Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Justice

About this Episode

Guests
Mytheli Sreenivas, Alison Norris, Molly Farrell

Reproduction: it's as essential to life as breathing (more, actually), yet the right to make decisions regarding one’s reproduction is among the most divisive issues of our time. On this episode, Patrick Potyondy and Mark Sokolsky sit down with Mytheli SreenivasAlison Norris, and Molly Farrell to discuss the past, present, and future of reproductive rights and reproductive justice. What are “reproductive rights,” and how have they evolved over time? When, how, and why did abortion become such a controversial topic in the United States? How have people managed their reproduction throughout history, and what makes our situation today different? Join us as we address these and other questions in this month's edition of History Talk.

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Cite this Site

Patrick R. Potyondy, Mark Sokolsky , "Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Justice" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
January, 2016
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/historytalk/reproductive-rights-and-reproductive-justice?language_content_entity=en.
January, 2016

Transcript

Mark Sokolsky  

Hello, everyone. Welcome to History Talk, where we ask a panel of leading experts to explain the background behind today's biggest issues and where we go from here. I'm your host Mark Sokolsky. On this episode, we tackle the contentious issue of reproductive rights.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And I'm your other host, Patrick Potyondy. Joining us today are Mytheli Sreenivas, associate professor of Women's Studies and History at Ohio State University, Allison Norris, a physician and assistant professor of Epidemiology with OSU's College of Public Health as well as the College of Medicine, and Molly Farrell, assistant professor of English at OSU who specializes in American literature, and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies. Thank you all for joining us today. So to start off, how would you define reproductive rights? What does this term encompass? And, Mytheli, if you wanted to start us off?

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Sure, Patrick, I think that's a great question. Because I think, since the supreme court judgment, the Roe v Wade judgement legalizing abortion in 1973 in the US, we've tended to talk about reproductive rights as just women's ability to get an abortion. But I think a lot of scholars and activists have tried to expand that question out, and I would certainly include myself, among them to think about all aspects of women's decision related to their reproduction -- whether and when to bear children, the ability to do so safely, to have access to contraception. We can think even more broadly about environmental justice, food security for children. So all ways in which, in our society, reproduction has become linked to any quality and stratification, right? Where some women's reproduction is deemed valuable, and others is devalued. I think reproductive rights, or the term that I use, which is reproductive justice, actually challenges that to say that we value everyone's rights to reproduce or not, equally.

 

Dr. Molly Farrell 

Yeah, I would follow that up to in terms of I usually think about reproductive justice. And personally, this comes from my work with an abortion fund, so we think about economic justice. You know, what's a right if you don't have the funds to access it and if you can't afford the birth control that you supposedly have a right to access. So it involves basically everyone being able to have the family that they want to have when they want to have it.

 

Mark Sokolsky  

So I think this is a term that sometimes is a little bit misunderstood, but certainly it is all over the media, especially in an election year. So, Mytheli, you touched on Roe v. Wade, when do we see this discourse really come to the fore of the American political scene? When did we see that starting? And how does that evolve over time?

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Well, I think there's a longer history and a more recent history that we can be looking at. So the more recent history, I mean, really is linked to Roe v. Wade itself in 1973. The decision legalized abortion across the United States and struck down a lot of state laws that existed at that time, that made abortion illegal. But I think in terms of our conversation today, what Roe v. Wade also did was to kind of galvanize an anti-abortion movement in this country that has become increasingly politically influential, since 1973.And so, we can sort of look at Roe v. Wade as sort of starting two parts of a discourse, right? One is, the legalization of abortion and the empowerment of various women's health groups and feminist groups to be able to talk about women's reproductive health and reproductive justice. But at the same time, it's sort of given a lot of energy to folks who want to either repeal Roe v. Wade, restrict women's access to abortion, and they've been you know, as our listeners will know, they've been successful in doing that, over the last few years, especially.

 

Dr. Molly Farrell 

And one thing that I would add to that is that in a historical perspective, the idea that abortion, particularly abortion, in the first trimester, what we would call a trimester now is wrong, or is something that the state at all needs to be interested in regulating is an extremely recent phenomenon. Blackman goes into this in the Roe v. Wade decision, does research and notices that very few communities ever had laws restricting what women did with their pregnancies before "quickening" -- so that would be the moment when a woman feels her fetus move. And this would go, this was an important moment in announcing a pregnancy all the way back to, I think they rang the bells for Henry Tudor when Jane Seymour felt the next heir quickening, and things like that. And so this was really the province of women, women's folk knowledge, midwives, throughout the 17th, and 18th and 19th centuries, were tasked with helping women with these types of issues; figuring out how to space births, sharing techniques for procuring abortion and contraception. This is, you know, thousands of years old, these types of procedures. And it's only really with the advent of, I think, in the late 19th century, the Comstock laws, which first started to regulate things like contraception and, and to focus on particularly the abortion providers. And then we see the 20th century debates about contraception and states really getting involved in regulating that. But this is actually really relatively new.

 

Dr. Allison Norris 

One thing that this makes me think about is the importance of the control of women's reproduction, and of women's sexuality more generally. So we see the heated debate. Interestingly, conservative voices are often focused on keeping the state out of individual people's lives. And yet, when it comes to issues around sexuality, conservative voices are very involved in having the state be very deeply involved in those decisions. And I would say that some of that, we see cycling back to issues around sexuality around the stigma associated in particularly with women's sexuality and the independence of women's sexuality. With abortion in particular, there's an idea that sort of the ideal of womanhood is one in which a woman is nurturing, and reproductive. And so with abortion, those women are sort of reclaiming a right to not choose to nurture a baby, and choosing an independence and choosing away from this sort of idealized form of femininity or of womanhood. And so a lot of the stigma around abortion is actually tied up in these issues of gender and sexuality that go far beyond any of the reproductive biology. And so I think that that's some of why we see these changes in time. They're not really related to the changes in medicine and biology. They're more related to changes in issues of control around sexuality reproduction.

 

Dr. Molly Farrell 

I like the way you put that.

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

And I think what's to sort of follow up on that I think what's interesting is that if we look at the mid-19th century, and historians looking at sort of US women's reproduction in this period, really make a similar point to what Allison is saying it's not that in the mid-19th century there's new biological knowledge that makes abortion seem more controversial. It's changes in the professionalization of medicine. So the American Medical Association was just founded in 1847 and just over a decade later, in 1859, is when they passed a resolution condemning abortion. And the early AMA worked very hard for doctors for this new professional, this new profession, to have the right in the authority to determine when a woman was pregnant, and also to perform an abortion if needed, and often took those practices away from existing folk practices, or other healers, or midwives. So it was a change in how women's reproduction and women's biology was interpreted, it wasn't a change in biological or medical knowledge.

 

Dr. Molly Farrell 

It's interesting. Also, if you just look at the dates like so 1973, we have Roe v. Wade, which seems like a big advancement for women. But also then there's this huge backlash that we're still seeing the effects of today. And these dates are really indicative of women actually making a lot of social progress. And then we see regulation coming along with that, in response to that progress. And this goes back to the 19th century, but also back to the Renaissance, as well, in that a lot of these laws are very much reactive to some sort of social change that's happening. For example, in the 19th century, we know that birth rates steadily fell, which means people were using contraception and abortion, and they were definitely thinking about limiting the size of their families. And that's also the century when we get the Comstock laws. This goes back to after the plagues in the Middle Ages, there was witch hunting crazes, you know we have the Salem Witch Trials here in the colonies and all throughout Europe. And some have tied these to the fact that there was a population crisis in Europe, and people were concerned about population bouncing back from these devastating plagues. And so one way to attack that is to attack midwives, to attack female knowledge. That would know how to control the size of your family, would know how to perform abortions. And so these go along with moments where society might be seeing that women have this kind of reproductive power. And, and the state and other, you know, figures wanting to get involved in regulating that and controlling that.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Yeah, and that makes me wonder how far back do historians take the study of reproductive rights, here? You know, you mentioned now, you know, something much, much further back than 1973 Roe v. Wade, how much further back do they go? And what sorts of issues do they see this tying in with?

 

Dr. Molly Farrell 

That's a good question. It reminds me of Allison's work, too, in that how do you study something that is inherently placed out of the realm, for example of certainly of written knowledge, which would have been controlled by men. And even really, without something that's mostly just not spoken of. Even before we have a have a conception of something that is private versus public. I do know that, you know, we can document I think there were aborting fashions that were circulating in ancient Egypt. Thomas Jefferson talks about it pretty frankly, about Native American abortion practices. So this was just something that people just knew that women knew how to do, in all kinds of different cultures. And in terms of scholarship, it's a really fascinating field to try to read against the grain. One of the things that colonial American historians have done is looked at birth rates, for example, and noticing that a lot of Puritan women usually were able to have children three years apart from one another. And figuring out how they were doing this, I think it was a combination of breastfeeding their children for several years. And then they would notice, they would often take a trip about three years after they had a child. And that would probably be a weaning period, and then come back, and then a year later, they would have another child. So they were clearly very common practices that you can go back when you look at the demographics, and trace. Also, another way to trace it, again, like I mentioned, is is looking at moments where female healers, where female knowledge is being attacked, or women who are getting too powerful, and thinking about the how that might be linked up to their knowledge of sexuality and different types of reproductive practices.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

That's a really cool answer, Molly. And I'm wondering, from Allison, and Mytheli's perspective, it sounds like reproductive rights can be a little bit difficult to research historically, given that sometimes it's, it sounds like it's just not talked about or when it is you kind of have to question who the author is. And I'm wondering if that's the case that Mytheli thinks as well, and maybe with Allison's research today?

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Yes. And I think those are questions that are not just historical, and maybe Allison can speak more to this, but folks don't necessarily want to always talk about their reproductive practices when asked by researchers, right? And we have to respect that and people's privacy, and their sense of self and what they want to reveal to others. This is shifting a little bit, but I wanted to kind of add in that another complication in looking historically is that not all women's reproduction has always been treated in the same way. So even if we're just going to think about US history for a minute, you know, sometimes there were like, in the late 19th century, around the criminalization of abortion, this often went hand in hand with fears about declining white birth rates. So this was so that this group of laws that, that came to pass by the 1870s, 1880s, criminalizing abortion was very much around, "well we need to keep white birth rates up." And so I think a further question for historians to ask is, so what about women of color, poor women, for the earlier part of the 19th century, enslaved women, what was going on in terms of their access to reproductive care, and their decisions about reproduction? And there's been a fair amount of work, for example, that's looked at reproduction in enslaved women. That's another area that we might want to think about. But the problems just magnify in terms of trying to access historical sources.

 

Dr. Allison Norris 

I  think this question about measurement of abortion and reproductive choices goes really hand in hand with the conversation we were having a little earlier about stigma.  So we've seen a comparison that people often make is, we've seen really tremendous destigmatization of homosexuality in the United States. Rapid, dramatic, intense, and very recent. So people who study and sort of ask about abortion sort of asked why, can the same phenomenon happen? And I think there's sort of a fundamental difference, which is around identity. And so gay and lesbian people hold their sexuality as part of their core identity and having that stigmatized, it challenges many different dimensions of their life. And there's therefore a willingness to fight that stigma, embrace the stigmatizing category and say, "I am gay, I am lesbian, and love me anyway." And with those kinds of identities, those identifications, slowly erodes or quickly erodes. And with abortion, it's very few women are going to claim that having had an abortion is a core part of their identity. And therefore, it's not worth the risk to come out and say, "I've had an abortion and love me anyway," and in, through that path, have stigma erode. So I think that issue of how we measure or see change in reproductive rights, it's different around access to contraception. Likewise, few women are going to stand up and shout and say, "I need access to contraception." People don't want to talk about their, their sexual practices and the reproductive practices in the same way. And yet, I think probably that is the path to change. So if women become indignant about these incursions on their reproductive rights, and do voice their own experiences, that's the way that stigma will erode and these, these changes, cultural changes, and then societal changes begin. The one other point that I wanted to make around the issue of abortion in particular, is, as Molly noted, we've seen the hugest number of restrictions to access to abortion in the United States over the past several years, as any time in history. And most of those are made in the name of safety, keeping women safe. It's ironic, because abortion is a very safe procedure in the United States, it's much safer than delivering a full time, baby, a full-term baby. And really, abortion is only unsafe in parts of the world where it's illegal. So as we're seeing the legal restrictions increasing on abortion, we're actually likely to see more unsafe practices going on.

 

Dr. Molly Farrell 

I like what you said too about stigma. And there's several movements going on in the reproductive justice movement to combat this. There's the "1 in 3" project. So just pointing out that we are not talking about a minority here. These are statistics, I think it's one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. So that's a lot of women keeping silent in this debate. I know there's also a project out of Cleveland, called the "My Abortion, My Life" project. So making that connection between, you know, "I may have had an abortion once many years ago, but it actually has allowed me to have the life that I want to have, and so in that way, it's central to my identity." And it also kind of combats the whole personhood argument. So we're starting to see laws like fetal personhood laws, or criminal endangerment for women who've had miscarriages, these kinds of things. And this goes back to this also very recent, very recent concept that a fertilized egg is a person. I think this goes back to the early 80s, or late 70s, it's even post Roe, and that really fundamentally can click with the idea that a woman could possibly be a person with equal rights, as we conceive of them, as an individual. And so if we think about access to reproductive justice, which would include abortion care, among many other services, as being fundamental to a woman being a person, then we could maybe think about attacking this stigma that keeps everyone from speaking about it, because it might just be a practice that we use at one particular time in our life, or something that we occasionally need to rely on, whereas instead, it's about being a person and having access to real recognition of that personhood.

 

Mark Sokolsky  

Would you say that what you've been talking about with regard to stigma and identity, what it means to know what personhood means, how would you say that varies between different cultures between different parts of the world?

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Well, I think one thing that I often remind my students of as well is that just as abortion was not always so controversial in the United States, so also abortion is not so controversial everywhere else in the world. I mean, of course, there are places where it's the subject of legal regulation and a lot of debate, but there's many other places where abortion is fairly accepted as one among a series of practices that women might use in order to regulate their reproduction. So I think that's really important for us to, to recognize and, and here, I'll throw in a further comment, which is that what reproductive justice means varies across time and space. It's also true that what's going on in the US has had a huge impact on what's going on elsewhere in the world. So one of the results of the kind of backlash post-Roe, globally on the part of the United States was the so called "Global Gag Rule," which was instituted in the 1980s, for the first time, during the Reagan presidency. Which prohibited any kind of US development aid from flowing to any kind of organization abroad outside the United States that was performing abortions. And in some cases, even directing women to abortion providers as one of their options for Reproductive Health Care. So although abortion itself is not stigmatized in many parts of the world, the way that US policy has happened has function to sort of make these organizations very vulnerable and has discouraged women's health providers from offering abortion if they want to get any kind of funding.

 

Dr. Molly Farrell 

I also wonder if that may, if this might also relate to the legal status of rights and the person in the US and the particular way that we have turned that into our cultural narrative. Because if you think about I mean, the conception of rights is also relatively historically recent, this dates back to the enlightenment. And our legal system is based on the idea that we're all individuals that have individual rights, and the public spheres where we work out those rights. But if you think about reproduction as inherently the process where one person evolves into two, then and that happens through women's bodies, that rights discourse really wasn't thought through with women in mind. And so sometimes even just the very concept of rights, and particularly locating those rights within an individual who is somehow, you know, has an impermeable body that's never dependent on someone else. You know, this comes up with things like disability studies, or when we think about all different types of bodies that might be linked to another body inextricably and yet that we've legally only see them as one or two, then I think it creates these legal quagmires that we're bogged down in and then we start to export them as Mytheli said too.

 

Mark Sokolsky  

That's a fascinating point. Would you say that's partly why abortion, for instance, is less controversial in other parts of the world, because that, in those places, we don't see the same tradition of individual rights coming out of the enlightenment?

 

Dr. Molly Farrell 

I mean, that might be a stretch. But I definitely think that our particular discourse might be bogged down in these in these questions.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Particularly hostile to it, maybe?

 

Dr. Molly Farrell 

Or, I mean, it's, it's the way that reproductive justice has been discussed here in the US, has been in relation to these catalogues of individual rights that are in some of our founding documents. I'm sure in every community across the globe, you would see how these issues play off of some of their foundational beliefs, and their founding documents and their sort of,  their core values. And so it's, it's really hard to say if that wouldn't be similar in some other places are different. But I would bet that whenever you're talking about women's bodies, and sexuality and reproduction, you're touching on a community's core values, and they’re, the narratives they like to tell about themselves.

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

So Molly's got the long view, right? And I realized that I'm going to keep on coming in with the shorter view, which is that in lots of parts of the world, and I mean, I absolutely agree, I think that the way the debate has been shaped in the US does have really deep roots in our political traditions here, as would be the case elsewhere. But more recently, the key issue in many parts of the world is not so much a right to abortion or not, but also long histories from the mid-20th century on, about population control. So I'm hesitant to say, because abortion is not controversial, therefore, women have more reproductive rights and you know, a certain place or the other, I would caution against that. I think it's more just about abortion, in many cases, has been used as one tool of population control programs, many of which were US funded, but which were supported by national governments in various parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, that have aims to curtail women's reproduction because of fear of growing populations. And it's hard for us to imagine what the scope of that fear was back in the 1960s, and 1970s. But the idea was that the world was going to undergo this population explosion, that children were, way too many children are being born and that, that the core way to address this problem was to persuade or coerce women into having fewer children. And abortion was one of the tools that was used, but there were a whole raft of contraceptive technologies that were not just used in these programs, but that were actually developed, in part to control population. So we think in the US about the birth control pill, for example, as being part of a women's liberation movement, it could have been, it could have been used as a tool, women could have taken it up and have in order to control their own reproduction. But actually, the motivating forces behind the development of the pill were population control in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. So those politics have very much also shaped how something like abortion or contraception, or other kinds of reproductive regulation are thought about in many places.

 

Dr. Allison Norris 

I think it's an interesting moment to circle back to the idea of reproductive justice instead of reproductive rights. Because when we talk about rights, we're often talking about laws. Whereas in a great, huge proportion of reproduction, it's actually about practices, and norms, more importantly than about laws, I would argue. So for an example, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa where I work, what the real driving force is the acceptability or unacceptability of an unintended pregnancy outside of marriage or an unintended pregnancy within marriage. Those set apart whether abortion is a practice that people think is an acceptable practice. It's not legal, as a result of being not legal, its safety is not guaranteed. But whether people choose to have an abortion is much more based on, on norms about the accessibility of timing of reproduction. In some parts of the world, contraception is more controversial and more stigmatized than termination of pregnancy. And so these things are quite variable across culture and time.

 

Dr. Molly Farrell 

It's interesting too, like, thinking about, just thinking about how these issues always are going to play off of what a particular society's norms are. And that's going to have to do beliefs about the family and I, you know, I talked about certainly narratives of state formation, but also we're talking about, as Mytheli mentioned, race and inequality and desirable and undesirable people. And this is where, you know, we have really disgusting histories of eugenics and forced sterilization, and so again, it's not really about just about access, you know, it's about who has the power to decide when these tools are going to be used and how they're going to be used. And that's really, you know, a question then, of, of justice.

 

Mark Sokolsky  

So just to conclude, we want to ask you, you know, where do we go from here? What do you think are the biggest challenges or obstacles to ensuring reproductive rights or reproductive justice in the US or elsewhere in the world?

 

Dr. Allison Norris 

One thing that I think a lot about is data. All of us on this, in this discussion are intellectuals, interested in information and analysis and understanding of what that information means. And yet, I think it's the case in our current public dialogue, data isn't necessarily valued very highly. There's really, really compelling evidence that safe legal abortion is much better for public health and for women's health than any alternative. And yet, that's not necessarily compelling in the current debate that we have around reproductive rights. So to me a big challenge is how do those of us who care a lot about data, find another way to be compelling? And maybe it's storytelling, maybe it's more of a reproductive justice orientation, that focuses on some higher calling. So to me that anecdotal and emotional territory is, is perhaps a new one for those who are interested in reproductive rights and reproductive justice.

 

Dr. Molly Farrell 

I would say and where we go from here, I think just going back to Allison's point about stigma, is that, particularly here in Ohio, we're really in a crisis moment in terms of an all-out attack on women's access to, particularly abortion, but contraception as well. We've seen over half of the clinics in Ohio, close under Kasich alone. This is a really dramatic increase, we have extremely unfair laws that restrict abortion clinics differently than any other type of clinic, and they fly in the face of the data, the laws do. And I think it's really, it's, it's not a time to be neutral. You know, it's a time for those of us who are pretty comfortable with the status quo, and are trusting that it's going to continue, to get involved to say the word abortion. We talked about the pro-choice movement. One of the things I like about the abortion fund movement is that we're not kind of afraid to talk about abortion, there's a lot of discussion about how Planned Parenthood, 97% of its services actually go to all different types of well-women care, and not necessarily to abortion services. But at the same time in that debate, it is okay to talk about that 3%. It's okay to say the word abortion, and to say that you want to make sure that it's there for you safely, and for the people that you love when you need it. And to trust that we've got the data on our side. That really this is about public health. This is a smart public health policy to have access to these means of reproductive justice, and you've also got history on your side, women have been doing this for thousands of years, and this is actually a really recent attempt to change the way we handle our bodies. So we really have a lot of really strong facts on our side to stand up against this recent attack.

 

Dr. Mytheli Sreenivas 

Just to add on a couple of things. I mean, I think since 1973, with Roe v. Wade, the debate in the US has been also shaped around the question of privacy, right, so that abortion has been viewed as a matter of privacy, and has been separated out from other forms of reproductive healthcare. One of the challenges of our time is to reconnect those and again, history is on our side, because I think we can safely say that throughout most of human history, abortion wasn't viewed as something unrelated to other ways of controlling one's reproduction. So I think following along the lines of what Molly was saying, is not being afraid to say abortion, and then not being able to afraid to link abortion to reproductive healthcare is a is a key issue. So that means legally, I think that means not only framing abortion as a matter of privacy, but as a matter of gender equity. And I think this is a this is a key challenge within the US. I think, more broadly, I'm also concerned about the fact that health care and women's health care and reproductive health care specifically, are under attack, not just from political forces that seek to limit women's care. But the fact that many women simply just don't have access to any sort of health care or limited access to health care at all. Lots of countries, including our own have these austerity budgets, with governments around the world sort of pulling back from their responsibilities to care for women's health or their children's health, or anyone's health, really. So, the argument about reproductive rights or justice really requires that everyone have access, that that simply laws, making something legal, are not enough, but that actually fighting for the resources to give everyone access to what they need.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

We'll have to conclude it there. A big thank you to our three experts on our panel. Mytheli Sreenivas is an associate professor of Women's Studies and History at The Ohio State University. Allison Norris is a physician and assistant professor of Epidemiology with OSU's College of Public Health, as well as the College of Medicine. And Molly Farrell is an assistant professor of English at OSU who specializes in American literature and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies. A big thank you to you three today. Thanks. This episode of History Talk podcast was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center and History Department at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Stephen Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley, our audio technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer, our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Mark Sokolsky. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcast and more at our website origins.osu.edu on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thanks for listening!

 

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