In response to the recent US Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health, which stripped away the rights of women, trans, and non-binary people to healthcare and reproductive justice in many states, the editors of the JWH have received permission to provide a large number of articles dealing with these issues in open-access format for sixty days. We believe it is imperative for people to understand these issues in both historical and transnational contexts. The United States now joins places like Poland, Brazil, and El Salvador in stripping away abortion rights—and criminalizing all abortions in states like Oklahoma—instead of expanding those rights reproductive healthcare, as has recently occurred in Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina. Below you will find a brief essay that contextualizes these articles further. Although the majority of articles cover issues of reproductive struggles in the US, there are some that provide information in other national and historical contexts. This essay will include articles from our current Special Issue on Reproduction, Contraception, and Obstetrics in Modern Mexico, but not all of those articles are open-access. You can find links to Special Issue articles and abstracts here.
Abortion has always been with us. How people have viewed the practice and how women and other pregnant people have sought to terminate their pregnancies differ across time and place and involve varying levels of safety. Who gets to decide whether an abortion is legitimate or necessary, or whether it should be criminalized (and who is deemed a criminal), or who, if anybody, has the right to access and use contraception, depends on structures of power and competing interests, such as those of the pregnant individual, the family, the medical community, and the state.
Much of the controversy around abortion centers on when human life begins. Although the Catholic Church and many evangelical Protestant churches now define life as beginning at conception, that is a relatively new theory. As Sara Butler demonstrates in “Abortion by Assault and against Pregnant Women in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century England,” and many others contend, the medieval Church did not consider a fetus alive until “ensoulment” and “quickening” (when women could feel fetal movement), somewhere around eighteen weeks of pregnancy. Attempts to unblock a woman’s menstrual cycle before this period of quickening were deemed perfectly legal and ordinary. This standard for defining fetal life in Europe, the United States, and Latin America lasted until around the mid-nineteenth century. Once quickening happened, then abortion could be prosecuted as murder. But even the criminalization of abortion really depended on who was targeted. As Butler contends, violence perpetrated on a pregnant woman’s body that resulted in the death of a fetus could be prosecuted as homicide and receive the death penalty. Most all-male juries hesitated to convict men who assaulted pregnant women, however, not just because they were men but because lacked the confidence to speak about women’s bodies, deeming obstetrics to be “women’s business.”
In contrast, in places like mid-twentieth-century Guatemala, where misogyny and its concomitant violence against women were state sanctioned and enforced in both the family and through the courts system, only women could be charged with the crimes of abortion and infanticide, and male violence against these women who “dishonored” them was seen as perfectly justifiable. As Cindy Foster argues in, “Violent and Violated Women: Justice and Gender in Rural Guatemala, 1936-1956”, “The fact that in Guatemala only women were charged with committing reproductive crimes is common to most societies that have largely discounted male reproductive responsibility while judging female reproduction in marriage as the source of a woman’s personal worth” (66).
As an institution, the Catholic Church has played a prominent role in criminalizing abortion. As noted above, the Church officially changed its stance about fetal life in the nineteenth century and has spent the intervening years trying to prevent the legalization of abortion or make it illegal in the places where it is permitted. Sometimes the institution has found itself at odds with the medical profession, as we see in Elizabeth O’Brien’s, “A Tacit Pact with the State: Constrained Choice and the Politics of Abortion in 1930s Mexico”; at other times it imposes its belief system by flexing its muscles in the political arena and getting laws changed, as happened in post-communist Poland. In 1993, the Catholic Church and other Christian groups pressured Lech Walesa’s government to restrict abortion, as Wanda Nowicka demonstrates in “Two Steps Back: Poland’s New Abortion Law,” . Access has only gotten worse for Poland’s women—since October 2020, there has been a near-total abortion ban, which has not only posed grave problems for Poles seeking abortions, but also for Ukranian refugees who became pregnant after Russian soldiers raped them during the Russian invasion.
In the US, Catholic activists have recently allied themselves with Christian fundamentalists to work toward the total ban on abortion, sometimes with unexpected consequences. As Karissa Haugeberg points out in “‘How Come There’s Only Men Up There?’ Catholic Women’s Grassroots Anti-Abortion Activism” , many feminist-identified Catholic laywomen agitated against the legalization of abortion in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1980s, they joined forces with conservative evangelical activists toward this goal. The evangelicals’ patriarchal worldview took many of these Catholic activists by surprise, and although the Catholics’ protest methods remained influential in the anti-abortion movement, these Catholic activist women were “pushed out of leadership positions” (38). More tellingly, “When progressive Catholic women left leadership posts, anti-abortion support for welfare programs, peace, and social justice waned” (38).
The state has also taken great interest in regulating the reproductive health of its female citizens. The Soviet Union, for example, changed course many times over its seventy-two-year existence. It legalized abortion in 1920, reversed course and decriminalized it in 1936, and decriminalized it again in 1955. Soviet authorities walked a careful line between legalizing abortion and publicly campaigning against the practice. As Amy E. Randall explains in “’Abortion Will Deprive You of Happiness!’ Soviet Reproductive Politics in the Post-Stalinist Era,” Communist leaders championed motherhood and pronatalist policies, but they were also aware that approximately 4,000 deaths occurred in women who had obtained illegal abortions before 1955. How to explain this odd paradox of state pronatalism living side-by-side with abortion’s legalization? Randall elaborates: “Soviet officials and medical experts hoped that legalization would strengthen the nation’s reproductive health, since they believed the illegal termination of pregnancy adversely affected women’s long-term ability to procreate to a greater extent than medicalized abortion. A similar logic contributed to the endorsement of contraceptives; authorities thought their use would result in fewer illegal and legal abortions, both of which were deemed detrimental to women’s fertility” (15).
Medical authorities have also weighed in on pregnant women’s lives by denying them their own experiences. Ziv Eisenberg explains in “Clear and Pregnant Danger: The Making of Prenatal Psychology in Mid-Twentieth-Century America” that US obstetricians, psychologists, and psychiatrists in the 1940s and 1950s saw in women’s difficult pregnancies—vomiting, miscarriages—a distaste for motherhood, a psychological rejection of femininity, and a selfish desire for a career outside the home. Instead of understanding these symptoms as physical medical problems, these professionals comprehended them as psychological maladies that could be cured through talk therapy and acceptance of their impending motherhood.
Although the state, religious authorities, medical professionals, and heads of families often limited women’s reproductive choices, these powerful groups rarely consulted women for expertise on reproductive health. Stories centering women’s experiences of pregnancy and abortion were rarely heard, but the historical record tells us that women resisted the prohibitions placed on their bodies in subtle and profound ways. Cara Delay’s, “Kitchens and Kettles: Domestic Spaces, Ordinary Things, and Female Networks in Irish Abortion History, 1922-1949 shows us how in a militantly Catholic country like Ireland (and even in Protestant Northern Ireland) women in Irish households managed reproductive health care and performed abortions in their households with striking regularity, using common household objects in this work. They passed down this knowledge within family and community networks. Delay’s “research provides evidence for the ordinariness of abortion, which, for many, was woven into the fabric of everyday life” (11).
In the US, the anti-abortion group Feminists for Life (FFL) has claimed that early feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony militantly opposed abortion, and FFL has justified its own anti-abortion activism by calling upon these early feminists as exemplars of such ideas. But Faye E. Dudden casts doubt on that anti-abortion genealogy in her article, “Women’s Rights Advocates and Abortion Laws,” . While Dudden acknowledges these early feminists’ anti-abortion sentiments, she argues that they “expressed decided skepticism about outlawing abortion,” mainly because anti-abortion laws were ineffective since “they did not consult women’s interests” (102). Again, these early feminists centered their arguments around the idea that women were experts in their own lives. Contrary to what the FFL’s cherry-picked evidence suggests, these early feminists promoted “voluntary motherhood,” not the criminalization of abortion.
Reliance on women’s expertise also paved the way for the Roe v. Wade decision, as Sherie M. Randolph points out in, “Not to Rely Completely on the Courts: Florence ‘Flo’ Kennedy, Black Feminist Leadership in the Reproductive Rights Battle, 1969-1971”. Black feminist lawyer Flo Kennedy, one of the primary lawyers championing the repeal of New York’s anti-abortion laws in Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz, developed the novel tactic of employing women as expert witnesses who could testify to their own experiences of navigating the abortion landscape. This tactic worked so well that lawyers replicated it with great success in their arguments for the now-defunct Roe v. Wade case.
Race and eugenics practices have also been solidly intertwined with the history of abortion and contraception in the US and elsewhere in the Global North. Anti-abortion activists justify their support for the criminalization of abortion by recounting the historical crimes that so-called racial scientists committed, such as sterilization and non-consensual abortion, against poor, disabled, and other minoritized groups. But many of these same activists simultaneously advocate for pronatalist policies that increase the birth rate of their preferred groups—white, middle-class, Christian—through practices like the criminalization of abortion and contraception, and punish the out groups through anti-immigration laws or cuts to social welfare programs. Despite the fraught racial politics underpinning abortion and anti-abortion political activism, minoritized communities have been at the forefront of expanding and changing our understanding of reproductive health and justice. Instead of picking up the mostly white mantle of “choice,” non-white activists have preferred to discuss abortion and reproduction within the framework of “reproductive justice” instead of the more limited term “choice.”
While place like Great Britain and the United States were liberalizing their abortion laws in the 1970s, South Africa responded to this liberalization by going in the opposite direction, criminalizing abortion in 1975. This change was related directly to the apartheid government’s fears that white women might be sexually active before marriage (and with non-white men no less) and that the African populations would reproduce in untold numbers, outnumbering the white population even further. The South African version of the “Great Replacement Theory” now prevalent in US right-wing circles resulted in the coercive, non-consensual use of Depo Provera on Black women and numerous deaths and injuries in that same population from unsafe, illegal abortions. In “‘Reclaiming the White Daughter’s Purity’:Afrikaner Nationalism, Racialized Sexuality, and the 1975 Abortion and Sterilization Act in Apartheid South Africa” , Susanne M. Klausen elucidates the competing interests of white nationalists, physicians, and Black female populations within the debates to criminalize abortion.
Racism has certainly fueled reproductive politics in the US, just as it did in South Africa. While the politics of reproduction have often centered on the right to choose (or not to choose) contraception and abortion, less discussed is the use of coerced contraception and abortion on minoritized populations, the poor, and the disabled. Two articles discuss how the contraceptives Norplant and Depo-Provera became part of a coerced “population control” strategy for women in the Global South and for Black and Brown people in the United States. Both Elizabeth Siegel Watkins, “From Breakthrough to Bust: The Brief Life of Norplant, the Contraceptive Implant” https://muse.jhu.edu/article/394041 and Wendy Kline, “Bodies of Evidence: Activists, Patients, and the FDA Regulation of Depo-Provera” trace the histories of these contraceptives, their experimental use on minoritized populations, and their eventual rejection in the US by healthcare and feminist activists.
Because race has been at the heart of reproductive politics in the US, it is no surprise that racial minorities have been the leaders in transforming our understanding of reproductive activism. Although mostly white reproductive activists began framing abortion debates as “pro-choice” politics “or reproductive rights” after Roe v. Wade—evoking an individual’s right to choose or not to choose having an abortion—minoritized populations began pushing for more expansive rights. These rights, which Black women activists in the 1990s would term “reproductive justice” highlight:
the inseparable relationships of race, class, and gender—or intersectionality—and reproduction. In more concrete terms, activists who focus on reproductive justice frame it in terms of the right and material capacity to bear children and to be parents as well as to avoid childbearing. Both are equally important; both deserve to be given equal weight in their significance; and both require material goods and services and social changes in order to put them in place. To enjoy the right to be a parent, means that women need to know that they have social support for childrearing—basic needs of housing, food, and childcare—and that having children will not mean the loss of an education, a job, or state benefits. These are as important as the availability of contraceptives and safe and legal abortions. Reproductive justice underlines the fact that reproductive inequalities necessarily prevail when racism and class persist while simultaneously serving as a critique of the pro-choice national organizations’ focus on abortion. Editor’s Note, Leslie J. Reagan
Rickie Solinger’s article, “The First Welfare Case: Money, Sex, Marriage, and White Supremacy in Selma, 1966, A Reproductive Justice Analysis” shows the limits of employing a “reproductive rights” framework to achieve full civil rights. Using the case of King v. Smith (1966), which overturned laws that welfare agencies used to surveil and police the sexual behavior of Black women in order for them to receive cash benefits, Solinger argues that “even if poor African American women had had access to contraception and legal abortion at that time, they would still have lacked reproductive autonomy and dignity as the state surveilled their sexual behavior and enforced laws making sex, itself, as well as reproduction, and the right to define their own intimate relationships and families, a race and class privilege” (13).
The political and racial struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the US became the backdrop for various forms of reproductive justice work led by racial minorities, and their work was decidedly intersectional. Jennifer N. Nelson explores the multiracial Puerto Ricans who comprised the Young Lords in New York City in the early 1970s in “Abortions under Community Control”: Feminism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Reproduction among New York City’s Young Lords.” Not only did this group have a nationalist agenda, it also embraced a feminist one that included reproductive demands such as “legal abortion and contraception, an end to sterilization abuse, prenatal and postnatal care for poor women, affordable day care, and an end to the poverty that prevented poor women and women of color from bearing all the healthy children they wanted” (158). This broader feminist agenda became integrated into the larger Young Lords Party political demands and “influenced (socialist) feminist politics later in the decade” (158). Flo Kennedy, too, [see discussion of Randolph’s article above] pushed the white feminist women’s movement toward the reproductive justice framework, and illuminated “the complex but deeply rooted connections between the women’s and Black liberation movements. Kennedy was in constant negotiation with the Black Power movement. . . . she translated some of the movement’s central insights and strategies into forms that feminists could use” (138).
In “Bringing Back Woman Knowledge: The Women’s Dance Health Program and Native Midwifery in the Twin Cities,” Brianna Theobald highlights the work of Katsi Cook, a Mohawk mother who established a program in Minneapolis, where she trained midwives and offered reproductive health care to Native women. Importantly, the Women’s Dance Health program “reveals how Native women inserted reproduction, women’s health, and sexuality into Red Power agendas. . . . Cook forged coalitions with leaders in the white dominated modern midwifery movement. Cook and other Native midwives skillfully used these relationships and partnerships to further their distinct objectives of survival and sovereignty” (63).
Once again, Jennifer Nelson centers reproductive justice activists in her article, “‘All this that has happened to me shouldn’t happen to nobody else’: Loretta Ross and the Women of Color Reproductive Freedom Movement of the 1980s”. A biographical work about Black feminist leader and intellectual Loretta Ross, this article highlights Ross’s work in the National Organization for Women, her role in building “a women’s health movement that by the late 1980s made the demands of women of color central” (136), educating the mostly white leadership about the vital connections of race and class in feminist analyses and activism, and working to create coalitions across race and class divides.
Knowing the history of reproductive activism can be empowering, even in this most dismal of times, and knowing where things may have gone wrong in the struggle is also helpful for future battles. Tracy A. Weitz makes us rethink the utility of adopting the opposition’s frameworks around abortion rights in “Rethinking the Mantra that Abortion Should be ‘Safe, Legal, and Rare’”. By adopting that language, people fighting to maintain wide access to abortion have stigmatized the idea of having abortions, and thus give ground to anti-abortion forces. She argues “that women’s health and well-being are harmed when desires to resolve the social conflict over abortion are prioritized over women’s need for abortion” and “how focusing on making abortion rare reduces access to care and sets up unrealistic goals related to the number of abortions that should occur in the United States”(161).
Finally, those who may feel defeated about the latest Supreme Court ruling could channel their energies into the classroom by providing students with the various historical trajectories of reproductive activism. The last two articles featured here provide examples of how this can be achieved. The first one, Lynn Curry, “Beyond ‘Choice’: Roe vs. Wade as Constitutional History” uses this monumental legal case to explore how it “dealt with principles that are integrally embedded within American history rather than marginal to it,” especially “about the rights of individuals . . . to make determinations regarding their own bodies, free from interference by the state” (166). In “Film as the Medium; Reproduction, Sex, and Power as the Message”, Jacqueline H. Wolf reviews a series of documentary films pertaining to contraception and abortion battles, such as Silent Scream, the emblematic anti-abortion film of the 1980s, and in the process demonstrates how one could teach these films as historical sources.
The Journal of Women’s History has always concerned itself with issues of reproductive health and justice in transnational and historical context. We hope you find these selections engaging and motivating as you and we determine community responses after Dobbs vs. Women’s Health.