Friday, December 6, 2013

Brave Genius 1: Monod, Jacob, Lwoff and reproductive rights

I’ve just finished Sean B. Carroll’s new book Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize

about the friends and heroes Albert Camus and molecular biologist Jacques Monod, their work, and their activism.

One section is highly relevant to current oppressions and events. Following Catholic dogma, hospitals and laws around the world have denied women life-saving information and medical care. Women and organizations have long fought back, and now there are new legal challenges to this criminal intrusion of religion into medicine. In the US, the ACLU has filed suit on behalf of a woman denied abortion care at a Catholic hospital. In El Salvador, several groups have filed suit against the government for the criminalization of abortion and specifically the treatment of Beatriz, also refused an abortion in a life-threatening situation:
Feminist organizations assert that Beatriz’s story reflects the consequences of the absolute criminalization of abortion and the institutional violence that is exercised against Salvadoran girls, adolescents, and adult women. According to data gathered by the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, between 2000 and 2011, a total of 129 women in El Salvador have been charged with abortion or aggravated homicide, with sentences ranging between two and 40 years in prison. Currently there are at least 30 women serving prison such sentences, the majority having suffered the loss of their pregnancies for various obstetric complications.
These examples of organized resistance point to the desperate situation for women’s reproductive rights in the US and elsewhere.

In the final chapters of Brave Genius, Carroll discusses Jacques Monod’s social justice activism after his receipt of the Nobel prize in 1965. One of the first political acts of Monod and his co-Nobelists François Jacob and André Lwoff after being awarded the prize was to speak out in support of the French Movement for Family Planning (MFPF).

He relates that in the 1960s in France, the availability of contraception and education about contraception were banned. The ban was supported not only, as would be expected, by the Catholic Church, but also by the French Communist Party (PCF)* and the medical profession. This led, naturally, to hundreds of thousands of illegal back-alley abortions, and in turn to untold suffering and deaths.

Approached by the MFPF’s founder Dr. Marie-Andrée Lagroua Weill-Hallé, the three scientists rallied to the cause of reproductive rights. They explained their endorsement:
Because of scientific and technical developments, the laws which govern relations among men [sic] can no longer be founded on an ethic dating back more than twenty centuries. One of the fundamental values of a modern, advanced society is the liberty of the individual under the law. Such a society cannot allow that women live as slaves to outdated principles.

When the movement that you lead reaches its objectives, many women and men will know a more harmonious and balanced existence, many tragedies will be avoided, in particular thousands of secret abortions, even the existence of which is a condemnation of a society.

Those who oppose you and ignore the hard reality, the tragedies, the mutilations and deaths, carry a heavy responsibility. No one should have the right to sacrifice the happiness, the health or the life of another human being to their own personal principles, however sincere and noble they may be.
Carroll writes that “Thanks in large part to the campaign by the MFPF, the ban on contraceptives was lifted by passage of the Neuwirth Act in late 1967.”

* A note: If your politics involves policing women’s reproduction or clothing, it isn’t a politics of liberation. You’re an authoritarian.

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