The Complicated History Behind Women’s Reproductive Rights
Often the conversation surrounding the reproductive rights of women focuses on present restrictions, controversy, and debate. Repeatedly, the historical context of the access to contraceptives and abortions is neglected, and many discussions about Women’s History Month neglect what many consider to be a sensitive topic.
But this hypersensitivity raises the question: how did the feminist movement reach this hyper-partisan and volatile attitude towards reproductive rights?
One of the first major proponents of birth control was Margaret Sanger, who was active between the 1910s and 1950s and advocated for working-class women. Sanger invented the term “birth control” to frame contraceptives as a solution to unwanted pregnancies while indicating that women were assuming responsibility over their own bodies.
Margaret Sanger protesting being prevented from discussing Birth Control in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photograph by Bettmann/Contributor)
In an effort to normalize birth control use among middle class women and adjust to changing attitudes, Sanger founded the Birth Control League of America, which later became known as "Planned Parenthood" to underscore the family while mitigating radical feminist undertones.
Gradually, Sanger and other advocates' efforts to transform the framework of birth control into a both political and medical issue triumphed. By the 1940s, however, the birth control movement was forced to accommodate a conservative society that romanticized traditional family values.
Despite the seemingly uncontroversial history, the movement towards birth control is interconnected with the popular early 20th century philosophy of eugenics, which Sanger herself has been connected to. Sanger advocated for only the ‘fit’ to reproduce and consequently to sterilize women who were deemed unfit. These ‘unfit’ women were often women of color or disabled women who were accused of possessing genetic factors that predisposed their children to criminality and feeblemindedness.
After World War II, the eugenics movement attempted to dissociate itself from Nazism by reframing sterilization as entirely voluntary for all Americans, but with emphasis on the ‘unfit’. This framing of sterilization that stressed the importance of family made this neo-eugenics movement much more palatable to the general population.
Up to this point, the actual implementation of birth control was both unreliable and extremely uncomfortable. But the scientific breakthrough of the birth control pill in 1960, birth control not only became accessible and reliable, but widely accepted, pivoting the main focus of reproductive rights to sterilization, and eventually, abortion.
Sterilization was returned to the public consciousness as many white middle and upper class women desired a permanent solution to birth control. But for women of color, sterilization represented a much darker concept. Many Black, Mexican American, and Native American women were forced to undergo sterilization procedures because they were deemed unsuitable for carrying children.
This gross and racist abuse of sterilization was amplified in the 1973 case of the Relf sisters, who were sterilized at 12 and 14 years old by the consent of their mother, who was illiterate and thought she was signing for birth control shots. This case sparked outrage among women, who viewed the case as a shocking violation of consent that contradicted the fundamental frame of sterilization as a completely autonomous decision.
The Relf Sisters, pictured on the right (Photographer Unknown)
It’s important to note that up until 1967, the Reproductive Rights Movement was almost completely unconcerned with the issue of abortion. Abortion was considered to be an issue exclusive to the medical community and a covert operation for desperate women.
This portrayal and perception of abortion is central to the consequent advocacy for abortion wherein abortion was a right that was directly linked to the fight for equality, making abortion a fixture of an everyday woman’s fight for equality. This effort is exemplified through the phrase “the personal is political”, which was adapted by many abortion advocates.
With this increased advocacy in mind, the landmark case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, which made abortion an individual right, indelibly transformed the fight for reproductive rights as well as the relationship between feminism and reproductive rights.
The response to Roe v. Wade and the subsequent political controversy is evident in the modern “pro-life” and “pro-choice” movements. These movements were meticulously developed in such a way that allowed them to maintain a significant number of supporters more than 45 years after the decision.
The “pro-life” movement is entirely based on the perception of abortion as an issue of morality, often citing religious reasons for abortion being “sinful” and "murder". These religious reasons are rooted in the belief that sex is solely for procreation within a marriage and that the pro-life movement is meant to fight a “culture of death”.
It’s important to specify that no social movement should be generalized to exclusively include a specific group, and by no means is religion the sole reason why there are supporters of the pro-life movement. But it should be mentioned that religion was an integral part of the initial framework of the pro-life movement. Religious beliefs and opposition to abortion have been shown to be correlated in numerous studies.
Conversely, the “pro-choice” movement surrounds the idea that morality is irrelevant to the debate surrounding abortion and that fundamentally women should be the sole decision-makers regarding their bodies. This ideal of bodily autonomy has consistently been portrayed as a democratic principle. The pro-choice movement has also expanded the realm of “pro-choice” issues by also advocating for sex education, affordable childcare, sexual health, neonatal care, and access to adoption rights.
This expansion of what falls under the umbrella of reproductive rights reflects a prominent grievance of women of color, who not so much desired abortions or sterilizations but liberation from the “miserable social conditions which dissuade them from bringing new lives into the world.”