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Running an obstacle course

By Joyce McClure

To have or not to have. To be or not to be. This is at the center of the debate on abortion. It is a basic, personal decision to have children or not; to be a mother or not.

But it’s not just about the right to have an abortion. It’s about birth control and the white male-dominated government and religious institutions that believe it’s their right to decide what women should and should not do.

When Archbishop Michael Byrnes recently “renewed his call for the Catholic faithful to rally behind a bill that would further restrict access to abortion on Guam,” my blood boiled.

His statement reminded me of my own struggle to get access to birth control nearly 50 years ago, a struggle that was further inflamed when the news arrived that Roe v. Wade was overturned.

The decision of the Supreme Court was intensified in light of the 55 percent of adults who are pro-choice compared to 39 percent who are pro-life. Perhaps more telling is that 61 percent of women are pro-choice versus 48 percent of men.

A member of the Baby Boom generation that came of age soon after the birth control pill was made legally available in 1960, I had known since my teens that I did not want to have children. But by the time I graduated from college in 1969 and moved to New York City to pursue a career, I was concerned about the long-term health effects of the pill. It was still controversial both medically and morally.

I asked my doctor, Dr. McCaffrey, for a prescription. Unmarried, I steeled myself before I went to my appointment. What would he think of me? Thankfully, he gave me the prescription without judgment and told me about the risks associated with it.

By 1975, married and divorced, I had been taking the pill for six years. I asked Dr. McCaffrey about having a tubal ligation to permanently eliminate the fear of having an unwanted pregnancy.


Voluntary sterilization was looked upon with skepticism and concern but not just for the patient’s sake.

Thousands of women and men were victims of eugenics laws in this country from the beginning of the 20th century until their repeal in 1975. Eugenics programs, the involuntary sterilization of people who are deemed unfit to reproduce, were federally funded in 32 states to control thousands of “undesirable” men and women including immigrants, people of color, poor people, unmarried mothers, the disabled, and the mentally ill from reproducing.

But I was a white woman of privilege. I was not mentally unfit, disabled, or a moral degenerate as many had been deemed in courts of law. I was not African American or Native American or Hispanic as so many of the women who were sterilized without their consent.

Rather, performing a tubal ligation was seen by doctors as a potential threat when women began to come forth, suing them for having their ability to have children taken away from them. My doctors were among those who were afraid of being prosecuted if I changed my mind after having the procedure. It could be reversed, they said, but there was no guarantee.

Dr. McCaffrey told me to return in two years when I turned 30 and he would give his permission. I agreed knowing I would not change my mind. Two years later, he said he wanted me to consult with a psychotherapist to make sure my decision was sound.

When I met with a therapist, he said he had never been approached by anyone asking for voluntary sterilization. Would I be willing to be the subject of a paper about it? Amused, I said I would; he would get back to me, he said. I called a few weeks later to set up an interview. He replied that he had done some research and found a paper on the topic and had decided not to pursue it. I asked if I could get a copy of the paper. I could not, he said, only medical professionals were allowed to read it.

Frustrated, I made an appointment to see my general practitioner, Dr. McCormack. “Oh, he’s just an old Catholic,” he said, laughing when I told him about Dr. McCaffery’s directive to consult with a psychotherapist. “Here’s the name of another gynecologist who will give you the permission you need.”

After explaining my quest, the new gynecologist paused. “I’ve only been asked to do this one other time…and she was a lesbian.” I thought, “If she’s a lesbian, why would she want to be sterilized?”

By now I was annoyed by the barriers being put in my way. The surgeon who was head of family planning at the hospital would not do the procedure without a gynecologist’s referral.

I went back to Dr. McCaffrey, and he finally relented. But there was one more barrier.

During my appointment with the surgeon, he informed me that I was required to wait one month “to think about it.” Liability was clearly on his mind. He and his colleagues were well aware of the court cases that were ongoing.

A month later, the date was set for my surgery. Afterward, I was approached by other women who were considering tubal ligation. They were married, engaged and single. Some had the procedure, some did not. But it was their choice.

Now, 45 years later, the debate about a woman’s right to choose is still being controlled by the largely white male-dominated, privileged government and religious institutions.

The question about who will provide for the needs of those unwanted children and their mothers is ignored, and why they want or need an abortion or birth control is rarely addressed. Instead, they are treated like those who were submitted to eugenics laws as immoral, unstable and irresponsible. The reasons women make these choices are many and difficult, but never the business of anyone other than the woman.

How dare Byrnes say, “As we defend the lives of the unborn in all our words and actions, we must be firm in our convictions that abortion is an absolute evil."

Where was he when children were being abused by priests under his command? Where is he now when women and children are being abused in his community? Is he willing to raise the children born when a law prevents women from getting the safe healthcare and information they need from reputable organizations?

He has no right to say he’s defending children and no right to infer that women who choose to have an abortion or use birth control are evil. He and his male cronies in the cult of celibate Catholic priesthood are the ones who are immoral and evil.

After a long career as a senior marketing executive, Joyce McClure traded the island of Manhattan for the island Yap as a Peace Corps Response volunteer in 2016. She is now a freelance writer and photographer living in Guam. Send feedback to

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