Panel discusses history and challenges of reproductive rights issues in U.S.
By Matt Walker
A panel discussion at the UF Levin College of Law illuminated the progress of reproductive rights over the years while also pointing out just how far there is still to go.
Part of a three-day symposium co-sponsored by UF Law and the UF Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research titled “Reproductive Rights in the U.S.: 1973-2013,” the Oct. 3 panel included historical, sociological, legal and activist perspectives. The inspiration for the symposium was the 40th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade making abortion legal in the U.S.
Louise Newman, a history professor at UF, opened the discussion by offering a look back at the history of abortion dating back to the 1800s.
“We really do need a better representation of feminist renderings of the 19th-century history of the abortion movement on the Web,” Newman said. Although there is an abundance of information about abortion post-1973 online and in textbooks, there is very little history on the 19th century movement.
Newman pointed out that abortions were commonplace in the 1800s based on demographic studies showing drop-offs in birth rates and a plethora of advertising from the era that promoted poisons or other methods to induce abortion. In the 1840s abortion laws began popping up across the country leading to a roughly 100-year period – from the 1880s to 1973 – when abortion was outlawed in the U.S.
The tide began to turn again in the early ‘60s, Newman said, when concerns about birth defects began to make an impression, eventually leading to the Roe decision the following decade.
UF Law Professor Danaya Wright’s discussion also came from a historical perspective, though from a legal standpoint leading up to Roe v. Wade.
In pointing out the basis that led to the Roe decision, Wright went back to the 5th and 14th Amendments, which establish an individual’s rights to “life, liberty or property,” and prohibits states from violating the individual’s rights of due process and equal protection.
Wright said reproductive rights usually fall into the liberty prong of the due process clause rather than the property or life clause. Over the course of the 1900s the Supreme Court began to protect activities that seemed to fall within the liberty clause, including the right for parents to send children to private schools, the right not to be sterilized for committing certain crimes, the right for an interracial couple to marry and the right to marry a person who has a child out of wedlock.
“The real turning point between what was a rather random assortment of cases involving aspects of family life and a focus on, and a recognition of, this sort of liberty interest in privacy and family and intimate decision making came in 1965 in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut,” Wright said, “involving whether a married couple should be allowed to have access to contraceptives.”
The case articulated a fundamental right to privacy that would help lay the groundwork for future cases including Roe v. Wade, she said.
Wright also discussed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, where the interests of the health of the fetus versus the health of the mother conflicted in certain situations where abortion may be a consideration.
“This is one of the rare circumstances where the compelling interests of the fetus are at odds with the equally compelling rights of the mother,” she said. “Abortion is in many respects an impossible Sophie’s Choice, and although many of us may have different reasons for making the choices we do, protection of maternal over fetal or fetal over maternal life, in this instance the state can either make that choice for us or it can leave that choice up to the individual most affected by that decision.”
“Neither choice comes without really difficult consequences,” Wright said. “The entire history of the decision is a very complicated issue.”
Connie Shehan, a UF sociology and women’s studies professor, discussed changing attitudes towards male contraception. She pointed out that historically contraception has been viewed as the female’s responsibility, but technological advances are making it more possible for males to adopt contraceptive measures similar to the birth control pill in women.
Robin Lewy, of the Rural Women’s Health Project, emphasized the importance of arming women with accurate, thorough and up-to-date information about their reproductive rights, with major challenges including access to information, lack of reproductive education in the state of Florida and the stigma attached to birth control in some cultures.
The panel at UF Law was part of the three-day symposium, which also included the viewing of the HBO documentary, “12th and Delaware” with a Q&A with the film’s director, a presentation by Rutgers Law Professor Kimberly Mutcherson titled, “Reproductive Rights 40 Years after Roe: Assisted Reproduction, Abortion and Parenting in a Technological Age;” and an art exhibit titled “Gender and Reproduction.”