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2019 Annual Meeting Preview: The History and Politics of Reproductive Freedom

This session takes place on Thursday, April 4, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is endorsed by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH) and the Western History Association
Twitter: #AM2857

Chair and Commentator: Rebecca M. Kluchin, California State University, Sacramento

The One Package Case, Reproduction, and the Expansion of Medical Authority in the New Deal Era
Lauren Thompson, Georgia State University

Before Roe v. Wade: Reproductive Freedom in Northern Mexico’s Borderlands
Lina-Maria Murillo, University of Iowa

The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Political Uses of Slavery: Comparing Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott v. Sandford
Jennifer Donnally, Knox College

The History and Politics of Reproductive Freedom

With the recent confirmation of anti-choice judge Brett Kavanaugh, the future of reproductive rights in the United States—both the availability of contraception and abortion—are in dire jeopardy. In order to better contextualize this current moment, this panel presents a series of new histories on reproductive justice in the United States. Centering issues of race, gender, and class, historians Lauren MacIvor Thompson, Lina-Maria Murillo, and Jennifer Donnally examine various aspects of the movements for the legalization of contraception, abortion, and their counter-struggles in order to complicate current discussions about access to reproductive care and justice. Thompson revisits earlier legal changes that fractured the movement for birth control and stifled the feminist underpinnings of access to contraception in the 1930s. Murillo’s study traces the illicit abortion routes that developed before legalization in the United States, allowing women to cross the United States-Mexico border for the procedure as early as the 1950s. Donnally turns to the history of “pro-life” movements, that became active in the years after Roe v. Wade, scrutinizing tactics used by anti-abortionists who claimed they were the true champions of human freedom. With comments offered by Rebecca Kluchin, Professor in the Department of History at Sacramento State University, we hope to engage in a critical discussion about the political and historical underpinnings in the fight for reproductive freedom and justice in the twenty-first century.

Without the nuanced analysis of past reproductive rights discourses and tactics, activists, politicians, lawyers, and people today are left without the strong foundation of the past. It is our hope that by bringing these lesser known stories to light, we can better explain why it is so important for all people to have the right to govern their own bodies and influence the expansion of reproductive rights and justice at a moment when it is so threatened. Finally, in this hyper anti-fact atmosphere, our papers add to the growing work of reproductive freedom scholars that seek to ground current debates in properly vetted evidence and analysis.

We hope that attendees will have a stronger understanding of the nuanced history that governs reproductive health and justice politics in the United States today. With more extreme legislation designed to constrict people’s bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom, we hope to demonstrate a path forward as we analyze the past.

There are a number of excellent new books and articles that broadly cover women’s health issues that attendees may want to review. Shannon Withycombe’s new book, Lost: Miscarriage in Nineteenth Century America (Rutgers University Press, 2018) and Deirdre Cooper Owens’ Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (University of Georgia Press, 2017) both provide important medical and racial context for the topics we discuss. From the vital perspective of reproductive justice, we suggest Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger’s, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction: Reproductive Justice: A New Vision for the 21st Century (University of California Press, 2017). On abortion and its history we recommend, Leslie Reagan, When Abortion Was A Crime (University of California Press, 1998); Johanna Schoen, Abortion After Roe (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), and Karissa Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion (University of Illinois Press, 2017). For foundational texts, we suggest reading Carole McCann, Birth Control Politics in the United States, 1916–1945 (Cornell University Press, 1994); Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women (University of Illonis Press, 2007; and James Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy (Oxford University Press, 1979).

As we unpack the relationship between reform, legal strictures, race, gender, and reproductive freedom, we draw on this excellent research in order to make new contributions to the histories of women’s activism, medicine, public health and reproduction. In turn, we hope our work contributes to new histories of women’s rights, broadly defined. Most of all, we hope that this session will help allow us to discuss the historical and present-day consequences of illegality and the denial of bodily autonomy and basic human rights.


Posted: November 12, 2018
Tagged: Previews, Conference, Historicizing Today, OAH Works