbirth and contraception and venereal disease. I haven’t shied away from writing about these aspects of women's lives in my feminist mystery series set in 1920s Bombay. Therefore, the fourth novel in the series became the perfect entry point for my lawyer heroine, Perveen Mistry, to assist an illiterate ayah charged with the crime of abortion. Slated for publication in June 2023, tThe Mistress of Bhatia House also includes scenes with Perveen secretly reading a banned book about contraception, and deliberating over whether she should assist a contentious group of women volunteers trying to establish a maternity hospital. 

Abortion law in India was created along with the arrival of the British. In the early East India Company times, criminal courts administered by British officers were set up; however, prosecutions of abortion were rare. A chief reason was that life was defined as starting at quickening: the time in pregnancy, somewhere between the fourth and fifth month, that a baby’s movements can be felt. Colonial government had greater concern about criminal prosecutions of people committing infanticide on young babies, the burning of widows, and other "easy to see" crimes. This laissez faire attitude toward abortion matched the mood of judges in Britain and the United States during the same time period, who all regarded quickening as the start of human life.


For most of India’s history, the midwife (called a dai) was the one who performed gynecological care in humble villages and bustling towns. A woman who missed a period would go to the local dai to request a herbal tea known to lead to cramping and the onset of menses.  Many women regularly drank such teas, which were even nicknamed “Wife’s Help.” Women were taught that a husband’s desire had to be obeyed, even if the outcome meant too many children to care for, or physical damage to a woman’s body from unending pregnancies and deliveries. Mitra Sharif, a University of Wisconsin professor of law and an authority on the history of law in colonial India, dives deep into the medico-legal history of abortion in a lengthy, fascinating article that appeared in Modern Asian Studies. 

As Dr. Sharafi learned from researching hundreds of legal documents, newspaper articles, and books, on occasion the medicinal teas were unexpectedly poisonous, causing great suffering or even death. And sometimes, dais used sticks or other crude means to disrupt a pregnancy. Varied poisons including gunpowder and arsenic were sometimes administered to pregnant women by uneducated family members—with death as a consequence. And it wasn't only Indian women who sought to end pregnancies. British colonial women also had the same need, and when one such wife died following an illegal procedure performed by a medical doctor in the colonial system, the case went to court.

Rajasthani women in British Colonial India

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the British took formal control over half the subcontinent. This meant that by 1860, the Indian Penal Code was created, and it included a revised definition of the criminality of abortion (as well as homosexuality, but that's a long story for another day). 

Under the Indian Penal Code, quickening was no longer the defining factor in a baby's viability. An attempt to end a pregnancy at any stage was considered abortion, and midwives in India were now at risk of being prosecuted as abortionists. The stress was on convicting the 'perpetrators' of abortion rather than 'victims'; in fact, the law was presented as protecting India's women. In Britain and the United States, abortion was also redefined after 1860 as a more serious crime that could be prosecuted in cases where a pregnancy was terminated earlier than the fourth month.

N.S. Phadke


Why did these countries have a sudden interest in outlawing abortion? 


One idea floating around elite people were becoming interested in eugenics, a pseudo-scientific theory about the genetic superiority and inferiority of various races. In the US, doctors in the all-white American Medical Association advocated for the birth of more White children to form a protective block against what was perceived as a surge of immigrant and Black births—and abortion laws meant reducing numbers of Black midwives. The notion of sterilizing members of unsavory social classes in Britain was seriously considered by government officials.

In 1920s Bombay, philosophy professor N.S. Phadke lectured and wrote about some modern contraceptive methods of Europe, such as the diaphragm, arguing that bringing contraception to India would decrease the number of poor people bearing children at young ages and allow for the dominance of wealthy, higher caste people to reproduce (and successfully gain India’s freedom!). His 1927 reproductive education book, Sex Problem in India, has an introduction by Margaret Sanger. I ordered a replica edition to be made in India from a digital scan. After reading Phadke's provocative commentary, I decided to get it into Perveen's hands. 


Francis Galton, definer of Eugenics 

Eugenics were about contraception and keeping birth rates down. Abortion laws in India served an adjacent purpose by making it more difficult for dais to practice. Also, the prohibition of abortion also made it a weapon for people to use against each other. For example, unscrupulous  in-laws wishing to expel a widow from their home could report to the police shed had an abortion. Such immorality would disqualify her from continued support, and if she had any assets left by her late husband, the family could seize them. Other villains using abortion as a weapon were constables shaking down women’s families for bribes in exchange for not accusing them. Enough corrupt cases came to court that laws were passed making it a crime to falsely accuse someone of abortion.

But accusations are real, and they are dangerous. Right now, there's an abortion vigilante law in Texas that offers cash bounties to anyone assisting the police with information leading to the arrest of a woman obtaining an abortion; not just in-state, where it's illegal, but out of state as well.  


The Texas nightmare arose two years after I started The Mistress of Bhatia House. However, I felt increasingly worried for women after Donald Trump was elected in 2016 with the support of many people wishing to outlaw abortion. In the past six years, many states passed laws that made it more difficult for women to obtain abortions in their states, and also for doctors and nurse practitioners to perform abortions. Thirteen states passed ‘trigger laws’ to ban abortions entirely within 30 days of a Supreme Court decision overturning 1973’s Roe versus Wade decision establishing abortion as a constitutional right. The Supreme Court’s new appointees, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, refused to admit that they would vote to take away the right to abortion. 

But last week, that's what they did.