What Does Diphtheria In Spain Have to Do With Your Uterus?

Let me see if I can explain the connection between a couple of ideas that have been nipping at my brain for a few months. They’ve exploded to the surface this week and I get so mad thinking about it that I can barely speak…which means I need to write. Here goes.

Diphtheria_vaccination_posterDiphtheria–haven’t heard that one in a while, huh? That’s because this horrifying bacterial infection has been all but eradicated in the part of the world that enjoys access to modern healthcare. This disease has a 10% fatality rate–those infected die from heart and nerve damage caused by blood-borne bacterial infection. The symptom of this disease that makes me shudder is the white membrane that forms in the throat, choking its victims. Horrible, horrible stuff.

And it’s back.

In late May, a child in Spain developed diphtheria and he’s hooked to machines in an ICU in heart and lung failure, critical condition. His parents had chosen not to vaccinate him; they are devastated that they “received faulty information” and feel horrible guilt. Spain didn’t even have the medicines required to treat diphtheria because they hadn’t had a case since 1986. Luckily (?), Russia had some on hand.

Now EIGHT other children in his circle have tested postive for the bacteria but have not developed diphtheria, because they were vaccinated. They are covered in the stuff, but it cannot get a foothold in their bodies and take over. Their immune systems were ready for that shit and slammed the door right in diphtheria’s face. “Not today, asshole!”

I think many people who grew up in the post-vaccintation generation believe that these diseases are “gone.” Nope. The bacteria and viruses that cause diseases like smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, and other diseases I can’t spell ARE STILL EVERYWHERE AROUND US. They are part of the natural world. Vaccination doesn’t kill the things that cause diseases. Vaccination cuts off the infection agent’s access to a place to set up shop. We are all walking around in a miasma of disease agents. Some, like the common cold, can set up shop anywhere in any body. So can diphtheria if there are people who can carry it around, incubate it, and introduce it to others.

I believe in the power and safety of vaccines. Since the 18th century, when Edward Jenner and the milkmaid Sarah Nelmes figured out that a little dose of cowpox could protect a body from catching smallpox, millions of bodies have been off limits to these organisms that share our world. As Dr. Gennaro Gama, our household scientist, noted “Vaccination is a product of the world’s longest running clinical trial.” For 300 years, we’ve benefitted from this practice. Oh, and Jenner was just the first to study vaccination in our part of the world–the Turks had been doing it for hundreds of years before him.



This comic from Red Pen/Black Pen nails it. Those who choose not to vaccinate can still live with a relatively low chance of catching these diseases because all the vaccinated bodies around them ensure their safety. Everyone else is holding the umbrella so they don’t get wet. Fewer places for disease to set up, fewer carriers, lower chance of infection–for people who don’t protect themselves and people who CAN’T protect themselves, like those with compromised immune systems or infants.

So because most people did the work and took the risk, all people are safer from the threat of disease. But if we aren’t vigilant and too many people choose not to do the work of protecting from these diseases the germy boogers have more places to take hold and easier vectors over which to travel from person to person to person.

Now, to your uterus…(sorry to be exclusive, guys)

We all have to participate in vaccination to keep the boogers at bay. We all have to participate in women’s health issues to keep the boogers out of our business. Let me splain.

Just as I’m a big fan of the science of vaccines, I’m also a big fan of women’s access to healthcare and the power we have earned legally to make our own decisions about what happens to our bodies. Namely, I think birth control is fabulous and abortion should be a safe, legal, and accessible option to women. And this week, with the rulings in Texas that make a woman’s right to abortion very very hard to access, I realize that the rights I have assumed were a done deal are being eroded all around. Didn’t we decide this stuff in the 70s? Didn’t we enact laws that gave women these rights? Now anti-choice factions are fighting less about overturning a woman’s right to abortion and just chipping away at their access to the service. Legal abortion is a moot point if you can’t afford it, can’t get to it, or the doctor you were going to see has been harrassed out of practice.

I am saddened by the current story of Kenlissia Jones, a Georgia woman who couldn’t afford a safe and timely abortion so she turned to the internet for the pills that would end her pregnancy. She was initially charged with malice murder but the charges were dropped. A desperate woman’s attempt that harkens back to back alley coat hanger days. It’s an awful story.

RoeI grew up AFTER most of the landmark decisions like Roe v. Wade. I became a woman in a world where I could get birth control pills if I wanted them. I lived in a society where I could choose an abortion to end a pregnancy. I had the advantages of money and insurance. I didn’t have to be all that vigilant about these rights because a lot of other women had opened up the umbrella and were keeping the rain off the rest of us. I didn’t spend any more time worrying about access to health care than I spent worrying about diphtheria. I was innoculated! I was safe…right?


Just like with vaccination, too many people are choosing not to participate in the work and the risk of protecting women’s rights, so our control over our own bodies is being eroded. I’m not even trying to change the minds of people who disagree. Those who would deny women our rights are part of the natural world–I can’t change that any more than I can change polio floating around.

votes-for-womenBut I can sure as hell make an effort to protect my position and to do my part to keep us all safe. If I believe in women’s health issues like keeping abortion legal and available and keeping birth control decisions in the hands of women and not in their employers, I have to step up and use my voice, my vote, my money, and my platform to participate in the work and the risk. I cannot take these rights for granted. Too many women fought too many battles to make it seem easy for us to enjoy our freedoms.

So this is one of those pieces where I was afraid to use my voice but I’m going to speak my truth. And money talks. For the first 50 comments on this post, I will donate $5 each up to a total of $250 to Planned Parenthood of Georgia.

I’m opening my umbrella. Step under if you need to. Open yours, too.

61 thoughts on “What Does Diphtheria In Spain Have to Do With Your Uterus?

  1. prisbornmann

    Dear Ashley,

    I’m enough years older than you to remember the “good old days” and the difficult choices women sometimes faced. Those experiences convinced me that Americans need to embrace freedom of choice for themselves, their children (both daughters and sons), and as an empowering example to those cultures who are closed to that idea. So I took special pleasure in reading the recent article in the Washington Post about the current Executive Director for Planned Parenthood in the USA. She’s pregnant . . . in her third trimester . . . with twins. When asked, she said that she’s often greeted incredulously by those who don’t expect her to be in this condition, and admitted that she reminds them that as an advocate for each woman’s right to make reproductive decisions for herself, she has simply chosen for herself to become pregnant.

    Talk about walking the walk!

    Pris Bornmann

    1. Baddest Mother Ever Post author

      YES! When I was pregnant, a friend asked me if it changed my opinion on abortion. I told her it had only made it stronger.

  2. Allison Wilcox

    Excellent essay! The analogy between vaccinations and abortion rights is really insightful. I’ve been donating to Planned Parenthood for many years, and have recently felt like it was a long battle. Now I’ll re-up and continue the fight!

  3. Mike

    Count me among those without a uterus who believe wholeheartedly in access to safe, legal abortion services and that individual women can certainly make their own damn health care and family planning decisions. Another intelligently written piece, friend, presented calmly but with urgency it deserves. We can’t take our progress for granted, so stay vigilant. Whatever responses you receive, you should be proud of this one. I intend to match your $5 with a contribution to our local Planned Parenthood organization here.

    1. Baddest Mother Ever Post author

      Yes! Let’s spread the power of our voices, votes, and dollars! I love you, even with your Y chromosome.

  4. Debbie

    As with much in politics today, intelligent voices often stay quiet rather than engage in the vitriol that charades as “discussion.” Well done in tackling hot button issues in a reasoned manner.

    My uterus is gone and I have no children to vaccinate, but thank you for reminding me that standing up for my community is still a responsibility I shouldn’t shirk.

  5. Denise

    I love the way you find connecting thoughts in seemingly very different subjects. When I was a teenager, abortion was still illegal in Georgia. Yes, I had friends that had abortions. Some went to South Carolina, some to a doctor in Athens who would do it illegally. Fortunately, I didn’t know anyone who died from it, but those who think it will go away if it’s illegal haven’t bothered to read their history.
    The cartoon is perfect.
    I’ll be donating, too.

    1. Baddest Mother Ever Post author

      Thank you for the reminder of the way things were and could be again if we don’t protect the ground we’ve gained.

  6. Andrea

    Nailed it on both issues. I became a parent at age 20. I went to planned parenthood where I took my pregnancy test. They asked me which options I wanted to learn about before I had the pregnancy test and I said all of them. I weighed each option being so young and chose to continue my pregnancy. This was my choice. It was very empowering when I was young and pregnant to know I had options, that continuing my pregnancy was a choice too. Many see planned parenthood as pushing abortion, this is false. They honor each woman’s right to choose and provide objective information. Had I said I did not want to consider the option of abortion I would not have been given information and education about that option. In addition access to birth control to prevent unwanted pregnancy in the first place which is what planned parenthood makes accessible to so many.

    I recognize my choice isn’t what would be best for every woman. I fully support every woman’s right to decide what is best for her. Roe vs Wade was about letting the decision to terminate a pregnancy stay between herself and her physician and not the state. The right to choose is so important and thank you for reminding me I too need to stand up for that.

    1. Baddest Mother Ever Post author

      Beautifully said, Andrea. I hadn’t thought about the sense of empowerment a young mother would feel, having considered all options.

  7. Sara Amis

    My parents grew up in an era when vaccinations didn’t exist, and my older siblings when they still weren’t super common for some things. My parents would tell a story about when my many siblings came down with measles and mumps at the same time. And they would take me off to the doctor.

  8. Helen

    Thank you for speaking up. What a good reminder that both vaccinations and women’s rights – including our right to birth control and choice to end a pregnancy- are both so recently won in the grand scheme of things. We mustn’t take either for granted.

    1. Baddest Mother Ever Post author

      These rights are VERY new and it’s easy to forget that they have to be guarded.

  9. joanne

    In the early 70’s, I remember – vividly – putting more than one of my college-age friends on the plane to New York to get an abortion in the only state you legally could. Later, there was a local, ‘exclusive’ travel agent who would book groups of girls, escorted by an RN, on one-day round-trips to NY, including air fare and a legal abortion. It was still a very hush-hush subject in conservative north Florida, and a never spoken secret. The shame was still attached to my friends.
    Gail Collins wrote an excellent op-ed this week in the NYT (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/11/opinion/gail-collins-battle-of-the-abortion-decisions.html) reminding us of the lengths the right wing fundamentalists will go to “limit” abortions (they must have realized they couldn’t change the LAW, so, on the the roadblock!).. It is despicable to use “protecting the safety and health of women” as an excuse to restrict access to those most in need of women’s health care.
    The story of the Georgia woman made me want to cry. I was relieved to hear that the ridiculous charges were dropped, but not before her mug shot and identity had gone viral. The shaming continues.
    I support PP here, and I am seriously considering making a donation to PP Texas to help combat the idiots. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m passionate about this subject.

    1. Baddest Mother Ever Post author

      Hooray for passion! Thank you for clarifying for us just what it used to be like–forty years ago.

  10. LJS

    This is excellent. Love the umbrella picture. Love. It.
    About 10 years ago, a pastor in a small church asked me my opinion on abortion. (I fully believe his wife put him up to it.) I looked him in the eye and replied “When you can get pregnant, we’ll talk.”

    1. Baddest Mother Ever Post author

      I used to say “One uterus, one vote,” but I’ve backed off of that. There are plenty of pro-choice men, too!

      1. LJS

        That there are – he wasn’t one of them. I don’t know but maybe two men myself, and I’m pretty sure one is related to me. I hope I’m wrong about that.

  11. Amanda Harris

    This whole post is brilliant and brave. Thank you! I’ll be making my contribution to Planned Parenthood right. Now.

  12. Nancy

    My favorites are the folks who try to convince me that these requirements for clinics are in the best interests of the women being treated there. It’s not women’s health you are interested in. What you are interested in is control.

  13. Deidrie

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ashley. I’ll match that $250 without hesitation. It terrifies me to think that we are going backwards.

  14. Lynn Daley

    Yes on Vaccinations, Yes on Woman’s Rights, yes, yes, yes! It’s easy to become complacent, and nice to have a reminder of how dangerous that can be. Thanks!

  15. Beth

    In 1967, the dark ages for unmarried pregnant women, I got pregnant at 19 and gave my daughter up for adoption. We were blessed to find her more than 30 yrs later, and she is a full-fledged member of our family. Years later, I shared our home with a young friend who came from a small town and chose to give her child up for adoption. I also accompanied another friend when she had an abortion.
    As a 67-yr old mother and grandmother, I prefer other options to abortion, but I’ll be damned if I sit still and go back to the days of no choice.
    Thank you for your insights.

  16. Tracy

    I’ve been on vacation and am catching on YOU all at once – always makes for a better morning at work. This is BEST YET, however, and I’m mailing my $20 to Alabama Planned Parenthood in B’ham this morning!


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