When I was in college in 1966, a dear friend who I had not seen in a year told me she was pregnant and needed an abortion. She was desperate-and broke. Abortion was illegal. I asked around and got the name of a physician in Washington, D.C., called him, made the arrangements and raised the money for my friend. The doctor turned out to be professional and everything went as smoothly as it could given the circumstances, but I decided that I would do everything I could to ensure no other woman went through what my friend endured. In a way, the experience awakened my social conscience.
I’m in a Planned Parenthood health center. Men are in the waiting room, as well as women and infants. Primary care, including dermatology, urology, and pediatric care, are offered to all comers. But that is not all. In one adjacent building, there is a cooking class and an adjacent café where the teen (and some adult) budding cooks sell their culinary creations to the public. In another building, teens are learning to cut and style hair; next door teens are measuring customers for made-to-order clothes; and in yet another space, teens are rehearsing a play about responsible decision making and warning against illegal abortion. Nearby are the classrooms of a primary school for the orphan children of the neighborhood. A steam bath in another building has a steady stream of customers from the community.
Breaking the Waves, the breathtaking new opera by composer, Missy Mazzoli, and librettist, Royce Vavrek, had its New York premier on January 6, 2017 at NYU’s Skirball Center. It had premiered in Philadelphia in September 2016 at Opera Philadelphia, which had co-commissioned the work with Beth Morrison Projects. Based on the Lars von Trier movie of the same name, the story is set in an insular (literally) community on the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland. A young woman, Bess, a member of the tight-knit religious community, marries an outsider, Jan, to the great consternation of her congregation. He works on an offshore oil rig (for us literalists, there are no oil rigs off of Skye – they are all in the North Sea on the other side of Scotland). Bess prays for his early return. He is injured and paralyzed and, from his hospital bed, asks Bess to have sex with other men and to recount her liaisons to him. The reasons for this request are murky (to keep their marriage and his hopes alive?) but her assent seemingly isn’t: she feels guilty for praying for his early return, feels she may have caused his accident, wants to do the right thing by her husband and believes she will thereby cure him. That said, Bess does like sex, as we saw when she asked Jan to consummate their marriage in a loo at their wedding reception – envisioning it to be a romantic setting when it was anything but. As she sets forth, hesitantly, on her sexual adventures/redemption, is she fooling herself, or her husband, or is she delusional, or full of faith? She certainly does not enjoy the sex. She is degraded, humiliated and victimized and meets a tragic end. Her husband recovers, presumably redeemed by her sacrifice.
Halfdan Mahler, the former Director General of IPPF from 1988 to 1995, died on December 14, 2016 in Geneva. Dr. Mahler was formerly the Director of the World Health Organization and served there during the onset of the AIDS crisis from 1973-1988. I met Dr. Mahler at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. He was an imposing presence, at ease in the corridors of power and comfortable within the UN system of reaching consensus, even as he led IPPF in pushing for the recognition of the empowerment and rights of women in the final document. In addition to AIDS, Dr. Mahler focused on unsafe abortion as a scourge that must be eliminated. His leadership brought the IPPF Member Associations into uncharted (for some) territories of AIDS, abortion and the rights of women and he will be remembered for his firm vision and diplomacy that made it happen.