A confession: Until recently, I didn’t really understand what happens during a woman’s menstrual cycle. (And I still kind of have a few questions.) I confess because I’m a male veteran journalist who is only now realizing the depths of my ignorance when it comes to “women’s issues.”
That’s true even though I spent years on a health care beat that included my reporting on a young girl with a rare form of cancer struggling to maintain her sanity as her family wondered if the mounting medical bills would bankrupt them. And I watched the final few weeks of an elderly woman’s life. It’s a hell of a thing to watch ovarian cancer slowly whittle itself down a body into nothingness, even while in the presence of dedicated loved ones and experienced hospice nurses. I’ll never forget her asking her daughter to place a spoonful of peanut butter on her tongue, just so she could taste it one last time, even though her body’s digestive system had long failed her.
I’ve been clueless about things women have to consider daily even though I grew up with an older and younger sister and a bevy of female cousins and a mother, even though I have been married to my wife for more than two decades and am the father of a 14-year-old daughter. That’s true even though I was in the room when each of my two children were born and I got to see their faces before my wife, who was busy wondering if she should get an epidural. That’s true even though I have penned columns about reproductive rights. That’s true even though I’ve spent several years urging and teaching fellow journalists about the need to be well versed in the most complex issues of the day by understanding how our brains and bodies work and how history colors our perceptions in ways we don’t often recognize.
But my focus was heavy on the issues of race and violence, light on the mechanics of maybe the most morally and legally vexing issue of our time—abortion.
I’m only now being confronted with the depths of my ignorance because the issue has become a flashpoint after a growing number of conservative states have passed laws specifically designed to end in a legal challenge that could undo Roe v. Wade. I have my personal views about abortion laws and have shared them elsewhere and will continue to. But from a journalistic standpoint, I feel kind of ashamed, exposed even, that over all these years, I didn’t do the necessary thinking—and listening—to better understand this issue from a women’s point-of-view. (Is this the way white journalists feel when a lightbulb goes off about an until-then unknown ignorance of the complexity of race?)
I get that not all women think alike, that there is a diversity of opinion among women just as there is among men. I get that in Alabama, for instance, even though the overwhelming majority of legislators who voted to pass a law that essentially bans abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, were white men, that a woman was an initial sponsor of the bill and a woman governor codified it into law. I’m well aware of the need to avoid putting women into a box.
But why didn’t I know more about menstrual cycles? Or when a fetus became a fetus? Why didn’t I know until recently about what has happened in countries where abortion bans have long been in existence? Why did it take a growing number of women sharing gut-wrenching personal stories about their late-term abortions before I really paid attention to the complexity of abortion even after viability had been reached?
My wife and I experienced a miscarriage. It was one of the most painful moments of our marriage. I felt the psychic and emotional pain; she felt that and had to go into the operating room alone. And even though the doctors told us that because it was so early in the pregnancy there was no body we could bury, it didn’t convince me to learn more about the stages of fetus development, one of the most critical factors in the fight over abortion rights.
I’m a journalist, naturally curious and well versed in issues not nearly as complex. Ask me about the relationship between housing sales and mortgage and unemployment rates and I can tell you, because I had to establish a real estate beat at my first daily newspaper job. I can tell you about the manufacturing industry in South Carolina and how it evolved between the 1970s and 2000s. Heck, I can even explain the link between low cholesterol diets and violent crime.
Given that, why didn’t I know this until Julia Pulver wrote about it this month: “Sometimes ‘nature takes its course’ in a miscarriage and the embryo and uterine lining are fully expelled. But sometimes it doesn’t, and intervention is necessary. A ‘D&C,’ or ‘dilation and curettage’ procedure, is often performed to fully remove the contents of the uterus to avoid infection, which could jeopardize future fertility and even be fatal in cases of an ‘incomplete abortion’ or ‘missed abortion.’”
Journalists don’t know everything and shouldn’t be required to even try. But there are central, morally and legally messy issues—like abortion—on which every journalist must be well versed.