OTI Online Spring 2009

Book Reviews by Christine E. Hutchins:
The Reproductive Rights Reader: Law, Medicine, and the Construction of Motherhood

In our Spring ’09 edition, On The Issues Magazine writers and artists discuss feminist and progressive values that transcend politics -- our Lines In The Sand.


Two Centuries of Laws About Women’s Bodies

The Reproductive Rights Reader: Law, Medicine, and the Construction of Motherhood, ed. Nancy Ehrenriech.

 

 

 

 

The editor, Nancy Ehrenreich, brings together into one readable volume essays that will interest women's rights activists and general readers, as well as teachers and students of women's studies and bioethics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I loved this collection of essays and documents on reproductive rights from the nineteenth- to the twenty-first-centuries in the United States.

The editor, Nancy Ehrenreich, brings together into one readable volume essays that will interest women's rights activists and general readers, as well as teachers and students of women's studies and bioethics. This collection is wide-ranging, informative and thought-provoking. Ehrenreich organizes the book into four parts, making it easy to read as a whole or by sections.

Medical Interventions Followed by A Push for Rights

The first part covers the history of medical technologies and scientific attitudes about reproductive rights. Writers show that prior to the nineteenth-century women and herbalists considered reproductive rights ordinary, even natural. Women, herbalists, and midwives privately used herbal and medical abortifacients.

Doctors described women’s bodies as tending toward hysteria.

Ehrenreich opens this section with Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English's classic discussion of sexual politics and the medicalization of women's bodies. Through much of the mid-nineteenth-century to the present-day, doctors have described women's bodies as unstable, tending toward hysteria and breakdown. Doctors have used this skewed model of women's bodies to justify widespread and continuous medical interventions into and regulations of women's bodies. The essay is as relevant now as it was in the nineteen-seventies when Ehrenreich and English first wrote it.

The second part of the collection documents legal decisions on reproductive rights. Ehrenreich includes discussions that begin long before Roe v. Wade. She also includes documents and discussions of landmark legal decisions on reproductive rights. In this section are many of the most important essays and documents on present-day challenges to reproductive rights in state and federal courts. Among the seven key cases are Harris v. McRae, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and the two U.S. Supreme Court cases in 1999 and 2007 on so-called “partial-birth abortion.”

Class and Race Differences Fracture “Rights”

Ehrenreich continues this discussion into reproductive rights issues specific to women in institutions such as prisons. Although women technically may have rights to terminate pregnancies or seek prenatal care, they often cannot exercise their rights. Prison authorities sometimes disapprove of abortion. Institutional requirements can extend the bureaucratic processes long past the first trimester so that termination becomes impractical or the costs, passed onto the prisoner, are prohibitively expensive.

In the third part, Ehrenreich expands writers' discussions of reproductive rights to include the ugly history in the United States of forced contraception and sterilization, as well as the denial and inaccessibility of pre- and post-natal childcare. Race and class differences fracture discussions of reproductive rights because, at the same time that some women struggle for their rights to be people not wholly defined by forced motherhood, others struggle for their rights to bear children, and healthy children at that.

Documents landmark legal decisions on reproductive rights.

In the fourth section, Ehrenreich collects essays and documents charting the under-documented and disturbing trend toward regulation of women's behavior before, during, and after childbearing. She includes discussions of court decisions regarding employment discrimination against women who become pregnant, such as Chambers v. Omaha Girls Club, in which a woman's pregnancy supposedly made her a "bad role model;" criminal cases brought against pregnant women for alleged drug use, including the Supreme Court case of Ferguson v. City of Charleston, and, differences in treatment between women of color and women in low income brackets.

Ehrenreich's introduction does not do justice to the volume. It is overly-theorized, and I think simply wrong. Ehrenreich opposes what she calls "liberal individualist" and "critical constructivist" feminist ideals. When activists in the 1970s said "the personal is political," they meant that a purely individualist approach to discrimination would never work. I can not think of a time when I heard a person argue in favor of reproductive rights on grounds that it is purely individual, a matter of one person's private will. We need public social, economic, and political structures in place if we are to ensure reproductive rights.

Visit Christine E. Hutchins review of Ending Slavery: How We Free Today's Slaves by Kevin Bales, also in this issue of On The Issues


The Reproductive Rights Reader: Law, Medicine, and the Construction of Motherhood by Nancy Ehreinreich, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2008.)

Christine E. Hutchins, Book Review Editor, is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English, Marymount Manhattan College in New York City.

Also See Activists Boost Female Health Empowerment by Eleanor J. Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Mobilizing for Reproductive Justice by Loretta J. Ross in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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