Thursday, February 6, 2020
Symposium Book Discussion: The Common Law Inside the Female Body by Anita Bernstein
Symposium Contributors: Bridget J. Crawford, David S. Cohen, Joanna L. Grossman, Cyra Akila Choudhury, Margaret Chon, Maritza I. Reyes, Teri A. McMurtry-Chubb, Anita Bernstein
The Common Law Inside the Female Body: In The Common Law Inside the Female Body, Anita Bernstein explains why lawyers seeking gender progress from primary legal materials should start with the common law. Despite its reputation for supporting conservatism and inequality, today’s common law shares important commitments with feminism, namely in precepts and doctrines that strengthen the freedom of individuals and from there the struggle against the subjugation of women. By re-invigorating both the common law – with a focus on crimes, contracts, torts, and property – and feminist jurisprudence, this highly original work anticipates a vital future for a pair of venerable jurisprudential traditions. It should be read by anyone interested in understanding how the common law delivers an extraordinary degree of liberty and security to all persons – women included.
Wednesday, January 29, 2020
Medication abortion is incredibly common in the United States; it’s also incredibly safe. And it’s because of this relative ease and safety, in fact, that conservative states are now targeting it in the same ways they have targeted providers and clinics in recent decades: In 18 states, a provider must be physically present to prescribe abortion medication, a barrier compounded by the fact that nearly 40 percent of women in the U.S. aged 15–44 live in a county without an abortion clinic. A number of states also have laws on the books that criminalize people who terminate their own pregnancies, and “there have been at least half a dozen U.S. cases where women have been arrested and charged after attempting to self-induce an abortion using illicitly obtained abortifacients,” according to the Guttmacher Institute.
It is now 47 years after Roe v. Wade, and we are still someplace we’ve already been. But that sense of familiarity goes back even further than the landmark abortion case: 200 years ago, as medicines and tonics meant to cause abortion were made more accessible through advertising, laws targeted their use as well.
Abortion has gone from being legal to illegal in this country before, and with Roe in jeopardy, advocates for reproductive freedom have forecast a future that looks much like our past, when pills were a major part of abortion access—and an obsessive target for abortion opponents.
The story of abortion regulation and criminalization in the U.S. begins, in some ways, with the sale of abortion pills. Such open business was part of the reason states pushed to pass the first laws governing abortion in the 1820s and 1830s, according to Lauren MacIvor Thompson, historian at Georgia State University and author of the forthcoming Battle for Birth Control: Mary Dennett, Margaret Sanger, and the Rivalry That Shaped a Movement. “But they were mostly only governing the advertising and sale of abortifacient drugs.” The laws were meant to regulate, not to outlaw, abortion, she told me in an email.
This didn’t quell the demand for abortion—which was not really the point. Neither did criminalization drive abortion fully underground. Into the 1860s and 1870s, New York readers could still learn, however euphemistically, of the alleged effects and availability of “Dr. Vlcaoli’s Italian Female Monthly Pills” or “Chichester’s English Pennyroyal Pills,” in big city and local papers alike, from the New York Evening Telegram to the Syracuse Daily Standard. People using titles like “Professor of Midwifery” or “Professor of Diseases of Women” offered “A Certain Cure,” “safe and healthy,” for “immediate removal of all special irregularities in females, with or without medicine, at one interview.”
H/T Kimberly Hamlin
David Cohen & Carole Joffe, Obstacle Course: The Everyday Struggle to Get an Abortion in America (Introduction)
Book available here.
It seems unthinkable that citizens of one of the most powerful nations in the world must risk their lives and livelihoods in the search for access to necessary health care. And yet it is no surprise that in many places throughout the United States, getting an abortion can be a monumental challenge. Anti-choice politicians and activists have worked tirelessly to impose needless restrictions on this straightforward medical procedure that, at best, delay it and, at worst, create medical risks and deny women their constitutionally protected right to choose.
This forthcoming book tells the story of abortion in America, capturing a disturbing reality of insurmountable barriers people face when trying to exercise their legal rights to medical services. Authors David S. Cohen and Carole Joffe lay bare the often arduous and unnecessarily burdensome process of terminating a pregnancy: the sabotaged decision-making, clinics in remote locations, insurance bans, harassing protesters, forced ultrasounds and dishonest medical information, arbitrary waiting periods, and unjustified procedure limitations.
Based on patients’ stories as well as interviews with abortion providers and allies from every state in the country, Obstacle Course reveals the unstoppable determination required of women in the pursuit of reproductive autonomy as well as the incredible commitment of abortion providers. Without the efforts of an unheralded army of medical professionals, clinic administrators, counselors, activists, and volunteers, what is a legal right would be meaningless for the almost one million people per year who get abortions. There is a better way—treating abortion like any other form of health care—but the United States is a long way from that ideal.
Monday, December 9, 2019
Theme for March for Life 2020 Relies on Questionable Women's History, Incorrectly Claiming Early Feminist Leaders as Pro-Life
The old claims that feminist suffrage leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul were pro-life, are getting dusted off and used as the basis for pro-life advocacy, seeking a connection to the 2020 centennial of women's suffrage. One problem, however, is that they are not true.
Organizers of the March for Life have chosen "Life Empowers*: Pro-Life Is Pro-Woman" for the 2020 rally and march in Washington.
In embracing the theme, Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education Fund, cited the coming centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and the views of early suffragists, including the best-known figure of the movement, Susan B. Anthony.***
Leaders of the suffrage movement, Mancini said, knew that "mothers and babies were not at odds with each other." Citing Alice Paul, leading strategist of the 19th Amendment, Mancini said Paul "referred to abortion as "the ultimate exploitation of women."
This was reinforced by another panelist, Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, who said early American feminists condemned abortion "in no uncertain terms."
Abortion, Foster said, "was constantly referred to as child murder," and it was a frequently discussed topic in the feminist newspaper edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and to Anthony, the best known feminist leader of her age, was a frequent contributor.
A page on the website of the Susan B. Anthony House and Museum in Rochester, New York, disputes the notion Anthony can be considered a heroine to the pro-life movement, insisting her writings for the paper, called The Revolution, were mostly appeals to support the publication.
Similar claims have been made by the pro-life movement since the mid-1990s, in prior political campaigns, in college recruitment -- and in amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is not merely political rhetoric, but is being used as historical evidence to advocate for legal truth in the courts of law.
I've written extensively to dispute this claim, particularly the claim of pro-life as applied to pioneering feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton. See Tracy A. Thomas, Misappropriating Women's History in the Law and Politics of Abortion, 36 Seattle L. J. 1 (2012); Tracy A. Thomas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law, chp. 5 (NYU Press 2016).
As I explained the general context:
The appeal to historical figures in the abortion debate is powerful because it utilizes the gravitas of feminist heroines to challenge the existing legal and political assumption that abortion is a cornerstone of sex equality. The use of feminist leaders suggests that women themselves, even radical feminist women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, have traditionally opposed abortion. If these feminist leaders indeed opposed abortion, the historical story would seem to bolster the claim that abortion is not in the best interests of women.
The need to create a history of antiabortion feminists seems important today because abortion has come to be equated with women’s rights. Since the second wave of the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s, feminists have identified abortion as a foundational right for women upon which all other economic and educational rights rest. The appeal to feminist history by prolife advocates offers a counter-narrative in which women dedicated to improving the economic and educational rights of women reject abortion as a gender-based right. This story of women leaders opposing abortion is thus aimed at undermining the prevailing feminist and legal view that a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and reproductive choice is a privacy right of constitutional dimension going to the heart of gender equality.
The lack of popular knowledge about the lives and work of women’s rights leaders facilitates the co-opting of the historical feminist narrative by antiabortion activists. Most people, politicians, and policymakers lack a familiarity with these women’s lives or their work, much less the details of their philosophies and speeches. It is therefore easy to make the claim that a feminist leader had a particular belief because few are able to challenge it.
Despite the ease and utility of creating a feminist history against abortion, the narrative is simply not true.
The evidence alleged of Stanton's position is meager, a handful of quotes, only 2 of which can be attributed to Stanton, and the two do not endorse a pro-life stance. The other anonymous articles published in Stanton's newspaper were more likely written by, and selected by, the male managing editor of the paper, Parker Pillsbury, a former minister who was on the record as opposing abortion (although against criminalization of it).
What Stanton did talk about was women's reproductive choice, and voluntary motherhood. Maternity was woman's sole choice, unrestricted by men or government. Stanton also took up the public defense of Hester Vaughn, a young woman convicted of infanticide. Her extensive writings on both these subjects reveal a strong support for women's autonomy and choice in reproduction, a precursor to the modern pro-choice movement.
As to Susan B. Anthony, scholars of her life and work -- eminent historians Ann Gordon, Lynn Sherr, Stacy Schiff, and Christine Stansell, all strongly refuted that Anthony was pro-life, or said much of anything about it at all. These historians concluded that “Anthony spent no time on the politics of abortion. It was of no interest to her despite living in a society (and a family) where women aborted unwanted pregnancies.”
- Ann Gordon & Lynn Sherr, Sarah Palin is No Susan B. Anthony, WASH. POST (May 21, 2010)
- Stacy Schiff, Desperately Seeking Susan, NYT (2006)
- Christine Stansell, Meet the Susan B. Anthony List, the Anti-Abortion Group Pushing Presidential Politics to the Extreme Right, New Republic (2011)
As I concluded:
It is simply not the case that nineteenth-century feminist leaders expressed explicit and unanimous support for the criminalization of abortion because of the concern of the morality of prenatal life. . . . [T]he few feminist voices joining the periphery of the abortion debate did not support the regulation of abortion. Instead, these writers defended women against the abortion campaign’s attack and shifted the moral blame to men and to society’s oppression of women. What feminists did unanimously endorse was voluntary motherhood and the right of women to control procreation through abstinence. Stanton expanded on this idea, arguing for a woman’s right to be the “sovereign of her own person,” which meant the right to choose when and under what conditions she would become pregnant. Stanton empathized with women who had unwanted pregnancies and argued against a legal system that imposed punishment upon women for infanticide. This advocate of women’s individual right to control makes an unlikely leader for today’s antiabortion movement.
Tuesday, November 5, 2019
Since at least the 1960s, public debate over abortion rights has frequently turned to issues of disability. Those who argue for liberalization of abortion laws have often been successful by raising the specter of fetal disability — whether caused by Thalidomide, or rubella, or otherwise. Those who agitate for restricting or banning abortion, by contrast, have often argued that pro-choice advocates devalue the lives of people with disabilities.
In the spring of 2019, disability and abortion rights collided at the Supreme Court. Indiana had adopted a law “barring the knowing provision of sex-, race-, or disability-selective abortions by abortion providers.” The Seventh Circuit invalidated that law. In Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana & Kentucky, the Supreme Court denied certiorari (though it summarily reversed the Seventh Circuit’s invalidation of a separate Indiana law regulating the disposal of fetal remains). Justice Thomas concurred in the denial of certiorari, but he filed a lengthy separate opinion arguing that the ban on selective abortions was constitutional. He argued that “this law and other laws like it promote a State’s compelling interest in preventing abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics.”
Just a few months earlier, disability and reproductive rights issues had intersected in a very different way in the debate over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Disability rights advocates drew attention to an opinion then-Judge Kavanaugh had written in a case in which individuals with developmental disabilities challenged a District of Columbia policy that denied them the right to make decisions about their medical care. The case was Doe ex rel. Tarlow v. District of Columbia. The D.C. Circuit reversed a district court decision enjoining that policy. Judge Kavanaugh’s opinion did not say anything specifically about reproductive rights. He treated the case entirely as one about the (lack of a) right of incompetent persons to consent to medical treatment. But the case itself was very much a reproductive rights case. Two of the three plaintiffs had been forced to have abortions without their consent; they sued precisely to challenge the policy that had taken away their power to choose. Although Kavanaugh had a reputation as a strong “pro-life” judge, here he voted to uphold government decisions to require individuals with intellectual disabilities to have abortions. Debate over disability and reproductive rights has typically focused on the issues raised by Justice Thomas’s opinion in Box — whether fetal disability is an acceptable reason for terminating a pregnancy, and what the law should do about it. Those are important questions. But any full assessment of the intersection between disability and reproductive rights must also address the issues raised by then-Judge Kavanaugh’s opinion in Doe. Disabled people are frequently denied their own rights to conceive, bear, and parent children, whether through forced sterilization or abortion, the denial of assisted reproduction, or the denial of parental rights once their children are born. Some of these practices — notably forced sterilization — are emblematic of the Eugenics Era. But they are not at all confined to the past. Indeed, the practices that prevent people with disabilities from having and raising children — practices like the law Kavanaugh upheld in Doe — are in many ways the disability analogues of the race-based eugenic practices that Justice Thomas himself decried in his Box opinion.
This essay offers a fuller consideration of the intersection of disability and reproductive rights. It does so by considering the legal and societal treatment of fetuses and children with disabilities alongside the legal and societal treatment of parents with disabilities. And it does so by bringing to bear insights drawn from two distinct social movements: the disability rights movement, and the reproductive justice movement. The piece argues that, taken together, the disability rights and reproductive justice perspectives offer substantial purchase on the questions raised by Justice Thomas in his Box concurrence. Those perspectives suggest that the questions are serious indeed but that Thomas gave the wrong answer to them. They also suggest that any effort to address the intersection of disability and reproductive rights needs to address the questions raised by then-Judge Kavanaugh’s Doe opinion — and that Kavanaugh, too, gave the wrong answer.
Friday, October 4, 2019
Getting up to Speed on the Issues in June Medical Services, the Abortion Case Just Granted Cert by the Supreme Court
The US Supreme Court granted cert on Oct. 4, 2019, in June Medical Services v. Gee, https://www.supremecourt.gov/orders/courtorders/100419zr_onkq.pdf
The issue is " Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit’s decision upholding Louisiana’s law requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital conflicts with the Supreme Court’s binding precedent in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt."
The case page from SCOTUSblog is here, including the docket and prior commentary.
Justice Kavanaugh's opinion dissenting from the grant of a stay in the case in Feb. 2019 is here.
[T]he status quo will be effectively preserved for all parties during the State’s 45-day regulatory transition period. I would deny the stay without prejudice to the plaintiffs’ ability to bring a later as-applied complaint and motion for preliminary injunction at the conclusion of the 45-day regulatory transition period if the Fifth Circuit’s factual prediction about the doctors’ ability to obtain admitting privileges proves to be inaccurate.
Louisiana’s new law requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The question presented to us at this time is whether the law imposes an undue burden under our decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 579 U. S. ___ (2016). All parties, including the State of Louisiana, agree that Whole Woman’s Health is the governing precedent for purposes of this stay application. I therefore will analyze the stay application under that precedent. Louisiana has three clinics that currently provide abortions. As relevant here, four doctors perform abortions at those three clinics. One of those four doctors has admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, as required by the new law. The question is whether the other three doctors—Doe 2, Doe 5, and Doe 6—can obtain the necessary admitting privileges. If they can, then the three clinics could continue providing abortions. And if so, then the new law would not impose an undue burden for purposes of Whole Woman’s Health. By contrast, if the three doctors cannot obtain admitting privileges, then one or
two of the three clinics would not be able to continue providing abortions. If so, then even the State acknowledges that the new law might be deemed to impose an undue burden for purposes of Whole Woman’s Health.
The law has not yet taken effect, so the case comes to us in the context of a pre-enforcement facial challenge. That means that the parties have offered, in essence, competing predictions about whether those three doctors can obtain admitting privileges.
My prior blog post on the Kavanaugh dissent in the grant of the stay, and his inversion of the usual standard of the status quo for preliminary injunctions, is here at Understanding More About Justice Kavanaugh's Dissent.
An excellent symposium and deep dive on the implications of the case is at the Take Care blog, here.
June Medical Services v. Gee is the Supreme Court’s next opportunity to weigh in on women’s constitutional right to decide to end their pregnancies
Alicia Bannon & Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, June Medical Services’ Double Threat to the Rule of Law
In recent months, commentators and the justices themselves have raised concerns about declining public confidence in the judiciary. But confidence has to be earned. Enforcing the law and summarily reversing the Fifth Circuit is an essential first step.
Ideological lower court judges have challenged the Supreme Court by defying its precedent. There is one way for the Court to keep from being put in this position time and again. It should summarily reverse, making clear that only the Court will decide when its own precedent is no longer good law.
Mary Ziegler, The Anti-Abortion Movement's Unworkability Strategy
Antiabortion lawyers think that they can turn a fact and evidence-based legal standard into an argument against stare decisis, which would advance their ultimate goal of overturning Roe. In June Medical, it is time for the justices to prove them wrong.
What is clear in June Medical Services v. Gee, as with the other antiabortion measures making their way through the courts, is that these targeted regulations of abortion providers have nothing to do with protecting women or their health
Mary Bonatuo & Shannon Minter,Pavan and June Medical Services
Pavan and June Medical Services are both examples of lower courts bending over backwards to avoid the clear command of Supreme Court precedent. Both merit the same treatment from the Supreme Court – summary reversal.
Leah Litman, June Medical And The End of Reproductive Justice
While June Medical does not ask the Court to overturn Roe v. Wade or Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the practical effect of the state’s positions would allow states to regulate abortion out of existence
Thursday, September 26, 2019
In what could be seen as defiance of the Court and indifference to Whole Woman’s Health, the Louisiana’s legislature did not repeal the “Unsafe Abortion Protection Act” or Act 620—its version of the Texas law, which requires “a physician performing or inducing an abortion” to “[h]ave active admitting privileges at a hospital that is located not further than thirty miles from the location at which the abortion is performed or induced and that provides obstetrical or gynecological health care services.” To place in context the Louisiana legislature’s brazen disregard of Whole Woman’s Health, imagine that state enacted a separate but equal public school segregation law based on race, in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education striking down such legislation.
Even more curious, imagine if the court of appeals upheld it.
One need not study this hypothetical too long nor relitigate the shameful horrors of Jim Crow in Louisiana and throughout the American south to recognize the harms it would inflict on Black students in Louisiana if such a law were in effect. The vestiges and badges of slavery would be apparent. Indeed, any claims by Louisiana that its version of separate but equal was so factually different such that Brown does not apply would be farcical. The distinctions are irrelevant when the very principle violates the constitution. Brown did not apply only in Topeka, Kansas.
In the present case, not surprisingly, both doctors and clinics challenged Louisiana’s law, securing a permanent injunction at the district court level, which the Fifth Circuit vacated in June Medical Services v. Gee. Unconvinced that the facts undergirding Whole Woman’s Health applied in Louisiana, the Fifth Circuit lifted the injunction. In doing so, the court brushed aside that more than half the clinics in Texas closed in light of the Texas admitting privileges law going into effect, because doctors could not obtain such privileges; the closure of clinics meant that in some cases women traveled hundreds of miles in order to terminate a pregnancy or simply lost access altogether; and admitting privileges bore no relation to physician competency or protecting women’s health, because abortions are safe procedures that nearly never require any form of hospitalization. ***
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision voted to stay the Fifth Circuit’s decision, which allows the district court’s injunction to remain in effect until the Court decides whether to grant certiorari this fall. Tellingly, Justice Kavanaugh dissented in the ruling, giving strong indication of not only his vote should the Court grant certiorari, but also his jurisprudence on abortion rights in cases to come.
What June Medical Services teaches is the power of the antiabortion playbook to take root in legislatures across the country, causing the repeat play of legislation already determined unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (Minnesota legislators proposed an ambulatory surgical standards law, which I testified against—also after Whole Woman’s Health). The goal of the playbook is to hobble abortion access and one powerful means of doing so is to surreptitiously drive doctors out of their practices, thereby forcing clinics to close, leaving women with virtually no options for safe termination of unintended, unwanted, or unsafe pregnancies.
Throughout the year, the justices meet periodically to decide if they want to add more cases to the short list of lawsuits that are argued before the Court. Monday is the Court’s “long conference,” the annual meeting where the justices consider the backlog of petitions that were filed while the Court was on its summer break, each of which ask the Court to hear a particular case.
One of those petitions concerns June Medical Services v. Gee, a case involving a Louisiana abortion restriction that will be very familiar to anyone who’s followed the last several years of abortion litigation.
To recap: Three years ago, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court considered a Texas law that imposed burdensome restrictions on abortion clinics that, at least on the surface, appeared to be ordinary health regulations. One provision required any physician performing an abortion in Texas to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital (a credential that is especially difficult for abortion providers to obtain). Another required abortion clinics to maintain expensive facilities, such as “a full surgical suite with an operating room.”
Whole Woman’s Health was a challenge to what abortion-rights advocates often refer to as “targeted restrictions on abortion providers” or “TRAP” laws — laws that masquerade as efforts to make abortions safer but whose real purpose is to drive up the cost of operating abortion clinics until they shut down.
Many abortion clinics, for example, only offer medication abortions — a non-surgical abortion induced by pills. As Whole Woman’s Health explained, “the surgical-center requirement provides no benefit when complications arise in the context of an abortion produced through medication” because “complications would almost always arise only after the patient has left the facility.” Simply put, it makes no sense to require facilities that perform no surgeries to have a full surgical suite.***
Which brings us back to Gee, the case the Court will discuss next week. The Louisiana law at issue in that case is nearly identical to the admitting privileges law struck down in Whole Woman’s Health. Nevertheless, a panel of the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld this extraordinarily similar law, largely resting its decision on a contested factual claim that it may be easier for doctors to obtain admitting privileges in Louisiana than it is in Texas.
That prompted a strongly worded dissent from Judge Patrick Higginbotham, a Reagan appointee. The Fifth Circuit majority, Higginbotham wrote, ignored the Supreme Court’s command that “‘unnecessary health regulations that have the purpose or effect of presenting a substantial obstacle to a woman seeking an abortion impose an undue burden’ on the exercise of that right.”
Tuesday, September 17, 2019
In First, California Passes Bill Requiring Public Universities to Provide Medication Abortion on Campus
At a time when conservative states are sharply limiting abortion access, California signaled a new frontier in abortion-rights on Friday with the passage of legislation that would require all public universities in the state to provide medication abortion on campus.
The bill, which would use money raised from private donors to equip and train campus health centers, grew out of a student-led movement at the University of California, Berkeley, and it has sparked the introduction of a similar bill in Massachusetts.
Anti-abortion groups say they are likely to challenge the legislation if Gov. Gavin Newsom signs it into law. He has a month to decide. A spokesman declined to say what he will do, but last year during his campaign for governor, Mr. Newsom said he supported a similar effort.
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
Joanna Grossman, The Seeds of Early Childhood, 71 Florida Law Review Forum 117, 131 (2019)
The trajectory of childhood is often shaped before childhood even begins. Pre-birth inequalities are not natural or inevitable. Rather, we create and cement policy choices that reduce access to adult healthcare, restrict accessible contraception, impede access to abortion, and deny prenatal care. Together, these choices mean that, in the United States, we maintain very high rates of unwanted pregnancy and increasingly high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity, burdens that fall disproportionately on women of color and women of lower socioeconomic status. Equality demands that we address these disproportionate burdens.
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
Law Professor Refutes False Claims that New York's Reproductive Healthcare Act Increases Domestic Violence
Some reports following New York’s passage of the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) asserted that the RHA somehow increases the risk of gender violence. NAPW and Professor Julie Goldscheid (CUNY Law School) authored a statement challenging those claims, and other false claims linking laws criminalizing abortion and related feticide laws with protection of women from violence.
Claims that laws such as the RHA pose a threat to women’s safety, and that laws criminalizing abortion somehow protect people from gender violence are dangerous and totally unfounded. We write to speak out against gender violence in all its forms and to oppose false claims about criminal abortion laws that distract attention from real threats to life and health.
We call for laws and policies based on evidence-based research and urge all those who are truly concerned with preventing intimate partner and other forms of gender violence to oppose laws that can be used to criminalize people for seeking to control their bodies and their lives. Instead, they should support universal health care and other needed services for everyone, including survivors.
Monday, July 29, 2019
July 19 was the anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, the nation’s first women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. This episode explores what happened at the historic convention, and how its legacy shaped the Constitution through the fight for women’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment and, later, landmark gender equality and reproductive rights cases, including Roe v. Wade. Women and law scholars Erika Bachiochi of the Ethics & Public Policy Center and Tracy A. Thomas of the University of Akron School of Law join host Jeffrey Rosen.
My discussion draws on my book, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law (NYUP 2016) tracing pioneering women's rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton's work in organizing the Seneca Falls Convention and leading the first women's rights movement for over fifty years.
Here is the Declaration of Sentiments waterfall outside the Women's Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, reflecting Stanton's words.
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
Legal Thinking about the Declaration of Sentiments for Women's Rights at Seneca Falls on its 171st Anniversary
July 19 & 20 celebrated the 171st anniversary of women's first official demand for equal political, civil, and religious rights in the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, New York. The Women's Rights National Historical Park now sits at the sight of the Wesleyean Church where the convention took place, and is worth a visit.
I have written much about the Declaration of Sentiments and its author, pioneering feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Declaration and its articulation of 18 necessary rights for women, as well as its structural elimination of "separate spheres" of women's inferiority, essentially provided a road map for legal and social reform for women's equality and equity.
I spoke about the history a bit with the National Constitution Center in a forthcoming We the People podcast.
I wrote about the broad agenda of the Declaration and the first women's rights movements in the forthcoming article, More Than the Vote: The Nineteenth Amendment as Proxy for Gender Equality, Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
I traced its historical origins and legal significance particular in the area of family law and social rights in my book, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law (NYUP 2016). I blogged about the opening chapters addressing the context and specifics of the Declaration of Sentiments, here at Introduction and here, "What Do You Women Want?.
Wednesday, July 17, 2019
There is a lot of current interest in this 100th anniversary year of the 19th Amendment and the campaign for women's rights on whether the early feminists supported abortion.
The Atlantic has this recent article: Olga Khazan, Did the Suffragists Support Birth Control? (featuring historians Linda Gordon and Lisa Tetrault)
I was interviewed in a previous article in The Atlantic about the question: The Abortion Debate and the Legacy of Women's Suffrage (June 2019)
And I spoke about this topic, among other things regarding the first women's rights movement, in this We The People podcast with the National Constitution Center.
There is interest because abortion is such a key issue of women's rights and women's oppression today. Both pro-choice and pro-life women look for historical grounding as to what the first leaders thought.
As Linda Gordon has written in her seminal book on the topic, The Moral Property of Women, it is not that easy to make the connection as the context and the debate were different in the nineteenth century. Yet there was significant consensus among women reformers, both conservative and progressive, as to "voluntary motherhood" and the right of women solely to control pregnancy and marital relations through abstinence.
I have written more specifically about this question with respect to the views of pioneering feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Tracy A. Thomas, Misappropriating Women's History in the Law and Politics of Abortion, 36 Seattle L. Rev. 1 (2012)
I also wrote about this question of Stanton's views on abortion and birth control in my book, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law (NYUP 2016). Here is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of the book:
The “Incidental Relation” of Mother
The woman is greater than the wife or the mother; and in consenting to take upon herself these relations, she should never sacrifice one iota of her individuality to any senseless conventionalisms, or false codes of feminine delicacy and refinement. ~ Letter from Mrs. Stanton to Seventh National Woman’s Rights Convention, Nov. 24, 1856
Stanton continued to demand women’s freedom in marriage by focusing on a woman’s right to choose motherhood. In a time when motherhood defined all women culturally and legally, Stanton challenged the entrenched norm dictating that women’s primary role in life was that of mother. Womanhood, she said, was the “first consideration” of women’s own happiness: wifehood and motherhood secondary, “mere incidents of their lives.” Stanton identified women’s burdens from enforced motherhood resulting from their lack of reproductive control and men’s sexual privilege as victimization and oppression, not natural or ordained relations. Her solution was to give the woman alone the right to choose and control procreation. She demanded the law recognize a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and self-determination in sexual relations, a radical contribution to the evolving feminism.
The “sovereign right to her own person,” as Stanton articulated it, was a wife’s cognizable right to counter the husband’s common-law conjugal right. It was a right of sexual refusal and abstinence, not contraception. The nineteenth-century woman’s movement shared Stanton’s critique of the male sexual prerogative in marriage and endorsed this alternative ideology of “voluntary motherhood” establishing a wife’s right to refuse sexual relations. Women were entitled to this gendered, unilateral control over reproduction because of their individual right to bodily autonomy and because they alone bore the consequences of maternity to their physical health and livelihood from the obligations of childcare. Stanton encouraged women to exercise this right of sovereignty in their own marriages to produce fewer, but healthier children under an “enlightened motherhood” theory of maternity. This contradicted the social conservatism of the late nineteenth-century, which demanded that white, middle-class women fulfill their duty to produce more children “to preserve the race” against threats from increased immigration and racial diversity.
Women’s growing awareness of the oppression of forced maternity led to an increase in the practice of abortion by the mid-nineteenth century. The increase triggered moral outrage, public debate, and legislative reforms resulting in the criminalization of early-term abortions for the first time. Stanton joined the discussion on her own terms, eschewing the moralization and refocusing the debate on the underlying issues of women’s legal and social victimization. She attacked the double-standards of sexuality that tolerated male licentiousness, but imposed all costs of extramarital sex on women, from the social shunning of unwed mothers to the crimes of prostitution and infanticide. Stanton used the context of infanticide to make more sweeping criticisms of the structural defects of the legal system that excluded women at every level—as lawmakers, judges, juries, lawyers, and witnesses. Stanton demanded the participation of women in all aspects of the legal process to remedy the unjust prosecution of desperate acts like infanticide and the resulting injustice of judgment without mercy.
The terms of marriage in the nineteenth century included the husband’s prerogative to control sexual relations. A husband had the power to demand sexual intercourse, while the wife had the duty to submit. The law justified the husband’s sexual right to his wife’s body under a theory of initial consent to the marriage. Drawing from the political theory of consent of the governed, the justification was that the woman’s consent to marriage was irrevocable consent to all sexual relations at any time. This was a status-based rule, operating automatically for all marriages regardless of individual choice or dissent. The laws of marriage, divorce, and rape endorsed the husband’s sexual privilege. In divorce cases, courts refused to grant wives’ petitions on the basis of cruelty from forced marital sex, finding that “copulation itself was in the exercise of the marital right,” and a usual and expected part of marriage. At the extreme, this marital consent theory excused marital rape. Rape by definition could not be perpetrated against one’s wife. As English treatise writer Sir Matthew Hale explained the common law, “the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.”
Feminists uniformly rejected this legally-sanctioned violence of forced sex and maternity. They instead advocated for “voluntary motherhood,” giving the wife the unilateral right to refuse sexual relations, abstaining periodically or permanently unless procreation was desired. There was wide consensus among women reformers on this issue, including the radical free lovers, the feminist suffragists, and conservative moral reformers. “On no question did the feminists agree so clearly as on . . . ‘voluntary motherhood’. . . incorporating both a political critique of the status quo, as involuntary motherhood, and a solution.” “Their priority was women’s right to say no to men.” These women proposed a radical reversal of the entrenched norms of marital power by granting women, and not men, the sole right to dictate the terms of marital sex.
Stanton voiced her strong rejection of this male sexual privilege and identified it as a source of women’s oppression. Writing to Anthony in 1853 about marriage as a key site of subordination, Stanton argued, “man in his lust has regulated long enough this whole question of sexual intercourse. Now let the mother of mankind, whose prerogative it is to set bounds to his indulgence, rouse up and give this whole matter a thorough, fearless examination.” A few years later, she featured forced maternity in her Paper on Marriage directed to a Quaker audience. “Have the best Christian men in this nation ever felt the least compunction of conscience, as they have contemplated, year by year, the drooping form, the pale check, the sunken eye, the joyless, hopeless life of the self-sacrificing wife, the mother of six, eight or ten children? . . . Victims all, to the lust and selfishness of those to whom they looked for care and support – dead, or suffering life, with the excessive cares and anxieties of maternity!” “All things,” she argued, “are inverted, disorganized, so long as the mother of the race is subjected to man—so long as all her holy intuitions of virtue, purity, chastity, are sacrificed to the lust and selfishness of man.”
Other women reformers shared Stanton’s indictment of male lust at women’s expense, including abolitionist and early feminist, Sarah Grimké. In an 1856 essay, Marriage, Grimke expressed her visceral reaction to how man subordinated women to his own passion by the principle of superior rights. Her critique stemmed from first-hand observations of the difficult and successive pregnancies of her sister, Angelina Grimké Weld, and the resulting disability that caused Angelina to abandon public abolition and women’s rights work. “Man seems to feel that Marriage gives him the control of Woman’s person just as the Law gives him the control of her property.” “Has she not been continually forced into a motherhood which she abhorred, because she knew that her children were not the offspring of Love but of Lust? Has she not in unnumbered instances felt in the deepest recesses of her soul, that she was used to minister to Passion, not voluntarily to receive from her husband the chaste expression of his love?” Grimké empathized with the shattered sentimentality of marriage in which women “entered the marriage relation in all purity and innocence expecting to realize completion of their own halfness the rounding out of their own being,” but “too soon discovered that they were unpaid housekeepers and nurses, and still worse, chattels personal to be used and abused at the will of a master.” “How many so called wives,” she challenged, “rise in the morning oppressed with a sense of degradation from the fact that their chastity has been violated, their holiest instincts disregarded, and themselves humbled under an oppressive sense of their own pollution, and that, too, a thousand times harder to bear, because so called husband has been the perpetrator of the unnatural crime.” The solution, she argued was “a right on the part of woman to decide when she shall become a mother, how often and under what circumstances.”
The feminists advocating voluntary motherhood developed a structural attack on forced marital sex looking beyond the individual behavior of husbands to the law and economics of marriage. Their phrase “legalized prostitution” encapsulated the idea of the legally proscribed exchange of sex for money in the dependency of marriage. “Is marriage sacred,” Stanton asked rhetorically, “where a woman consents to live in legalized prostitution! her whole soul revolting at such gross association!” Feminists challenged the basis of marriage which essentially was an economic transaction that rendered women socially and financially dependent upon their husband. The wife, like a street prostitute, was forced to submit to unwanted sex in exchange for monetary support. “If marriage was to rise above ‘legalized prostitution,’” Stanton argued, wives “needed personal freedom more than a legal right to control marital intercourse.” Freedom came only with economic independence and economic profession, providing the necessary alternative to marriage.
Mainstream popular literature picked up on the criticisms of involuntary motherhood, but rejected the feminists’ structural insights. Women’s magazines, novels, and popular guides to women’s health incorporated the feminist ideas of involuntary motherhood as legalized prostitution and agreed that women should control their husbands’ sexual access. However, these prescriptive writers focused on the solution of changing men’s individual behavior by appealing to “manly self-restraint” and men’s own self-interest. They persuaded men that they would be happier if their wives were happier, and wives would be happier if given respite from insistent demands for unwanted sex and pregnancy. This view played into the convention of the husband’s superior power, encouraging his benevolent use of it, rather than adopting the feminist demand for a wife’s prioritized right to make the decision herself.
“Sovereign of Her Own Person”
The most radical idea of the voluntary motherhood movement was a woman’s “right to her own person.” By this, the women’s rights advocates meant the right to bodily autonomy and individual control of their bodies for sex and procreation. They prioritized this right, claiming it as “a subject which lies deeper down into woman’s wrongs than any other.” As free love advocate Mary Gove Nichols wrote, “woman’s one, single, and supreme right and the one which includes all others, is her right to herself.” Stanton corresponded with Nichols in the early 1850s and agreed with her that “the right to control one’s body was the preeminent personal and political right.”
Stanton wrote publicly in 1855 to emphasize the centrality of the issue of sexual autonomy to women’s rights, “the battleground where our independence must be fought and won.” The vast majority of women, she said, regarded the present marital arrangements “with deep and settled disgust.” While rights to vote and hold property were important, “the sacred right of a woman to her own person, to all her God-given powers of body and soul,” was a great social and human right “before which all others sink into utter insignificance.” She focused on the idea that “to the mother of the race, and to her alone, belonged the right to say when a new being should be brought into the world.” Has man, she asked, “in the gratification of his blind passions, ever paused to think whether it was with joy and gladness that she gave up ten or twenty years of the heyday of her existence to all the cares and sufferings of excessive maternity?”
Lucy Stone begged Stanton to address the issue of “a wife’s right to her own body” at the Seventh National Women’s Rights Convention. Stone wrote, “I very much wish that a wife’s right to her own body should be pushed at our next convention. It does seem to me that you are the one to do it.” Stone though, prudish even by Victorian standards and sensitive to public rejection, refused to address the issue herself. Stanton obliged, writing a short letter to the convention, though it arrived too late to be discussed. Stanton called women to “a proper self-respect” and decried the marriage in which a woman accepted “herself as a mere machine, a tool for men’s pleasure.” Elsewhere, she elaborated on what she meant by a woman “owning her own body.” By this she meant “as opposed to the old common law of England, I deny the husband’s right . . . to burden her with the hardships of reproduction. . . I deny man’s right to seek gratification of his sexual nature at the expense of undermining the well being of the woman and her offspring.”
The New York Times attacked this assertion of a woman’s right of self-ownership, dismissing women’s claims of abuse from involuntary motherhood. The paper revealed what it assumed was shocking proposition that “the Woman’s Rights movement leads directly and rapidly in the same direction, viz. to Free Love, that extreme section of it we mean which claims to rest upon the absolute and indefeasible right of woman to equality in all respects with man and to a complete sovereignty over her own person and conduct.” Sarah Grimké responded to the attack by affirmatively embracing the charge: yes, she said, “this exposition of the principles of the Woman’s Rights movement I heartily accept. We do claim the absolute and indefeasible right of woman to an equality in all respects with man and to a complete sovereignty over her own person and conduct.” Human rights, she asserted are universal, not based upon sex, color, capacity or condition, and “none but despots will deny to woman that supreme sovereignty over her own person and conduct which Law concedes to man.” “Yet,” she said, “the Times is horror-struck at the idea of a woman’s claiming ‘A supreme sovereignty over her own person and conduct.’ Is it not time that she should? Has not man proved himself unworthy of the power which he assumes over her person and conduct?’
Stanton “understood a woman’s right to control her person as the foundational right upon which political and economic equality needed to rest if they were to have any value.” Writing to Anthony, she argued, “when we talk of woman’s rights, is not the right to her person, to her happiness, to her life, the first on the list?” She analogized to the slave on the southern plantation presented with the idea of the elective franchise, to which you might get a vacant stare. “The great idea of his right to himself, to his personal dignity, must first take possession of his soul.”
Stanton’s solution was for women to have the sole and absolute right to refuse marital sexual intercourse. This restructured the existing law of irrevocable consent to the marital contract and shifted the privilege of determining sexual relations to women. This was “an intensely gender-specific argument” for a right intended for women only, because they were the ones solely responsible for the physical demands of maternity itself and the caring and raising of children. Stanton, as the mother of seven children, experienced the social reality that imposed the work of raising children exclusively on women. She thus vividly understood “that women needed to have full control over marital intercourse so that they could determine how many children they would raise and when.”
Other feminists agreed with both Stanton’s view of the sovereign right to self-determination and her justification for that unilateral right stemming from women’s exclusive responsibility for bearing and raising children. “The law of motherhood should be entirely under woman’s control, . . . and that woman must first of all be held as having a right to herself.” As Grimké wrote, “surely as upon her alone devolves the necessity of nurturing unto the fullness of life the being within her and after it is born, of nursing and tending it thro’ helpless infancy and capricious childhood, often under the pressure of miserable health, she ought to have the right of controlling all preliminaries.” She described the “burden on woman by the care of many children following in quick succession,” and its resulting “unnatural tug upon her constitution.” She added, “if man had all these burdens to bear, would not he declare that common sense and common justice confer this right upon him.”
In the following decades, Stanton’s speeches and lectures aimed to convince women of their “right to their own person” and the “preservation of their own womanhood.” “Let us remember,” she repeated, “that womanhood is the great fact, wifehood and motherhood its incidents.” Must the heyday of her existence be wholly devoted to the one animal function of bearing children? Shall there by no limit to this but woman’s capacity to endure the fearful strain on her life?” In her “Marriage and Maternity” lecture, Stanton advised women that bearing children was not their sole duty and purpose, as they had been told. “We must educate our daughters,” she said, “first—to regard their own lives and bodies and the laws govern them.” She argued that “the preservation of their own womanhood was the one prime object of their lives.” Instead, she said, “as it is now, we look up to wives and mothers, and down on womanhood. This is wrong.” Stanton said she revered single women like “Susan B. Anthony and [sculptor] Harriet Hosmer who have done great things in the world without having borne children.” She continued “we must educate our girls that they are independent; that in the society of the refined they may be happy; that they may live peaceful, glorious lives, and take high seats in Heaven, without ever seeing a man.”
“The Science of Life”
Wide support for voluntary motherhood among women reformers and feminists did not, however, mean that these women endorsed contraception. Methods of birth control were known from ancient Egyptian times with rudimentary condoms, douches, diaphragms, and pessaries available, though many were derived from poisonous substances and incorrect science. Technical advances in 1844 with the patenting of vulcanized rubber allowed mass-production of condoms, and at mid-century advertisements for contraceptives appeared in most mainstream newspapers. Several books on birth control had been written, including utopian Robert Dale Owen’s Moral Physiology (1831), Dr. Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy (1832), and Dr. Edward Bliss Foote’s Medical Common Sense (1864). Foote also operated a clinic distributing information and patented devices to his patients until his arrest in 1876. Women’s health advocates began to preach on physiology or the “science of life” informing women of the details of sex, menstruation, and reproduction.
Stanton preached this new sexual physiology to women in her “Marriage and Maternity.” She reported to friends that this “new gospel of fewer children” was “gladly received.” “What radical thoughts I then and there put into their heads as they feel untrammeled, these thoughts are permanently lodged there! That is all I ask.” Her lectures uniquely for women only taught “the laws of life and health,” and advised them “to learn and practice the true laws of generation.” Stanton endorsed the theories of Dr. John Cowan and his book on sexual physiology, The Science of New Life. “I have read Dr. Cowan’s work, and made it my text-book in lectures, ‘to woman alone,’ for several years,” she wrote. Cowan detailed male and female anatomy and the biological functioning of sex and reproduction, believing that “knowledge must precede virtue.” He credited the many legitimate reasons women desired to prevent pregnancies, but cautioned that while “all manner and means are and have been used” to accomplish prevention, most as a rule caused physical or spiritual harm to the individual. He detailed the options for “the prevention of conception” including withdrawal, condoms, sponges, syringes, and the rhythm method. Condoms, he noted were effectual, but not pleasurable to the male. Sponges or rubber barriers, he stated, were widely used, but not reliable because often inserted incorrectly. Syringes with powders were “damaging to the vitality of the part” and unreliable. Cowan’s conclusion was that continence (abstinence) was the only appropriate method to prevent conception.
Audiences, however, questioned Stanton as to the practical realities of accomplishing prevention by this, or any other, means. In San Francisco, as reported by a male journalist who allegedly snuck into the women-only lecture in female disguise, one woman asked, “How can we follow your advice and keep from having children?” Stanton answered on two fronts: structural and personal. First, she said, “woman’s perfect independence is the answer to that query. Woman must at all times be the sovereign of her own person.” When asked a follow up question by a second woman, “What are we to do when men don’t agree with us?” Stanton gave a second suggestion, based on her support of the social purity idea of a single sexual standard and systemic reduction in the sexualization of women. She replied that men could be educated as to voluntary motherhood, that their passions could be controlled, and that women should stop stimulating men’s passions with dress, dance, and fashion with bare arms and bare necks. One lady then “asked a question which hinted at prevention by other than legitimate means.” The paper reported that “Mrs. Stanton promptly replied that such views of the matter were too degrading and disgusting to touch upon, and must be classified in the category of crime alongside infanticide.” Apparently Stanton, or perhaps the reporter, did not want to go on the record as supporting abortion, by then illegal in many states.
Stanton’s personal views on birth control are not clear. Biographers have concluded that her “writing was ambivalent on the subject of birth control.” “Some indicate that she was ignorant of contemporary methods of contraception, others indicate that she was aware of and approved of birth control, but did not practice it.” The evidence of Stanton’s large family of eight pregnancies (one miscarriage) in seventeen years, and her private frustration with this frequent childbearing, suggests that she did not use birth control or practice abstinence, even with her husband’s lengthy absences from home. As she reminisced in her diary, “I knew no better than to have seven children in quick succession. This was not Stanton’s obedience to her wifely duty, however, but rather an embracing of her own sexuality. “In contrast to many of her contemporaries, Stanton was aware of women’s sexuality, and she agreed with an 1853 phrenological analysis of herself as ‘able to enjoy the connubial relationship in a high degree.’” In another diary entry, she criticized a Walt Whitman poem for ignoring women’s sexuality. “He speaks as if the female must be forced to the creative act, apparently ignorant of the fact that a healthy woman has as much passion as a man, that she needs nothing stronger than the law of attraction to draw her to the male.”
Stanton’s public recommendation of abstinence, rather than birth control, was the common thinking among reformers at the time. Feminists in the nineteenth century opposed birth control as harmful, promiscuous, and contrary to broader demands for women’s empowerment. They feared the promiscuity contraception would facilitate by granting men free license to engage more freely in extramarital sex and prostitution. To separate sex from reproduction did not help women, as it merely allowed men to further indulge their sexual license and family irresponsibility. Contraception also contradicted the systemic goals of the women’s rights movement to empower women generally. While the movement sought freedom from excessive pregnancies and childbearing, it also sought respect and authority for motherhood and freedom from male sexual tyranny. “Abstinence helped women strengthen their ability to say no to their husbands’ sexual demands, . . . while contraception . . . would have weakened it.” The solution to both the problem of unwanted pregnancies and sexual tyranny was abstinence and a single sexual moral standard restraining both women and men’s sexual impulses. Nineteenth-century feminists “wanted to help women avoid pregnancy for physical or psychological reasons,” but not for the reason of permitting women to “engage freely and often in sexual intercourse” without the possibility of pregnancy.
From a modern perspective, “a principle of voluntary motherhood that rejects the practice of contraception seems so theoretical as to have little real impact.” But as historian Linda Gordon explains, the breakthrough of the voluntary motherhood movement was in its acceptance of women’s sexuality and women’s unilateral right to control it. “To suggest, as these feminists did, that women might have the capacity to be sexual subjects rather than objects, feeling impulses of their own, tended to weaken the claim that the maternal instinct was always dominant.” Voluntary motherhood was the radical theoretical foundation of the right of reproductive control; more specific strategies of birth control and abortion were adopted later as means by which to execute this fundamental right.
In the nineteenth century, however, the public discussion and dissemination of birth control information became illegal when it was banned as obscenity under the 1873 federal Comstock Law. The Comstock Law, named for moral purity crusader Anthony Comstock, prohibited the sale, offer, publication, possession, advertisement, or other distribution of any obscene writing, picture, instrument or drug and any of these intended “for the prevention of conception or procuring abortion.” States passed related “Little Comstock Laws” prohibiting other distribution and manufacturing of contraception and birth control information. In addition to these obscenity laws, medical professionals and moral reformers condemned the “unnatural” and sinful limitation of family size and the “race-suicide” it threatened for the white middle class. Yet people continued to practice family planning by some means, as the average number of children per family declined over the century from 7.04 in 1800 to 3.56 by 1900.
Stanton hinted at her opposition to this ban on discussing birth control. In the early 1880s, while in England visiting her daughter Harriot, Stanton met the free thinker and radical Annie Besant. Besant had been convicted in 1877 of obscenity for publishing Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy detailing methods of contraception. The “Knowlton trial” triggered the founding of the Malthusian League in Britain, building on the ideas of Thomas Malthus regarding overpopulation and now promoting birth control to redress the overpopulation and its related poverty and social problems. Stanton seemed to agree with theory in recounting her meeting with Besant in her diary. “My sense of justice was severely tried by all I heard of the persecutions of Mrs. Besant and Mr. Bradlaugh for their publications on the right and duty of parents to limit population.” “Who can contemplate,” she continued, “the sad condition of multitudes of young children in the Old World whose fate is to be brought up in ignorance and vice—a swarming, seething mass which nobody owns—without seeing the need of free discussion of the philosophical principles that underlie these tangle social problems?” Her view stood in contrast to that of her colleague Matilda Joslyn Gage, who in response to the Knowlton trial, condemned Besant’s endorsement of contraception, while supporting the broader concept that the “law of motherhood should be entirely under woman’s control.”
Feminist endorsement of contraception would not come until the early twentieth century, after Stanton’s time. Socialist and nurse Margaret Sanger coined the term “birth control” in 1916 and established a clinic in Brooklyn, New York to provide information about contraception to working-class women. She was arrested and convicted of violating the New York Comstock Law. On appeal, the court upheld the conviction, but found that physicians and pharmacists were exempted by the law, thus permitting medical professionals to distribute birth control information and contraception for “the purposes of preventing disease.” Sanger’s case thus medicalized birth control, a result that practically ended the ban on contraception, while also removing such procreative decisions solely from women’s autonomy.
The Campaign Against Abortion
In the absence of legal and effective contraception, abortion, and even infanticide, were practiced in the nineteenth century. By 1850, there was a demonstrable increase in abortions facilitated by advertisements for abortion medicines and services, and by the growing use of the practice by married couples as birth control. This triggered moral and legal outrage resulting in a public campaign to criminalize abortion that became a “mass political issue in America” in the late 1860s. The campaign led by the male medical profession overtook feminists’ advocacy of voluntary motherhood and indicted women’s attempts to obtain control of procreative decisions.
Stanton joined in at the periphery of this debate, drawn by its attack on women. She did not engage with the moral question of abortion, but instead utilized the public attention to reframe the issues as one of women’s rights more generally. She gravitated to the related, but more shocking issue of infanticide, expressing empathy for women defendants and criticism of a discriminatory legal system that convicted them. The male-dominated abortion debate provided the toehold for Stanton to get an audience for her radical ideas about women’s legal and social equality, questioning the absence of women in the legal process as well as the gendered sexual moral standard. As she had in other contexts, Stanton revealed her aptitude for capitalizing on the media’s attention to keep her agenda of the broader “woman question” front and center.
Abortion had not always been publicly condemned. At common law in America, abortion was legal prior to quickening, around four months when fetal movement can be felt. Abortion was morally tolerated, though publicly invisible, as an “often-regrettable necessity” for poor, young, unmarried women who had been seduced. Early laws prohibited late-term abortions or targeted medical malpractice and poisonous medicines that harmed women. By mid-century, however, abortion had increased as middle-class, married people used abortion as birth control. Abortion became more visible as newspapers ran barely-disguised advertisements for “French” and “Portuguese” medicines (French meaning contraception and Portuguese code for abortion) and physician services to “restore the natural return of menses.” The prevalence of abortion raised it to a public concern, fueled by nativist fears that immigrants would replace white Americans through the birthrate. The medical profession instigated the efforts for legal reform, supported by sensationalist journalism, which produced new laws that criminalized abortion at any time in every state by the turn of the century. This anti-abortion campaign was infused with anti-woman sentiments, fearful of women’s growing social power, and reasserting patriarchal control and women’s maternal submission.
The lobbying effort to criminalize abortion was spearheaded by the medical profession. In 1859, the American Medical Association (AMA) issued a resolution condemning abortion as an “unwarrantable destruction of human life.” The doctors had scientific, ethical, and professional motivations for leading the charge against abortion. Practically, as doctors professionalized, the new “regulars” of male medical school graduates sought to drive out the competing local practitioners, the untrained “irregulars” of female midwives who had monopolized obstetrical and gynecological care.” Women, though, became the targeted evil. Horatio Storer, one of the first male gynecologists and the leading antiabortion crusader of the AMA wrote that “[t]he true wife” does not seek “undue power in public life, . . . undue control in domestic affairs, . . . or privileges not her own.” The AMA’s 1871 Report on Criminal Abortion denounced the married woman who aborted a pregnancy: “She becomes unmindful of the course marked out for her by Providence, she overlooks the duties imposed on her by the marriage contract. She yields to the pleasures—but shrinks from the pains and responsibilities of maternity . . . .” The AMA campaign succeeded in convincing the public and the politicians that abortion, and women, were a threat to the social order and male authority.
The campaign expressly took on the feminists and their claim of reproductive control. Nineteenth-century feminists did not publicly support abortion, just as they did not endorse legalized birth control. Abortion, like contraception, only increased male sexual license, and threatened physical harm to women from poisonous substances and surgical malpractice. The physicians’’ campaign, however, distorted the women’s rights metaphor of legalized prostitution to claim that they heretically intended that “man’s natural sexual urges were allowed expression in marriage without reproductive consequence.” Dr. H.S. Pomeroy took on Stanton directly in his book, The Ethics of Marriage. “There are lecturers to ‘ladies only’ who profess to be actuated simply by good-will toward their unfortunate sisters, who yet call woman’s highest and holiest privilege by the name of slavery, and a law to protect the family from the first step toward extinct, tyranny.” “There are apostles of woman’s rights,” he continued, who “arouse women to claim privileges now denied them. . . . And there are those who teach that their married sisters may save time and vitality for high and noble pursuits by ‘electing’ how few children shall be born to them.” Storer added that “if each woman were allowed to judge for herself in this matter, her decision upon the abstract question would be too sure to be warped by person considerations, and those of the moment. Woman’s mind is prone to depression, and indeed, to temporary actual derangement, under the stimulus of uterine excitation.” Women were thus mentally incapable of making the procreative decision.
The media supported the physicians’ lobbying campaign, inflamed by sensational journalism. The newspapers published editorials against the “frightfully prevalent” “social evil” of “child murder,” commenting that “the murder of infants is a common thing among American women.” One editorial lamented that “thousands of human beings are thus murdered before they have seen the light of this world.” The papers printed stories recounting the horrific details of women dying from abortions in squalid conditions and exposés on the underground abortion trade in New York City. The remedy, they declared, was in the prohibition and criminalization of abortion. These mainstream papers, however, were complicit in the escalation of the abortion practice as they accepted lucrative abortion advertisements soliciting such business and selling medicinals for abortion. They stopped publishing such ads only when prohibited by law, first by New York state law and then by the federal Comstock anti-obscenity law.
New York, Stanton’s home state, was at the forefront of this debate and evolution of the law of abortion. Early revisions of code in 1828 and 1845 were designed to protect women from malpractice and criminalize a larger practice of behavior, but practically had little effect due to the high prosecutorial burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a woman was “pregnant” and had the “intent thereby to procure a miscarriage.” The Medical Society of the State of New York renewed legal reform lobbying in 1867, to “arrest this flagrant corruption of morality among women, who ought to be and unquestionably are the conservators of morals and of virtue” and prohibit newspaper ads as “highly detrimental to public health and morals.” In 1868, the New York legislature banned advertisements for any “article or medicine for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.” Another law in 1869 made abortion at any time, including prior to quickening, illegal and removed the prosecutors’ burden of proving pregnancy, and revisions in 1872 further strengthen its prohibitions and penalties.
In the midst of this public and legislative frenzy over abortion in New York, Stanton began her new woman’s rights newspaper, the Revolution. Starting in January 1868, the paper was drawn into the fray, designed as it was to engage its readers with all topics of the day. The paper published a few submissions opposing abortion and calling for stricter prohibitions. Its financier George Francis Train registered his disgust of abortion, attacking the “French habits, French customs, poisonous drugs, and a false life, combined with the terrible demoralizing effect of the speculum and the lancet—the one poisoning the system, the other destroying chastity as well as maternity,” which failed to “maintain law and virtue” or “respect our manhood." The Revolution also printed articles from feminist voices reacting to the anti-abortion campaign’s demonization of women. These writers, including Matilda Joslyn Gage, were “highly sympathetic to the reasons why women sought abortions” and placed the moral blame on men who refused to control their sexual demands. “This crime,” Gage wrote, of what the papers called “child murder,” lies at the door of the male sex,” wrote Matilda Joslyn Gage. Another writer pointed to the larger class issues and “antagonism” underlying the abortion problem. “When the conditions of society are so false that mothers kill their own children, the trouble lies deeper down than ‘Restellism.’” “Prohibitory laws and the imprisonments of the Madames Restell do not remedy drunkenness or child murder; they do not touch the case.”
Restellism, the epithet for abortion, derived from the most famous practitioner of abortion from 1836 to 1878, Madame Restell (Ann Lohman). Madame Restell flaunted a very public existence, living in a palatial mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City and operating her practice out of her home. In addition, she sold products through the newspapers and mails. Lohman was arrested many times, but convicted finally in 1878 following a sting operation by Anthony Comstock. She committed suicide after she lost her appeals.
Stanton’s male co-editor, Parker Pillsbury, also wrote several articles on abortion in the Revolution, revealing his moral opposition but rejecting criminal regulation. Pillsbury’s moral stance against abortion was consistent with his religious belief of perfectionism and his background as a former Congregationalist minister and zealous abolitionist. In the Revolution, he expressed his abhorrence of the “evil” crime of “foeticide” and “killing the unborn,” and his concern over “the frightful increase” in abortion. He attacked those who encouraged the practice of abortion, “that very evil in all its horrible enormity and extent.” He berated those like Madame Restell who profited from abortion, “those who make it a profession and grow enormously rich in the murderous business; and yet walk unblushingly, and ride most magnificently on Broadway in broad day, and receive both the gratitude and gold of those who employ them.”
In another Revolution editorial entitled Quack Medicines, Pillsbury condemned the mainstream and religious newspapers for supporting Restellism by publishing advertisements for abortion and contraceptive medicines. He criticized them for accepting the “advertisements of professional murderers, who commit infanticide for pay,” simply because the advertising patronage paid “far better than any other.” The Revolution, he said, refused to publish “gross personalities and quack advertisements,” though it did print ads for female physicians for services of an “accoucheuse” (midwife) who devoted “special attention to female disease.” Like the other feminist writers in the Revolution, Pillsbury blamed men for the unwanted pregnancies. His proposed solutions were women’s empowerment and foundling hospitals run by the state that would care for the children given up for adoption.
Stanton weighed in briefly in her editorial Infanticide and Prostitution. The short blurb written during the Revolution’s second month of operation responded to the sensationalist attacks on women in the mainstream press, just as the New York legislature considered a restrictive new abortion law. She began by reprinting an excerpt from the New York Tribune in which that paper concluded that “the murder of infants is a common thing among American women.” The Tribune lamented “child murder,” claiming that “the murder of children, either before or after birth, has become so frightfully prevalent that physicians, who have given careful and intelligent study to the subject, have declared that were it not for immigration the white population of the United States would actually fall off!” Stanton also excerpted an article from the New York Sun on the “social evil statistics” of prostitution, showing how she linked together these issues together as related to male licentiousness.
Stanton dismissed the moral and religious outrage directed against women. “Let us no longer weep, whine and pray over all these abominations.” Instead, she cut to the underlying systemic cause of these social concerns. “We believe the cause of all these abuses lies in the degradation of woman.” The only remedy, she said, was “the education and enfranchisement of woman.” Stanton wrote she was not surprised that women “do everything to avoid maternity” because maternity is presented religiously as a curse, and women “through ignorance of the science of life and health find it so.” The blame instead belonged to men. “Strike the chains from your women; for as long as they are slaves to man’s lust, man will be the slave of his own passions.” Stanton called for the remedy of “enlightened conscientiousness” and “for every thinking man” to change things in his own household by facilitating intentional and healthful procreation. Stanton, however, wrote nothing further on the issue. Instead, she became obsessed with the notorious trial of Hester Vaughn, sentenced to death for infanticide. The Vaughn case engaged these questions about the sexual double standard and women’s reproductive control while providing the additional opportunity for Stanton to challenge the greater systemic problems of a legal system that professed to dispense justice for women without women’s participation in the process.
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
The Center on Applied Feminism at the University of Baltimore School of Law seeks paper proposals for the Twelfth Feminist Legal Theory Conference. We hope you will join us for this exciting conference on April 2 and 3, 2020. The theme is Privacy. As always, the conference focuses on the intersection of gender and race, class, gender identity, ability, and other personal identities. We are excited that Dr. Leana Wen, President and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, has agreed to serve as our Keynote.
We are at a critical time for a broad range of privacy issues. State level abortion bans have put a spotlight on the importance of decisional privacy to women’s equality. Across America, advocates are fighting for reproductive justice and strategizing to preserve long-settled rights. At the same time, our informational privacy is increasingly precarious. Data brokers, app designers, and social media platforms are gathering and selling personal data in highly gendered ways. As a result, women have been targeted with predatory marketing, intentionally excluded from job opportunities, and subject to menstrual tracking by marketers and employers. In online spaces, women have been objectified, cyber-stalked, and subject to revenge porn. With regard to physical privacy, the structural intersectionality of over-policing and mass incarceration impacts women of color and other women. And while a man’s home may be his castle, low-income women are expected to allow government agents into their homes – and to turn over reams of other personal information -- as a condition of receiving state support. In addition, families of all forms are navigating the space of constitutionally-protected family privacy in relation to legal parentage, marriage and cohabitation, and child welfare systems.
We seek submissions of papers that focus on the topic of Applied Feminism and Privacy. We will interrogate multiple aspects of privacy, including its physical, decisional, informational, and family dimensions. This conference aims to explore the following questions: Is privacy dead, as often claimed? If so, what does this mean for women? How can privacy reinforce or challenge existing inequalities? How has feminist legal theory wrestled with privacy and what lessons can we draw from past debates? What advocacy will best advance privacy protections that benefit women? How do emerging forms of surveillance impact women? Can intersectional perspectives on privacy lead to greater justice? Who defines the “right to privacy” and what do those understandings mean for women? How is privacy related to other values, such as autonomy, anti-subordination, vulnerability, justice, and equality?
We welcome proposals that consider these questions and any other related questions from a variety of substantive disciplines and perspectives. The Center’s conference will serve as a forum for scholars, practitioners, and activists to share ideas about applied feminism, focusing on connections between theory and practice to effectuate social change. The conference will be open to the public.
To submit a paper proposal, by Friday, November 1, 2019, please complete this form and include your 500 word abstract: https://forms.gle/k4EPNLaYmEvo4KHUA
We will notify presenters of selected papers by early December. About half the presenter slots will be reserved for authors who commit to publishing in the annual symposium volume of the University of Baltimore Law Review, our co-sponsor for this conference. Thus, the form requests that you indicate if you are interested in publishing in the University of Baltimore Law Review's symposium issue. Authors who are interested in publishing in the Law Review will be strongly considered for publication. The decision about publication rests solely with the Law Review editors, who will communicate separately with the authors. For all presenters, working drafts of papers will be due no later than March 20, 2020. Presenters are responsible for their own travel costs; the conference will provide a discounted hotel rate as well as meals.
We look forward to your submissions. If you have further questions, please contact Prof. Margaret Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional information about the conference, please visit law.ubalt.edu/caf.
Rivka Weill, Women’s and LGBTQ Social Movements and Constitutional Change -- On Geoffrey Stone’s Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century, Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies, Forthcoming
This essay reviews Geoffrey Stone’s “Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century.” Part I offers a synopsis of the treatise to make it accessible to the general public. Stone’s 600 pages book reviews the regulation of sex in the ancient cultures of the Greeks, Romans, and ancient Hebrews. It later discusses the evolution of the regulation of sex in Christianity and the English common law. Stone then focuses specifically on US regulation of obscenity, contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage to portray a story of progress with a warning that much of this progress depends on the composition of the Supreme Court. Part II reveals the contribution of Sex and the Constitution to the literature with respect to the ways social movements may bring about constitutional change outside the formal process defined in the Constitution for amendment. Part III offers some critical reflections on the book. In particular, it argues that Stone’s book implicitly asserts great similarities between women’s and LGBTQ movements’ struggles for the recognition that their rights demand constitutional protection. Yet, Stone should have acknowledged more forcefully the major differences between the two struggles. They differ substantially in their opening positions, their agendas for social change, the length of the struggles, the pace of change, and their successes. Some possible explanations are offered for the rather meteoric success of the LGBTQ members in transforming law and society within a short period in comparison to the rather slow pace of change for women. Moreover, while women’s successes assisted the gay rights revolution, some of the advancement in gay rights came at the expense of advancement of women.
Friday, June 14, 2019
We need more ideas like the one Senator Kamala Harris of California proposed last week to stop abortion laws from going into effect unless the federal government agrees they comply with Roe v. Wade.
This idea, known as preclearance, is widely considered the single most effective civil rights tool in American history, because it blocks bad policies before they can take root and spread harm across generations.
Ms. Harris’s proposal focuses on laws that harm women. But the concept ought to be extended to racial disadvantage. Every presidential candidate should offer similar proposals in areas like policing, housing, education and transportation. It’s the best way to stop discrimination.
Ms. Harris modeled her idea on a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which for decades allowed the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington to prevent harmful voting laws in places with chronic discrimination. Preclearance was created to combat the pernicious methods Southern states used to stop black people from voting after the 15th Amendment prohibited the states from doing so outright.
Thursday, June 13, 2019
When an abortion law makes headlines in 2019, it’s usually as a ban.
Aggressive abortion restrictions have passed in numerous states in recent months, with some banning the procedure at six weeks or even earlier.
But this week, Maine Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a bill that will actually expand abortion access in the state by allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants, not just doctors, to perform the procedure. As clinics in other states are at risk of closing, the Maine law will increase the number of clinics able to perform abortions.
Maine’s law is part of a bigger trend, as legislators and advocates in blue states back legislation to lift abortion restrictions. These laws are still outnumbered by anti-abortion bills, but they’re becoming more and more common — about a quarter of the provisions to expand abortion access since 2011 have passed in the past two weeks alone, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
The states include ME, NY, IL, VT, and NV.
Wednesday, June 12, 2019
Mary Ziegler, The End of the Rape and Incest Exception, NYT
All of a sudden, abortion opponents have abandoned rape and incest exceptions to abortion bans.
Louisiana became the latest state to do so last month, following Ohio, Mississippi and, most notoriously, Alabama. That same month, younger abortion foes in groups like Students for Life of America fired off a letter asking the Republican Party to stop supporting exceptions that before this year had long been standard components of anti-abortion legislation.
Why the sudden shift on rape and incest, and what does it mean? Fights about rape and incest exceptions expose deeply different ideas about the guilt and trustworthiness of women — and about how much popular opinion should dictate abortion politics.
These exceptions weren’t always viewed as standard. The American Law Institute, an expert body, created the rape and incest exceptions in 1959 when proposing a model abortion law. Anti-abortion scholars immediately denounced the idea. Even if women were victims of sexual assault, these commentators argued, these unborn children were innocent.
And, they argued, maybe the women were not really victims at all. A lawyer named Eugene Quay wrote an influential articledeclaring that as a scientific matter, it was nearly impossible for women to become pregnant as a result of rape — a myth whose influence is still being felt — to make the point that many women would simply lie about sexual assault to get an abortion when they had consented to sex all along.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) on Monday signed into law an expansive abortion rights bill that seeks to preserve a woman’s right to the procedure.
"Like many Vermonters, I have consistently supported a woman’s right to choose," Scott said in a statement about his decision to sign the measure.
"This legislation affirms what is already allowable in Vermont – protecting reproductive rights and ensuring those decisions remain between a woman and her health care provider," he added.
Under the measure, Vermont is required to recognize the “fundamental right of every individual to choose or refuse contraception or sterilization” as well as the “fundamental right of every individual who becomes pregnant to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion.”
The bill states that, upon its passage, Vermont’s government would not be able to "deny or interfere with an individual’s fundamental rights to choose or refuse contraception or sterilization or to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to obtain an abortion."