Country Icon Loretta Lynn, Dead at 90, Resonates Again Amid Abortion Debate

Loretta Lynn, the Grammy-winning country music icon who died Tuesday at the age of 90, lived and sang about decades of progress for women’s social movements — achievements that are now in jeopardy.

A mother several times in her late teens, she gave a voice to those who historically had little control over childbirth and their own sexuality. Some of her songs reflected the lives of many rural women and mothers, lamenting their invisible labor and the repressive and gender roles that kept them tied to a singular identity.

For some of those currently working in reproductive health care in her home state of Kentucky, Lynn’s music is highly relevant. Lynn, who sang about birth control after Roe v. Wade became a landmark legal decision protecting abortion rights, she died just months after the United States Supreme Court overturned the 1973 case, creating a massive shift in reproductive rights across the country. In November, Kentucky voters will decide whether to remove abortion rights from the state constitution.

Kate Collins, 34, wasn’t of the generation that heard “The Pill” or “One’s on the Way” when they first hit the radio, but Lynn’s voice provided a soundtrack to her childhood. In addition to growing up in a home where classic country music was part of the lexicon, Collins grew up in a family that was vocal about abortion and birth control, which led her to start volunteering as an escort at a clinic in Kentucky. But it wasn’t until high school that she began to piece together the context of what Lynn was singing.

“She talks about being able to wear whatever clothes she wants,” Collins, who now volunteers as a case manager at the Kentucky Health Justice Network’s abortion resource hotline, said of “The Pill” from 1975. “Because of my access to birth control, I could go out to bars with my friends and wear miniskirts. And that wasn’t something I had to think twice about until the lyrics finally hit me.”

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“The Pill,” written by Lorene Allen, Don McHan and TD Bayless, was recorded before the Roe v. Wade, but Lynn held on to the song for years before she felt fans were ready to hear it.

“When we released it, people loved it. I mean the women loved it,” she wrote in her 1976 autobiography, “A Coal Miner’s Daughter.” “But the men who run the radio stations were scared to death. It’s like a challenge to the way men think.”

Country music men sang about abortion, premarital sex, and divorce in the ’60s and ’70s with little to no backlash, but it was rare that a woman could sing about wanting to enjoy sex with her husband without the consequences of a unplanned pregnancy. , as Lynn did.

“In fact, it’s not about anything other than the control of women and their pleasure, or anyone who can get pregnant and their pleasure,” Collins said.

Lynn was candid about her experiences of giving birth so young, not being mentally or physically ready. She wrote that she couldn’t afford to spend the night after the birth of her second child, so she returned home to wash diapers and draw water from the well 24 hours after delivery. She experienced miscarriages, nearly dying because she had no money to go to the doctor. And yet she kept getting pregnant, giving birth to six children.

She wrote that she couldn’t even sign her own consent form to have a C-section because she was still a minor and her husband, Oliver Lynn, known as “Dolittle” or “Mooney,” was on a logging job and was unavailable.

“I love my kids but I wish they had the pill when I first got married,” she wrote. “I couldn’t enjoy the first four children; I had them so fast. I was too busy trying to feed them and put clothes on them.”

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She said birth control was a way for women to protect themselves: “Feeling good is easy now/Since I’ve been on the pill/It’s getting dark, time to sleep/Tonight is too good to be true/Oh but daddy, don’t worry, none / Because mom has the pill, “he sang.

And he didn’t mince words about his feelings on abortion.

“That is also why I will never say anything against the abortion laws that they facilitated a few years ago,” he wrote in the 1976 memoir.

“Personally, I think you should avoid an unwanted pregnancy instead of having an abortion. I don’t think I can abort. It wouldn’t be right for me,” she added. “But I’m thinking of all the poor girls who get pregnant when they don’t want to be, and how they should have a choice instead of leaving it to some politician or doctor who doesn’t have to raise the baby. I think they should be able to abort.”

As Collins sees it, Lynn was explaining, in her own way, the idea of ​​bodily autonomy. Collins also sees a connection between the rollback of abortion rights and attacks on gender-affirming care for transgender people.

More than 45 years after Lynn sang about the pill, in Kentucky and many other states, clinics are prohibited from performing abortions. While self-managed abortions with prescription drugs are safe and highly effective, Collins is concerned about the desperation gripping those seeking help and the collateral damage of those with unsafe pregnancies or miscarriages.

“It’s really easy to feel like you’re going backwards in the discography and now we’re going to go from ‘The Pill’ to ‘One’s on the Way,'” he said.

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