Whale Wars: Direct Action vs. Diplomacy in the Southern Ocean

By Emily D. Irvine: 1-18-13

I have always been drawn to topics of controversy. Not because I enjoy the controversial, nor because I feel a compelling need to incite social rebellion or verbal battles. Simply put, subjects that are “controversial” are merely subjects that have the potential to spark the most valuable conversation. Controversy arises because there are two sides of humanity with compelling arguments for and against a cause.

In the realm of environmentally motivated controversy, perhaps one of the organizations gaining rapid word wide attention is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Founded by Captain Paul Watson, who is also a co-founder of Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd’s aim is the vigilante style enforcement of conservation laws involving the world’s oceans. They are best know to cable subscribers for Animal Planet’s Whale Wars, scheduled to air its fifth season this summer. As I type this, the film footage for season five is underway. Watson and his volunteer Sea Shepherds have reached the Southern Ocean on four separate vessels. Each episode of their show opens with the same montage and narration:

“A war rages in the far reaches of planet earth. Antarctica’s pristine waters run red with blood. The Sea Shepherds are the soldiers who wage this war. They’re led into battle by Captain Paul Watson. Their enemy is a group of Japanese fishermen whose chosen catch is whales. The Sea Shepherds say the whalers are violating an international ban on commercial whaling. The whalers say they are legally killing whales for scientific research. Both claim to have the law on their side. These are their battles. This is their war.”


The Sea Shepherd vessel the Steve Irwin engages the Japanese harpoon ship the Yusshin Maru No. 2

Such a compelling and straight forward opening, driven home by the disturbing images captured by helicopter pilot Chris Altman in season two of a minke whale meeting a gruesome death at the end of Japanese harpoon, has become a hit with viewers. However, because of their direct action tactics, controversy has followed Sea Shepherd wherever they go. Whaling is a multi million dollar endeavor, and any interference with commerce is the fastest way to make powerful enemies. That said, those who make powerful enemies often do so in pursuit of a greater good and at great personal risk. In this annual war that rages in the Southern Ocean, we must ask ourselves which is more criminal: direct action, which is merely a soft term for harassment and vandalism, or the inhumane slaughter of endangered species in the name of research, the validity of which is up for debate?

(Warning: The following video is the graphic raw footage captured from a Sea Shepherd helicopter. It depicts the slow death of a minke whale at the end of a harpoon ship. This video, quite honestly, puts me in tears. It depicts one of the most inhumane ways an animal can be killed. As disturbing as it is, I feel it is important to understand the cruelty that occurs in the corners of the globe most of us will never see.) 

Humans have been whaling for centuries. The Inuits of Alaska and Siberia harvested bowhead and grey whales, and continue to do so, for the great nourishment and resources to be gleaned from such a massive animal in so hostile an environment. Two or three whales could quite easily feed an Eskimo village for a winter and bones were made into useful tools, intestines made into raincoats, and blubber used to grease hunting knifes and light fires. In the 17th Century, European civilizations developed boats and harpoons with the capability to transform whaling from small scale rural hunts into a commercial endeavor. Into the 20th Century, whales were hunted for the oil found in their brains and bodies to grease heavy machinery and light lamps, for their bones to make corsets, and for their meat. The sperm whale, one of the most valuable species due to its massive oil filled head, earned a reputation as a fierce opponent for whaling vessels, with large males violently defending their pods from the ships that slaughtered them. Herman Melville immortalized the sperm whale in his most famous novel as a fearsome metaphor for all that vexes humanity, a symbolic force man cannot contain despite his most valiant efforts. Unfortunately, the fierceness of the likes of Moby Dick have been no match for man. Across species, commercial whaling has left our oceans with only 5-10% of original great whale populations.


A pod of sperm whales

In 1982, we as species began to realize our own ignorance and vicious impact on our oceans and the International Whaling Commission placed a moratorium on commercial whaling, though under the IWC, whaling is still allowed for purposes of scientific research and all whale’s killed for research must not be wasted. As the IWC is itself a voluntary organization whose power lies only in universally agreed upon diplomacy and cooperation, enforcing this moratorium is all but impossible. Furthermore, worded into it is a loophole, a loophole that has been seized by the nation of Japan.

The Institute of Cetacean Research is a Japanese organization that has been whaling in the whale sanctuary of the Southern Ocean for over three decades. A quick browse through their website reveals their intentions to study population, diet, and migration of whales with an explicit ultimate goal of bringing commercial whaling back on a sustainable level. The goal sounds reasonable on paper, but the results and consequences must be analyzed and considered. The ICR’s research on population and migration has accomplished nothing but proving that there are minke, fin, and humpback whales in the seas around Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months, something easily learned without fatal studies, but proved by the meat that ends up in Japanese fish markets after the hunt. Their studies on diet have proven that these animals eat krill, something long discovered. They have discovered the top speed of fleeing minke whales. They’re fast, but not fast enough to outrun a harpoon ship. Useful information for commerce, but not for conservation.

It is true that we know little about whales when compared to other mammals, but what we do know is their populations are dangerously low and some species, such a the sperm and blue whale (the largest animal to ever inhabit our planet) could very well be beyond saving. What we do know is that whales form complex social structures that rival our own. We know they communicate, and we know they grieve when one of their own is lost. We know that killing them is cruel and inhumane and though the ICR claims it is accomplished in under two minutes – as if this is acceptable – there are numerous instances of whales taking up to and hour to die with a harpoon piercing into their vital organs. As a mammal, a whale’s neurological system is as advanced as our own. What they feel at the end of a harpoon is precisely what you and I would. And we know that they are intelligent.

Sea Shepherd provides a very short, concise explanation of their views of whale intelligence on their website. The Japanese claim whales are not intelligent animals because their brains to body ratio is significantly lower than ours. Such a claim 1) relies on the erroneous assumption that brain to body ratio is the only measure of intelligence, and 2) places the intelligence of whales on a human scale, which makes no sense as they are not human. Sea Shepherd’s Captain Paul Watson states that his personal measure of the intelligence of a living being is its ability to live in harmony with the natural world. Though not a scientific means of measuring intelligence, Watson’s criteria is on to something. Sea Shepherd states:

 “Captain Watson was not only saying that intelligence is relative, but that intelligence cannot be placed into categories defined by humans. Whales are highly social beings and they have a complex form of communication with each other which can only be defined as language. We simply do not understand what those large brains have evolved for, but indeed large brains they have, and large brains suggest that there is a reason and a use for this development.”

What is apparent is that humans are much more comfortable killing an animal that they can deem unintelligent, as if intelligence signifies value and as if an unintelligent animal is less capable of feeling pain and suffering. Whales are intelligent, but more significantly, they are important, important to the oceans we have already nearly exhausted, important players in a healthy marine ecosystem, and most importantly, whales are not a sustainable resource should we desire our oceans to thrive.


Captain Paul Watson at the helm of the Steve Irwin

 Captain Paul Watson believes that humans are the least important players in a healthy planet, famously stating that worms are more important than us, for he very rightly states that we, as a species cannot survive without worms, though they can quite easily survive without us. Watson has dedicated his life to protecting our oceans by any means necessary, stating

 “If the life in our oceans is diminished, humanity is diminished and if the oceans die, humanity will die; for we cannot survive on this planet with a dead ocean.”

Watson’s fight against the destruction of our oceans involves direct action. The Sea Shepherd’s fight against Japanese whaling the Antarctic involves throwing bottles of butyric acid, a foul smelling substance that the Sea Shepherds claim is “about as toxic as orange juice,” and nothing more than a “rotten butter bomb.” They hurl the bottles onto the decks of the whalers harpoon vessels to make them unlivable due to the rancid odor. They also aim for the deck of the whalers’ factory vessel to taint any whale meat on deck. Other Sea Shepherd tactics involve shooting bottles of red paint through a spud gun aimed at the “RESEARCH” sign of the whaling vessels with the obvious slaughter symbology as Sea Shepherd believes the research done to be a front for the commercial benefits of whale meat. The Sea Shepherds also deploy prop fouling ropes under the Japanese ships to disable them in the water, often without success but with the intention of intimidating the Japanese fleet and distracting them from whaling. Though these tactics could certainly be called vandalism, Sea Shepherd never seeks to do harm to people in their engagements and claim they never have, something the Japanese dispute but have never provided any evidence to the contrary. The main goal of the Sea Shepherds is always to make it impossible for the Japanese to whale or make it impossible for them to benefit from whaling. Watson’s primary tactic is to position one of his ships directly behind the factory vessel of the whaling fleet, a truly non-violent tactic that makes it impossible for the harpoon ships to transfer a whale for processing.

Whale Wars makes for compelling television. The high seas harassment of a menacing whaling fleet by a group of vigilantes flying the Jolly Roger is hard to ignore. The danger involved is plenty real, the Southern Ocean is inhospitable and remote, the Sea Shepherd crew inexperienced volunteers and as such Whale Wars quite comfortably sits in the realm of true reality television, very much like Discovery Channel’s own Deadliest Catch but where the catch is condemned and far more majestic than the humble Alaskan king crab. This was Watson’s very pitch to Animal Planet. A communications major, Captain Watson is a master at media manipulation. He uses every incident to his advantage and understands the complexity of 21st Century media culture, stating, “if it’s not on television, it’s not happening.” It is clear that the story the world gets is exactly the story Watson wants us to get. Though Watson is also quite transparent in his intentions to manipulate the media and use it as a tool to his advantage. He feels he has nothing to hide. He has never claimed his crew’s actions are peaceful, only that they are non-violent, a fine line they proudly straddle. Watson does not believe in protesting but in action. There is plenty of film evidence to the Sea Shepherd’s tactics, bottles thrown and props fouled. There is also plenty of film evidence of one of the Japanese ships deliberately ramming a carbon fiber Sea Shepherd stealth vessel with six aboard. The sinking of the Ady Gil was the highlight of the 2010 Sea Shepherd campaign in the Southern Ocean, causing an international incident. But if governments won’t do anything to enforce the stipulations of the IWC and Antarctic Treaty in the Southern Ocean, they will do nothing to support the vigilantes who do. The sinking of the Ady Gil was deemed the fault of both parties, a claim that could easily be argued as true, but is also a convenient way for the governments of the world to wash their hands of the issue.


The destruction of the Ady Gil

 On the Japanese side of things, one can find small sympathy. A government organization, the Institute of Cetacean Research funds the Japanese whaling and regardless of its intentions, it brings in big money. The whalers’ livelihood is at stake and their defense of that and exasperation at Sea Shepherd is completely understandable on a human level. But the livelihood of poachers of all sorts is at stake when anyone, law enforcement or vigilante, intervenes. We feel no sympathy or compassion toward ivory poachers or the merchants of tiger pelts. Why then is Japan allowed so much legal wiggle room in their equally damaging exploitation of an equally endangered species?


A pod of minke whales freely swimming in the Southern Ocean

 The bottom line is our political boundaries have made our oceans extremely vulnerable. Though nations have made invisible lines of control in the waters off their shores, international waters, despite assumedly international regulations, are truly the metaphoric Wild West. The Southern Ocean, though for now still the most untouched place on the planet, has no governing authority. No humans have ever inhabited the Antarctic continent. Some countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have made claims and invisible boundaries to stretches of Antarctic waters, but the international recognition of these claims exists on a “Oh yeah? Who says?” basis. Military presence is banned in the Southern Ocean aside from research and search and rescue purposes. Therefore, laws exists to protect it that cannot legally be defended by any nation.


Sea Shepherd’s latest stealth vessel the Gojira (recently renamed the Brigitte Bardot) engages the Japanese Yusshin Maru harpoon ship.

 The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has branches in many countries. Its ships have different port authorities and its crews are international volunteers. They represent the only way conservation efforts can be upheld in the Southern Ocean, people of passion whose passion does not stop at the borders designated by their passports. Their actions may be direct, though non-violent, mildly destructive, but not deadly, controversial, but not careless. The world may watch and have trouble forming a fully positive opinion on their actions, but the fact remains that the Sea Shepherds are the ones in the Southern Ocean preventing the slaughter of whales. The rest of us our sitting on our couches watching Animal Planet.

The bottom line in this matter is whaling of any sort, be it for research of commerce, has no business in the 21st Century. The cruelty necessary to kill a whale is reason enough to move on as a species and instead work to repair the damage we have done to an extraordinary planet. Whale populations have been devastated by centuries of irresponsibility. I rarely visit the coast without boarding a whale watching ship and to see whales in their element, to see how trusting they are of human presence, how gently they move and how closely they stay to their own is to see how easy it is to kill them. A whale hunt from a 21st Century vessel fitted with an explosive harpoon is no hunt at all but a cowardly act against an animal defenseless against modern technology, a technology that remains as cruel now as it was at the highlight of European commercial whaling. It is this generation’s responsibility to ensure that the damage is reversed, that whales are not lost forever due to our species’ carelessness. The potential loss of some species is a dark reality this century may see. It is for this reason that I support Sea Shepherd’s efforts. They may be vigilantes and vandals, but they are the only ones successfully inhibiting whaling in the Southern Ocean. Diplomacy does not work in international waters. But whales belong to no nation. They do not know our boundaries. Their protection falls into the hands of the passionate, those who see that we must save our oceans to ensure our own survival.


A blue whale, the largest animal to ever live on planet earth, and a species we are likely to lose without more aggressive conservation efforts. 


To Bear Strong Children Willingly: How Oral Contraceptives Shaped the 21st Century

By Emily D. Irvine: 12-14-12

In 1960, modern medicine achieved a long awaited breakthrough that would fundamentally alter the course of women’s history. The final FDA approval and subsequent production of the birth control pill was the culmination of nearly fifty years of research and the answer to a need and demand as old as intercourse. The Pill was wrought with controversy long before it became a scientific reality, that controversy coming most strongly from religious organizations and men in political power. Though the Pill’s popularity has far outweighed its controversy in the fifty years that have transpired since its invention, opposition to the Pill remains in the same sectors that fought against it throughout the Twentieth Century. Despite unfounded and misguided opposition, a generation of use and relentless study have proven the benefits of hormonal birth control on women’s health extend far beyond the obvious empowerment and reproductive control afforded by its usage. Even without the truth of medical benefit beyond contraception to add legitimacy to usage the Pill, without it, advancements in women’s rights would be virtually non-existent as a steady increase in contraception use has correlated with a dramatic increase in educated and working women, both married and unmarried. The invention of the birth control pill is arguably the most significant catalyst in forwarding the movement toward women’s equality, a move impossible without first acknowledging and recognizing a woman’s right to be solely in charge of decisions regarding her body.

Though various forms of contraception with varying levels of effectiveness have existed as long as intercourse, it was in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries that methods as safe as they are effective began to emerge. In the United States, the medical and scientific community fought an uphill battle against American politics and the Catholic Church in the quest to give women complete power over their reproductive rights. In 1839, inventor Charles Goodyear discovered the means to vulcanize rubber leading the the mass manufacturing of the first rubber condoms and diaphragms, known then as “womb veils.” Immense popularity and accessibility of these devices over the coming decades was counteracted by Congress in 1873 with the passage of the Comstock Law, which declared contraception obscene and made the United States the only western nation to enact laws criminalizing birth control. Though developments continued in Europe toward improved barrier methods of contraception, such as Wilhelm Mensinga’s larger model cervical cap that would improve the diaphragm, as well as continued improvements to the condom in Great Britain, there existed no hormonal form of contraception (Timeline).

It was in 1912 that Margaret Sanger, a nurse in New York City and sixth child born to a poor Irish-Catholic family, first expressed the need for a “magic pill as easy to take as aspirin” that could be used to prevent pregnancy. Sanger became an avid lecturer and started a periodical entitled The Woman Rebel in which she made the radical statement that women should attempt to avoid pregnancy if they find themselves too ill or too poor to bear and raise children. In June of 1914, Sanger first used the term “birth control” and dared to publish it in The Woman Rebel, a step too far that lead to her being charged of nine violations under the Comstock Law. Sanger left the country to continue her work in England, returning in 1916 when the charges against her were dropped. She brazenly continued to fight for her cause, opening the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916. Her clinic remained open for a total of ten days before being raided and disbanded and all illegal condoms and diaphragms destroyed. In 1917, Sanger met Katherine McCormick, the wife of the heir to the International Harvester Company. Her husband, Stanley McCormick, suffered from schizophrenia, and Katherine was a strong supporter of birth control due to her refusal to have children should the disease prove hereditary. McCormick and Sanger formed a friendship and partnership with McCormick contributing a total of $2 million over the coming decades to the research that would ultimately lead to the invention of the magic pill Sanger dreamed of (Timeline).


Margarete Sanger and Katherine McCormick 

In 1932, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published an article in The Nation in which she asserted her belief that the “unfit” should be sterilized, a common practice in the first half of the century, the “unfit” being the inhabitants of mental institutions (Knowles). Though such a belief is disturbing by Twenty-first Century standards, Gilman’s other beliefs on the benefits of birth control and the compelling social need for it echoed and reinforced the fight of women like Sanger and McCormick. Skewed social perceptions of forced sterilization aside, Gilman also believed in the right of women, who are significantly more effected by pregnancy than men, to decide when to avoid it. In a 1932 article entitled “Birth Control, Religion, and the Unfit,” Gilman, stated:

“Personal is the protest of the woman, who after all is more immediately concerned in the matter of birth than the man. Must she, if worn, exhausted, usually tortured, often killed in the process, bear children regardless of her own wish or ability, to the detriment of the entire family? Or may she choose, saying ” Not this year,” or “Not till we can afford it,” or “Six is enough”? Deepest of all is the interest of the child, who has a right to vigorous parents and a well-cared-for youth” (Gilman).

It was Gilman’s belief that producing children one cannot afford to feed is ultimately unfair to the child, and given the opportunity, most women would willingly and eagerly avoid pregnancy in the interest of providing better care for fewer children, a great benefit to the family as well as to society, limiting the number of families in poverty and the number of children ultimately made the responsibility of government funding. In 1932, Gilman composed a poem entitled “For Birth Control,” penning a work that would add artistic relevance to the cultural debate on contraception:

For Birth Control; for mothers free
To bear strong children willingly
And rear them well; not as before
Theirs and their children’s lives to pour
In needless death and misery.

Who stands against us? Those who see
Gain in unchecked fecundity —
Not better children — only more
No Birth Control

For mothers in whose power shall be
The lifting of humanity —
A world of improving more and more —
A world at peace from shore to shore —
This is the reason and the plea
For Birth Control.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman believed that those who saw “gain in unchecked fecundity” were of a religious persuasion, stating, “every religion believes itself to be the Truth, and warmly desires to increase its membership, not intelligence and ability being requisite, but numbers” (Gilman). Though Gilman’s extreme generalization unfairly assumes that all believers are extremists, patriarchal religious organizations, particularity the Catholic Church provided the strongest and most long-standing opposition to birth control, an opposition that continues to the present. In 1930, the Vatican made its first official statement on the use of contraception with Pope Pius XI stating in Casti Connubii that “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” With this statement, the Vatican solidified its position as being in opposition to the cause of contraception, justified by their position that the prime purpose of marriage is procreation. Pius XI also likely inspired Gilman’s position on the detrimental role of church sanctioned “unchecked fecundity” with his statement that Christian parents are called to not just produce children, but specifically, “children who are to become members of the Church of Christ, to raise up fellow-citizens of the Saints, and members of God’s household, that the worshippers of God and Our Savior may daily increase.” Though it is no great crime for any religion to desire its own increase, to do so at the expense of health and financial security leads to great social detriment. The Catholic Church’s insistence that reproduction go unchecked regardless of the economic or medical burdens of the woman and family led countless families, such as Margaret Sanger’s, to be reduced to a life of poverty. Pius XI had an answer to this too, stating “we are deeply touched by the sufferings of those parents who, in extreme want, experience great difficulty in rearing their children. However…there is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties…” Faith is powerful, but it is no basis for social policy, nor is it grounds for the hinderance of medical advancement. Pius XI words did nothing to stop the inevitable.


Ultimately, it was a Catholic who was one half of the team that made oral contraception a reality. In 1931, Physician John Rock became the only Catholic to sign a petition aimed at ending Massachusetts’s overly strict anti-birth control law. The petition was denied, but Rock spent the next thirty years pursing medical developments aimed at treating infertility in women, but ultimately discovered the groundwork for the wonder drug that would temporarily produce the opposite effect. In the late 1940s, Rock was experimenting with the oral administration of estrogen and progesterone, reasoning that by using these hormones to artificially create a hormonal pseudo-pregnancy in infertile women, fertility could eventually be restored. What Rock found was that by creating a pseudo-pregnancy with these hormones, ovulation did not occur. During the same period, biologist Gregory Pincus extensively studied the effects of these same hormones on the ovulation of rabbits, coming to the same conclusions. Rock and Pincus compared results and Margaret Sanger, now in her seventies and founder of the Planned Parenthood Foundation of America, provided a grant for continued research. Katharine McCormick, now solely in charge of her late husband’s fortune, asked Sanger where funding for their decades long cause would be best spent, leading to a massive donation to Rock and Pincus. Clinical human trials began utilizing a combination of synthetic progesterone and estrogen. The first oral contraceptive was created in 1957, though only approved in the United States for the treatment of menstrual disorders. In 1961, Envoid® became the first FDA approved oral contraceptive. The “magic pill” Margaret Sanger envisioned in 1912 was invented (Dhont).

pile of pill dispensers

The Pill has been continuously improved and studied for fifty years and is the first medication designed to be administered to a healthy person for an extended period of time and remains the most extensively studied drug in medical history with virtually unanimous support by medical professionals giving strong credibility to its safety and effectiveness (Knowles). There are now dozens of brands of oral contraceptive available all administering varying doses of progesterone and estrogen in the case of combination pills, or progesterone only. These hormones are naturally produced by the body during pregnancy and their artificial administration  halts ovulation by keeping the hormone levels in the body consistent with that of pregnancy. Progesterone also thickens the mucus of the cervix making the passage of sperm more difficult. Many religious organizations and social conservatives express opposition to the Pill and call its use “morally suspect” due to studies revealing that progesterone causes the uterine wall to thin, making the implantation of a fertilized egg more difficult. However, it needs to be understood that the Pill, by design and when used properly, does not allow ovulation, making the point largely irrelevant. Furthermore, implantation failure is common under normal circumstances as a woman’s uterine wall varies in thickness between natural ovulation and menstruation, and progesterone is produced by the body naturally. There is no evidence to suggest that Pill failure inhibits implantation at a rate any higher than the natural process. In a 2001 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, physician Susan J. Fisher states:

“Human reproduction entails a fundamental paradox: although it is critical to the survival of the species, the process is relatively inefficient. Only 50 to 60% of pregnancies advance beyond 20 weeks of gestation. Of the pregnancies that are lost, 75% represent a failure of implantation and are therefore not clinically recognized as pregnancies” (Fisher).

Fisher touches on a key point that blows a hole in a long standing argument that life begins at the point of conception. Medically speaking, a pregnancy is not officially recognized unless implantation occurs in the uterus, as a fertilized egg can only survive if it implants on the uterine wall. Eggs can implant in inhospitable places such as the fallopian tubes (where they will ultimately kill the mother if the ectopic pregnancy is not terminated) or fail to implant long enough to begin the  growth process, or simply fail to implant at all, all by means entirely natural. For the progesterone qualities in oral contraceptives to be considered abortifacient by those who maintain the point of conception is sacred, their rate of causing implantation failure would have to exceed the 50-60% natural failure. There is no evidence to suggest this is true. Statistics aside, The Pill is a virtually flawless form of birth control when used properly, and its failure is generally the fault of the user. The pills are generally administered in twenty-eight day regimens, though extended cycle regimens such as Seasonique® have recently become available. Regardless, pills must be taken every day and at the same time everyday. Missing a day and vast inconsistency in the time of day at which the Pill is taken are virtually the only reasons for its failure, aside from the use of some antibiotics which women are warned of upon prescription.  If the Pill fails and ovulation occurs, all statistical information suggests that a woman’s chance of pregnancy remains the same and depends on the same perfect combination of factors as natural process (Fisher).


The invention of oral contraception correlated with a rapid change in the social climate of the United States. The 1960s bore the Civil Right’s Movement as well as the Sexual Revolution, making it the decade in which women and minorities began to find their voice in numbers that could truly inspire social change.  In the 1940s and 1950s, the “nuclear family” was the foundation of American life. In post-war America, men worked for high end corporations that afforded them disposable income while their wives tended to the home, (which was owned and located in a desirable patch of suburbia), and raised children. Women came to embody the  stereotypical 50s housewife, not necessarily by choice but because other options were frowned upon by the pressures and expectations of post-war American society. Historian Susan L. Cohen states that in the year 1957, more than half of American women were married by age twenty and nine out of ten Americans viewed individuals who chose not to marry as “sick,” “neurotic,” or “immoral. By the year Envoid® was finally available, Cohen states:

“Only 8% of women were college graduates. Only 2% of law degrees, 4% of MBAs, and 6% of medical degrees were conferred on women. In the year President John F. Kennedy announced the nation would put a man on the moon, most young American women dreamed of marrying by age twenty-one, quitting work, and having four children” (Cohen).

By the 1960s, more daughters became college graduates who pursued careers before families while their mothers returned to work after their children left home. These freedoms were made largely possible by oral contraceptives, a drug that gave women complete sexual freedom and allowed them to consciously choose to defer motherhood without deferring becoming sexually active. Subsequently, the nuclear family of social construction dissolved in the mid 70s, partly due to a rise in educated and working women and partly out of necessity. The weak economy of the early to mid 70s made households with only one working parent impractical and unfeasible, with use of the Pill providing couples with a vital tool in limiting family size for financial reasons, a luxury Margaret Sanger dreamed of at the beginning of the century. The difference was by the 1970s, working women, be they single, married, or mothers, were socially acceptable and relatively common. The stigma was dissolving.


The notion that women actually enjoy sex was made public knowledge in the 1960s and 1970s when unmarried women sought prescriptions for oral contraceptives. Access to the pill has forever changed the social perception of sex and made clear that girls are as sexually curious as boys and made this acceptable. A full generation later, it has also altered how mothers and daughters talk about sex. Teenage and young adult women in the 60s and 70s had access to oral contraceptives if they so chose without parental knowledge or consent, which statistics show they utilized. 80% of American women born since 1945 have used oral contraceptives at some point in their life. The teens of the 70s raised teens of their own in the last decade and while they themselves were raised by the conservative, largely uneducated housewives of the 40s and 50s, many mothers to the daughters of the Millennium Generation are actively and supportively involved in their daughters’ sexual decisions. Having experienced acquiring oral contraceptives in secrecy, they wish for their daughters the very openness and opportunity they either passively or actively fought for during the Sexual Revolution and Second Wave feminist movement. Gynecologist Paula Adams Hillard has observed this trend, stating, “In my practice, I see many adolescents; I see most of them with their mothers. As I have grown as a clinician, I have come to recognize the importance of fostering healthy communication between mothers and daughters.” This new style of parenting, where sexual health and decisions are treated as normal parts of life has led to a more sexually aware generation, one knowledgeable about the risks involved in unsafe sexual behavior and what “unsafe” sex constitutes. By being raised by the generation that welcomed the first oral contraceptives, today’s teen girls have open and accepting access to a drug that gives them the freedom to make their own sexual decisions without the risks of becoming a teen mother. Adams Hillard rightly states, “the pill has evolved from a revolutionary new pharmacologic development into an assumption of modern life and health”(Adams Hillard).

Over the last fifty years, oral contraceptives have been as widely studied as much as they have been widely used, emerging as a drug with benefits that range far beyond the intended use, though like any drug, they are not without risks. Birth control pills have one rare potentially life threatening side effect, and that is an increased risk of deep vein thrombosis. This is a rare occurrence with most instances involving women with other risk factors such as smoking. Most women are warned of this risk upon prescription and informed of the warning signs, and by FDA mandate, the information sheet contained in every pack of birth control pills informs of the risks and signs of DVT. Aside from this risk, the other side effects of birth control pills mostly fall into the category of irritating, not dangerous. Nausea, especially in the first few months, is the most common and a result of the hormone changes brought on by the pill that mimic pregnancy. Essentially, nausea common at the onset of pill use is morning sickness, and like morning sickness, it tends to go away after time. Pill use correlates with a slightly elevated risk of cervical cancer, though it is unlikely that the Pill itself is directly responsible. Cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which is classified as a sexually transmitted infection. The National Cancer Institute believes the correlation between Pill use and cervical cancer to be a result of the obvious fact that Pill users are more sexually active individuals, not caused by the Pill alone. Though STIs are nothing new, the AIDS crises of the 1980s was a wake up call to the possible downsides of sexual liberation and the need for safe sexual practices. With the advent of the Pill, pregnancy is no longer the biggest consequence of sex and STIs have risen to the spotlight. Though all individuals should be free to make their own sexual decisions, education on safe sex practices remains of the utmost importance. American culture has undoubtedly modified its view of sex and attempted to rise to the challenge, though room for improvements remain (Knowles).

Most physicians agree that the benefits of oral contraceptives far outweigh the risks. Pill use correlates with a decrease in ovarian and endometrial cancers (Oral). The Pill is also widely used to treat various menstrual disorders as it makes periods lighter and more regular. It has been used to treat iron deficiency anemia, polycystic ovarian syndrome,  and it protects against bone thinning and pelvic inflammatory disease. Cosmetic benefits of Pill use include most notably acne treatment, balancing the hormonal changes in adolescence that lead to breakouts. The Pill also often has an effect on breast size and growth, a purely trivial side effect that is not so positive for the feminist movement, but none the less one many women (and their partners) appreciate (Birth, Dhont).

Perhaps the most compelling social benefit to birth control is its effect on abortion rates. The right to an abortion remains an intensely polarizing issue in American politics, and though the advocates for a woman’s right to choose believe the issue should be personal and not political, everyone is fairly unanimously in agreement that reducing the need for abortions is in the best interest of everyone, even if there remains disagreement on how best to accomplish this. From 2007 to 2011, the Washington University School of Medicine conducted a study involving nearly 9,300 women between ages fourteen and forty-five. The participants were provided with free hormonal contraception, either birth control pills or intra uterine devices (IUDs). The researches split the study to provide statistics of age and race and found participants had 4.4 to 7.7 abortions per 1,000 women. When compared to overall national average of 19.6 abortions per 1,000 women, it becomes indisputable that hormonal contraception methods have a dramatic effect on abortion rates. The problem is, the women in the study, many of whom were poor and uninsured, were given their contraception for free. Birth control pills are available by prescription only, and IUDs as well as other hormonal methods of contraception, such as patches and shots, require a physician for administration. Despite all of the health and social benefits, hormonal contraception methods remain out of reach for many of the poorest women in the country (Waxman).


In the noble and necessary quest to make the most effective forms of contraception available to all women, regardless of economic standing, there are two options: government funding, or over the counter sales. In a country strapped for government funds, as well as religiously divided on the issue, the American Congress Of Gynecology and many physicians and women’s groups are pushing for over-the-counter sales of oral contraceptives. Such a move would not require tax payer responsibility, removing conflict of interest towards funding, as well as make the Pill available to any woman who wants it for any reason but lacks the insurance coverage for a doctor’s visit or prescription medications. Gynecologist Malcolm Potts has studied the Pill since the 1960s and presents a compelling argument for over the counter sales:

“One simple solution to today’s birth control battles would be to sell the pill over the counter. The epidemiological data on pill safety are now so compelling that it seems likely the Food and Drug Administration would go along with such a proposal. The dose does not have to be adjusted to fit the user, and no one — not even a toddler who found her mom’s pills — has ever died from an overdose. An over-the-counter pill packet would need to carry some clear warnings: Women over the age of 35 who smoke should not use the pill, and those who are hypertensive or diabetic should seek the advice of a health professional. But many nonprescription drugs carry similar warnings. The category of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, to which aspirin and ibuprofen belong, is associated with 16,000 deaths a year, while the pill actually causes users to live slightly longer than average. The wider availability of the pill would help those who lack insurance or can’t afford to go to a doctor. Today, poor women have three times as many unintended pregnancies as wealthier women” (Potts).

According to Potts, despite the non-insured cost sometimes breaching $100 a month, generic birth control pills can easily be sold for $8 a pack while still providing huge profit for the manufacturer. Stated in such simple terms, it seems remarkable that a prescription is still needed. Potts has an answer for the reason birth control pills remain locked away behind the pharmacy counter: “Commercial greed and a strong patriarchal streak in American politics.” It seems absurd that fifty years after the invention of the birth control pill, after the Sexual Revolution, the Second Wave of feminism and a continued rise in educated and working women that now results is a virtually even gender split in both departments that modern American politics could still be accused of patriarchy. Absurd it may be, but patriarchy is indeed alive and well in American politics.

Credit Card Wrapped in Chains and Padlocked --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

In 2012, Georgetown University Law School graduate Sandra Fluke rose to prominence in the media spotlight over her eloquent remarks surrounding improved insurance coverage for contraception. Three conservative men became outspoken in their opposition to her opinion. Fluke was invited to speak at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in February, her purpose to state, as an educated young woman and member of the American public, why she felt President Obama’s contraception rule was necessary and the compelling need for better insurance coverage of birth control for millions of young women like her. She was however barred from speaking by Chairmen Darrell Issa, who claimed she was not appropriate or qualified as a speaker on the topic. Fluke was not there to give any sort of authoritative medical opinion on contraception, nor was she there to demand government funding for her birth control. She was there to state the experiences of herself and a close friend who were denied coverage for contraception through Georgetown University’s student insurance plan as it is a Jesuit school and does provide such coverage, even as needed by medical necessity.  Fluke was later invited to speak before the Democratic National Convention, and in September, Rep. Joe Walsh responded to Fluke’s  remarks, stating:“Think about this, a 31-32 year old law student who has been a student for life, who gets up there in front of a national audience and tells the American people, ‘I want America to pay for my contraceptives. You’re kidding me. Go get a job. Go get a job Sandra Fluke.” As shockingly offensive as Walsh’s remarks may be, they pale in comparison to the crowning jewel of idiocy that surfaced in response to Fluke’s speeches and assertions. Rush Limbaugh chimed in, using his usual charm to state:

“It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex” (Gentilviso).


Though Chairman Issa’s refusal to let Fluke speak as a representative of American women is disappointing, it is the remarks of Walsh and Limbaugh that highlight the overwhelming streak of patriarchy that still dominates American politics and culture nearly a century after women’s suffrage. It is easy to try and write off these men as anomalies, simply abhorrently outspoken bad examples who render themselves so asinine with their remarks that they do not deserve the breath wasted to condemn them. Unfortunately, such an approach forgets that, though Rep. Walsh thankfully lost his bid for reelection in November of 2012, he was originally elected by the people of Illinois to represent them to the American people. Meanwhile, despite his remarks, Talkers Magazine named Rush Limbaugh the #1 Talk Show host in the United States for the year 2012, citing his success to his, “uncanny ability to deliver unique insight into current events and a profound element of showmanship into a program that simply connected with listeners” (2012).

Fluke published a response to Rep. Walsh’s comments in the Huffington Post, correcting his erroneous accusations of her intent with the same eloquence with which she stated her points before Congress. She stated:

“I testified before members of congress not because ‘I wanted the American people to pay for my contraception,’ but because I wanted the private insurance that women pay for themselves to cover the contraception they need. I was there to tell, not my own, but the story of a close friend who, despite paying her deductible, lost an ovary when she was unable to afford the contraception her insurance failed to cover, but that she needed to treat her polycystic ovarian syndrome” (Fluke).

Fluke went on to quote a survey by Hart Research Associates that discovered 55% of women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four have difficulty affording contraception, be it intended to prevent unwanted pregnancies or to treat any number of underlying medical conditions. She also reported a statistic by the Center for American Progress that reports contraception can cost women upwards of $1,210 a year. Representative Walsh also called Fluke’s supposed cry for the government to pay for her birth control heartless when so many Americans can’t make their mortgage payments and stating “[The Democratic Party] are going to put a woman in front of us who is complaining that the country — you, me and you — won’t pay the $9 per month to pay for her contraceptives” (Gentilviso). This statement highlights Walsh’s complete inability to understand Fluke’s statements. $9 a month is a good deductible, what women fortunate enough to have good insurance that covers their contraception may pay. These women are the lucky the ones, and Fluke’s plea was for all insured women to be so lucky.


In the year 2012, Sandra Fluke was forbidden to speak, called a slut and a prostitute, negatively told she is a lifetime student for graduating law school at the age of thirty, and told to get a job, all for asserting that women deserve affordable access to contraception through their private insurance in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies and treat potentially life threatening medical conditions. She was called heartless for her beliefs in bettering the lives of women, and had her words appallingly misconstrued by an elected member of the House of Representatives and the #1 talk show host in America. This is the state of American politics regarding contraception in the year 2012.


As the Twenty-first Century is on its way, we celebrate one-hundred years since the birth control pill became an idea, and fifty years since its invention. We have watched it shape our society as a medical advancement that is good for our health as well as allowed it to become a symbol of equality and sexual liberation. And yet, we have far to go in the ongoing journey to unravel the patriarchy that remains a great flaw in the American political system. None the less, the many advancements towards equality in the second half of the Twentieth Century were not in vain, and the wide use and medical acceptance of the birth control pill remains a monumental achievement and catalyst to some the biggest advancements to gender equality. Over the next fifty years, the pill is sure to continue shaping American society, continue to aid in the sexual liberation of women of all ages, and perhaps with a much needed change in policy, its availability can reduce and possibly and put an end to the epidemics of unwanted and unplanned pregnancy. The very existence of the birth control pill stands as a testament to the determination of women like Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, women who refused to allow a patriarchal society to determine their rights. One-hundred years later, women like Sandra Fluke are continuing their fight, boldly stating that all women have the same rights to sex as men, and that involves safe and affordable access to the medical advancements that give them complete control over what can be one of life’s greatest rewards as much as it can be the biggest of life altering consequences, before left almost entirely up to chance. In no uncertain terms, the invention of the birth control pill heralded a generation shaped by female choice.

Works Cited

“2012 Heavy Hundred.” Www.talkers.com. Talkers Magazine, 2012. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. http:// http://www.talkers.com/heavy-hundred/.

Adams Hillard, Paula. Mothers, Daughters, and the Pill. Discovery Service for CSU, Chico. Family Planning Perspectives, Apr. 2000. Web. 30 Nov. 2012.

“Birth Control Pill FAQ.” Www.anog.org. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2012. http://www.acog.org/~/media/For %20Patients/ faq021.pdf?dmc=1&ts=20121208T0638243049.

Cohen, Nancy L. Introduction. Delirium: How the Sexual Counter Revolution Is Polarizing America. N.p.: Counterpoint, 2012. N. pag. Alternet.org. Web. <http:// http://www.alternet.org/story/153969/how_the_sexual_revolution_changed_america_forever?   page=0%2C0>.

Dhont, Marc. “History of Oral Contraception.” The European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Healthcare (2010).  Discovery Service for CSU, Chico. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.

Fisher, Susan J. “Implantation and the Survival of Early Pregnancy.” New England Journal of Medicine (2001):  Www.nejm.org. Web.

Fluke, Sandra. “We’re Not ‘The Entitlement Generation'” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sandra-fluke/sandra-fluke-joe-walsh_b_1876782.html?utm_hp_ref=womens-health&gt;.

Gentilviso, Chris. “Joe Walsh Slams Sandra Fluke On Contraception Issue: ‘Go Get A Job’ (VIDEO).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 08 Sept. 2012. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/08/joe-walsh-sandra-fluke_n_1867469.html&gt;.

Knowles, Jon. “A History of Birth Control Methods.” Www.plannedparenthood.org. Katharine Dexter McCormick Library, 2002. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

“Oral Contraceptives and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute. National Institutes of Health, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/oral- contraceptives>.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “Birth Control, Religion and the Unfit.” The Nation. N.p., 27 Jan. 1932. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://www.thenation.com/article/154433/birth-control- religion-and-unfit>.

Pius XI. “Casti Connubii.” Address. St. Peter’s, Rome. 31 Dec. 1930. The Vatican. Web. 08 Nov. 2012. <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p- xi_enc_31121930_casti-connubii_en.html>.

Potts, Malcolm. “A Contraception Game-changer.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 20 Feb. 2012. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/20/opinion/la-oe-potts-the-pill-revisited-20120220&gt;.

“Timeline: The Pill.” PBS.com. PBS, n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/timeline/index.html&gt;.

Waxman, Olivia B. “Study: Free Birth Control Slashes Abortion Rates | TIME.com.” Time. Time, 5 Oct. 2012. Web. Dec. 2012. <http://healthland.time.com/2012/10/05/study-free-birth-control-significantly-cuts-abortion-rates/&gt;.

An Unlimited Scope of Study

By Emily D. Irvine: 12-20-12


Though I am an avid reader, I find my “to-do list” in terms of which novels demand my attention is stuck in 19th Century England. In my quest to read every “classic” I missed by virtue of of my late 20th Century birth, I find myself forgetting that great modern literature does indeed exists, and also comes from authors and countries that are not England. My senior year of college is now half over, and as my chosen major is English Literature, it stands to reason that the beautifully timeless and tragic novels of the Victorian period, not to mention the even more so timeless and tragic works of the English Renaissance have featured heavily in my studies. As much as I adore the fact that my bookshelves are positively buckling under the weight of Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters, to be given the opportunity to read modern, multicultural literature over the past few months has been a welcomed diversion from the past few centuries of British fiction.


I read the fiction of past centuries as a way of learning about and understanding the lives of people who shaped a time period that in turn shaped the age I live in. My reading interests have always seemed most heavily rooted in the past, something I have decided needs to change. In reading five modern, multicultural novels, I have come to find that I have expanded my knowledge on the lives of people who live now, but have lived very differently from myself. It is true that the best way to learn about someone, about their culture and about their lives, is to talk to them directly, or better yet accompany them to the streets that shaped their formative years within the borders of the land from whence they came. However, the second best way to learn is to read their story.

I began my cultural adventures with two memoirs by two very different immigrants to the shores of my country. As works of nonfiction, Funny in Farsi by Iranian born Firoozeh Dumas and East Eats West by Vietnam born Andrew Lam, present the raw, honest perspective of two people whose lives were completely altered midway through their childhoods, both having to learn to reconcile the culture of their birth with western ways.  Both ultimately place huge value on education.

For Firoozeh Dumas, education in the country of her birth would have been hard to come by. Her father, Kazem, a Fullbright Scholar, moved his family from Iran to California in the hope that his daughter could experience the education denied to his sister. Kazem’s love of learning knows no gender, contrary to the stereotypical beliefs of his heritage, and Dumas recount his declaration that, “you, Firoozeh, will go to a university…. I don’t care if you do nothing with your college diploma, but you will have one!” (101). Ultimately earning a diploma in English and using it to tell her story, Dumas’ memoir resonates heavily with me, proof that language is the most powerful tool we have in the quest to understand each other. Funny in Farsi is as hilarious as it is poignant, a heartfelt tale of growing up between two cultures, yet the things that transcend cultural differences, such as the love of family and the dream of equal opportunity.


Like Firoozeh Dumas, Andrew Lam found his bliss in literature, a passion found after earning a degree in biochemistry. Lam credits American opportunity as being the sole reason for his chance to explore the self directed path of creative writing that ultimately led to his successful career as a journalist, stating, “I seriously doubt, were we still in Vietnam, even if the South had won the war and communism were in retreat, even if my family had retained our upper-class status, that I would have veered toward a self-directed path. If I mourned the loss of my homeland, I was also glad that I became an American” (45). Most people have tremendous love for the country that bore them, even if they ultimately leave it. Lam’s sentiments show the line an immigrant walks, often equal love for their first and second homes. The education Lam received in the UnitesStateswas one that allows for a future driven entirely by one’s interests rather than the promise of wealth. Here, one may be able to make a “better” living at biochemistry and engineering, but a living can be made with a literature degree.


Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist radically transitions from equal pride in two home countries. Unashamedly controversial, Hamid’s novel tells the story of Changez, a fictional man from Pakistan, who after being educated at Princeton and securing a job at an American corporation located in New York City, returns home after facing unbearable discrimination in the aftermath of September 11th. Though it is perhaps the most uncomfortable novel I have ever read,The Reluctant Fundamentalist does not exist solely for the purpose of being sensational and “anti-American,” a conclusion one can easily come to simply by glancing at the cover. That said, it is a book that requires an intense amount of critical thinking and open mindedness for an American reader to stomach. In light of the subject matter, finding redeeming qualities in a protagonist who smiles at the “symbolism” of the fallen World Trade Center and returns to Pakistan to teach anti-American sentiments to students is difficult, something the reader does not want to do. And yet, the fact that we do not want to think about it is what makes this book ultimately worth the exhausting journey that it is. It is the product of an author simply stepping up to a metaphorical podium as an average citizen of a country given precious little voice and saying, “we are here too.” Rather that penning an easy story in which a fictional Pakistani protagonist vehemently condemns everyone who hates America, Hamid instead gives due credit to the complexity of human emotions, that all decent people do indeed condemn the loss of human life and are therefore saddened by the 9/11 tragedy, but that doesn’t mean they are required to have a love affair with America, nor does it require them to sit back and take it when, out of understandable fear, Americans generalize those they perceive to be their enemies. This is not a novel that falls into the category of “pleasure reading” and is easily one of the most morally challenging things I have ever read. But I am exceedingly glad to have read it, to have allowed it to require me to think very deeply about subjects that I would have presumed were better left unthought.


On the topic of complex human emotions, A Human Being Died that Night by South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is perhaps the most emotionally draining and spiritually uplifting work of non-fiction I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Recounting the horrors of the apartheid era in South Africa through the testimonies that emerged during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, Pumla’s memoir explores the power of forgiveness in the face of the unforgivable and tells the testimony of a country that has worked tirelessly to bring peace and unity where both seem impossible. Pumla extensively interviewed Eugene de Kock, a former police commissioner serving multiple life sentences for his unspeakable crimes against humanity, one of the few not granted amnesty in the name of reconciliation. Pumla explores everything from the nature of evil and power, to the fragility of oppressed groups through a lifetime of fear, to the need to forgive. Formerly a country divided by political motives enforced through senseless and brutal violence, South Africa emerged as an example of a bloodless change in policy, a change that seems impossible. Pumla states, “The question is no longer whether victims can forgive ‘evildoers’ but whether we – our symbols, language, and politics, our legal, media, and academic institutions – are creating the conditions that encourage alternatives to revenge” (118). Pumla’s book is filled with such statements, declarations that demand us to fully examine ourselves and suggest that the most human parts of us are the parts that allow us to abandon natural instinct by abandoning revenge and hatred, even when revenge and hatred are most due.


After such heavy material, Haruki Murakami’s surreal collection of short stories entitled The Elephant Vanishes felt like an even more extreme departure from reality than it already is. Surrealism comes in varying degrees of ridiculous (and I mean that in the best possible sense) with Murakami’s brand in this collection falling into the category of “things best read by insomniacs at 3 a.m..” As I happen to be an insomniac who frequently reads at 3 a.m. when my brain tends to make anything surreal, this book was in some ways, a sensory overload, and in others a welcomed escape from literature that fits any type of conceivable mold. Murakami’s style lends itself less to cultural expression and more to universal appeal. Though most of the stories are centered in the metropolis ofTokyo,most could conceivably be set in any metropolis with only small nuances present to reveal the true cultural setting – dinner eaten with chopsticks, for example. In this way, Murakami’s short stories are not so much about expressing clear pride in a cultural identity but about expressing a universality in the trails of life, with love and loneliness taking center stage.


Reading itself appears to be a tragically dying pass time, and with the loss of reading comes the loss of one of our greatest sources of cultural understanding. Multicultural literature crosses oceans and political boundaries giving us invaluable insights into the lives of people we will never meet. All literature also transcends time, freezing in place events that, in the grand scheme of things, only embody an instant of historical time, things such as South Africa’s period of reconciliation, 9/11, or the Vietnam War. By being born in one place, by only inhabiting the Earth for a few meager decades, we all miss so much. With a passport, we can cross political boundaries and see much, but only that which exists in the present, and the present is the most fleeting of all periods. Through literature, we can experience and understand that which physical limitations make impossible. With such a wealth of knowledge at our disposal, anyone would be exceeding foolish to limit their scope of study.


Seeking Forgiveness in the Legacy of Apartheid: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s “A Human Being Died That Night”

By Emily D. Irvine: 11-4-12


Human history is lined with acts of evil, individuals who have appeared to void their human status in the pursuit of power and a skewed perception of righteousness. With varying degrees of world outrage, human rights violators – Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Sadaam Hussein, –  have come to represent the epitome of evil, people who used the support of the governments that backed them to shape the world for worse. In A Human Being Died That Night, Pumla Gobodo- Madikizela discusses the moral complications surrounding Eugene de Kock, an incarcerated former South African Police commissioner during the horrors of the apartheid era, a man who has come to be known as “Prime Evil” by the people his actions touched. Pumla presents evil committed with political motivations as a different kind of evil, one that not only seizes people differently but a type of evil  that it is essential to try and understand if their respective societies are to successfully move on. She asks if forgiveness is possible for people who commit unspeakable crimes agains humanity while acting on behalf of their governments, and if such forgiveness is powerful enough to heal a society shaped by a violently segregated past.


South African professor, psychologist, and author Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela 

South Africa finds itself in a unique position. Though violence, bloodshed, and loss of life permeated the country’s narrative throughout the twentieth century, a fact that cannot be ignored, the switch to democracy and the renouncing of an apartheid government happened without war, the potential “bloodbath that never happened” as Pumla described it at a UCSB Capps Center lecture in 2004. In this same lecture, Pumla addresses the necessity of forgiveness in a society pursuing a peaceful existence after this specific type of conflict, stating: “Societies like South Africa and Rwanda, for example, have found it is more constructive to focus on creating and  nurturing the conditions that make forgiveness first conceivable, then ultimately possible. In these two societies, the language of reconciliation and restorative justice has defined and continued to define the process of dealing with the past.”


Images of apartheid.

Restorative justice is a concept that could quite conceivably bring world peace if it could be properly executed on a global scale. The obvious difficulty in this concept is it requires those who have been wronged in the worst conceivable ways to not only forgive those who have wronged them, but be satisfied with seeing them endure a punishment that could never fit their crime as true revenge is counter productive and true justice is impossible to define when the crime involves the egregious loss of life. Such an ability seems superhuman, our own intrinsic natures seemingly wired to desire revenge over reconciliation. But Pumla shows us with absolute clarity that it is humanly possibly to forgive the unforgivable.

 One of Eugene de Kock’s many crimes involves the calculated death of three black policemen, whereby de Kock, as a police commissioner, orchestrated the construction of a car bomb that could be detonated remotely. He sent three black officers on a false mission in the car the bomb was placed in, these black officers “crime” being that they “threatened to expose their white colleagues’ involvement in the mysterious death of four black [anti-apartheid] activists” (13). The bomb was detonated as planned and the three officers (plus a seemingly civilian friend in the car with them) were killed. After the collapse of the apartheid government and de Kock’s trial for his many involvements of this sort, he appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Pumla herself served on. Before the TRC, de Kock asked to speak to the widows of  the  men he killed, to  apologize to them. Not only did two of the widows agree to the meeting, but they forgave him. Pumla interviewed both women after their encounter with de Kock and recounts that Pearl Faku stated she was “profoundly touched by him… I couldn’t control my tears. I could hear him, but I was overwhelmed by emotion, and I was just nodding, as a way of saying yes, I forgive you. I hope that when he sees our tears, he knows that they are not only tears for our husbands, but tears for him as well…. I would like to hold him by the hand and show him that there is a future, and the he can still change” (14-15). Pumla herself is shocked by this act of empathy and the widow’s ability to shed tears for de Kock’s own loss of moral humanity. She questions if de Kock is deserving of this level of forgiveness, if those who commit atrocities of this sort deserve to be given the opportunity to express remorse and asks if de Kock was “too evil –Prime Evil– to be  worthy  of  the  forgiveness Mrs.Faku  and  Mrs. Mgoduka had offered him?” (15).


Prime Evil

 At UC Santa Barbara, Pumla expanded on this notion of what constitutes an unforgivable act and how far forgiveness can be stretched to encompass the perpetrators of unspeakable acts of violence. She states that “there may be some deeds for which the language of apology and forgiveness may be entirely inappropriate, however, to exclude all horrible acts committed with a political motive from the realm of the forgivable does not capture the complexities of the social contexts within which gross evil occurs.” In this sense, Pumla expresses that acts of evil fall into different categories, something that, as a psychologist, she could naturally form an educated and experience based opinion on. The acts of a classic, anti-social, Hannibal Lector style serial killer are not driven by the same motivations as the actions of someone like Eugene de Kock,whocommittedhis atrocities in  a  skewed political environment. A Hannibal Lector is separated from society and society will eventually eliminate him, writing him off as an anomaly. Eugene de Kock operated within the accepted confines of a particular society at a particular time. His actions were not abnormal in the eyes of the government, for hewas the government. For him to be held accountable, the government had to change. And it did. Pumla by no means excuses de Kock for his actions, rather illuminates that actions can be called deplorable, but if the government does not call them illegal and administer the proper punishment, then those who uphold the social constructions have entered a grey area, a place where moral fiber becomes effectively subjective even if morals themselves remain absolute in even the most backward of societies.

Apartheid will forever be a damned spot in the narrative of human history, a reminder of the pain and suffering we are capable of inflicting upon each other though government sanctioned violence. Those who can find the power to forgive the perpetrators of atrocities effectively put an end to the “eye for an eye” mentality that halts social progress, bettering social conditions by accepting that there exists no perfect solution in light of human rights violations. Whether or not Eugene de Kock is genuine in his remorse, whether or not he is deserving of the forgiveness shown to him is only relevant for him as an individual. But if we look at de Kock as representative of an institution, as nothing more than a face representing the Prime Evil legacy that is apartheid, then forgiveness is not intrinsically linked to his personal revelations of remorse.Inthis case, forgiveness  is  a  form of closure benefitting the victim far more than the perpetrator, an act of closure that expresses life must go on and healing must be allowed to occur regardless of whether or not those who inflicted the pain are remorseful. Harboring hatred for men like de Kock will only continue to give them power over society by halting the emotional restoration and reconciliation of the people they tried so desperately to keep apart. Forgiveness brings unity, a human connection between the perpetrators and victims of inhuman acts and is the gateway to a peaceful, integrated, restored society.


“Pretoria was a city filled with too many of apartheid’s symbols…. Pretoria was the heart and soul of apartheid and I had no desire to set foot there. But now…eight years later, Pretoria symbolized something new. It was the city where Nelson Mandela had been inaugurated as the first president of a democratic South Africa” (2). 

Works Cited

Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. “A Human Being Died That Night: A South Africa Story.” Lecture. Walter H. Capps Center, Santa Barbara. May 2004. 31 Jan. 2008. Web. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1-01dPT1bk&gt;.