Back Alley Abortions Essay

Back alley abortion argument essay, creative writing homework activities, creative writing goals and objectives

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CHAPTER ONE

Abortion Wars
A Half Century of Struggle, 1950-2000


By RICKIE SOLINGER
University of California Press

Read the Review

PREGNANCY AND POWER
BEFORE ROE V. WADE, 1950-1970

In the late 1980s, when the legal right to abortion seemed desperately threatened, I decided to find out as much as I could about the experiences of single mothers and unwillingly pregnant girls and women in the decades immediately preceding Roe v. Wade. I imagined that in uncovering these experiences, I would find patterns reflecting literally millions of instances of danger, coercion, humiliation, and basic degradation of females in the United States. And indeed I did. I believed then that writing about these patterns--laying out the proof of degradation--would help dissipate legislative and judicial efforts to reenslave girls and women to their fertility.

Today, with the threat to reproductive freedom still a virulent strain in our political culture, I am painfully aware of the romanticism of my original intention, based as it was on the simple conviction that history is transformative. Having had such high hopes for the evidence I found in archives and trial transcripts, I neglected to consider how difficult it is to communicate history, perhaps especially this recent, decidedly unglamorous history of the politics of female fertility.

But even now that my perspective on the power of history is more clear-sighted, in the sense that I know more about how hard it is to bring history into the political and policy arenas, I remain just as certain that knowledge of the history of reproductive politics in the United States is crucial, for a number of reasons. One of the most important reasons is that history does teach that most transformative lesson: progressive social change is possible and occurs most surely and swiftly in eras of progressive activism. And, when we know the history of reproductive politics, we can better understand the roots of current conflicts in this arena. Then we who believe in women's reproductive rights can use this understanding to define our goals and shape our strategies.

In this essay I consider how reproductive politics in the immediate pre-Roe v. Wade decades illuminates the roots--and helps explain the persistence of--some of the more hideous impulses that bedevil reproductive politics today. Specifically, I look at why abortion practitioners were targeted and demonized in the postwar decades, an era when, of course, most of them operated outside of the law. Then I consider one of the many ways that women were coerced in the 1950s and 1960s to cede control over their bodies to "experts," in this case to doctors sitting on hospital abortion boards. And finally, I review how reproductive politics after World War II divided women against each other by race.

In addition to exposing the roots of contemporary conflicts, these historical aspects of the politics of female fertility, taken together, reveal the variety and complexity of the forces arrayed against women--including municipal, medical, and federal politics and policies. The material also points to the depth and force of women's determination to control their own fertility, even in the face of so many obstacles. It is important to note that this history most decidedly does not validate the central claim of Randall Terry and other leaders of the opposition to reproductive rights: that, before legalization, women did not seek and did not obtain abortions. The truth is that even when blocked by laws, institutions, and authorities, up to one million women a year sought and obtained abortions in the illegal era--though not without a struggle.

Women and the state have been engaged in a series of overlapping and ongoing struggles to determine who will control women's bodies and their fertility. In this regard three great struggles waged individually and collectively by women in the twentieth century have been for legalization of contraception, for legalization of abortion, and--most intractably--for nonracist and non-class-based policies supporting access to reproductive self-determination. The history of these struggles reveals that women's bodies and their fertility have repeatedly provided rich opportunities for U.S. politicians and policy makers determined to preserve both male and white supremacy.

The contemporary history of reproductive politics in the United States begins immediately after World War II, after a period when women had joined the paid workforce in unprecedented numbers, and at a point when the issue of race was emerging as a central concern of the polity and its citizens. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, cultural arbiters and authorities--psychiatrists, lawyers and judges, educators and employers, journalists and politicians, advertisers, the clergy, fashion designers, social service providers, and others--used the media as never before to address what had become a set of burning questions: Who is the American woman? What is a woman? Who is a mother? Most prominently published responses to these questions claimed not just that motherhood was a defining attribute of womanhood, but that for motherhood to be an authentic expression of femininity (a postwar synonym for womanhood), it must occur within marriage. A woman, they claimed, must passively receive and submit to the "gifts" of marriage, especially pregnancy. Sensationalized public censure of females who got pregnant without being married or were otherwise unwillingly pregnant, combined with greatly increased prosecutions of illegal abortion practitioners, gave bite to prevailing definitions of womanhood and warned all women about the wages of transgression. It was in this context that various power centers mobilized to clamp down on women seeking to control their fertility and on those willing to help them do so.

Today, abortion practitioners in the United States are targeted and reviled by the radical right and isolated by their communities. Many wear bulletproof vests in public, and almost all have unlisted home telephone numbers. The need for such precautions is relatively recent. During the illegal era (from the mid-nineteenth century until 1973), abortion practitioners operated with varying degrees of secrecy, but they did not fear for their lives. In fact, a number of abortionists in the illegal era provided their services for years--twenty, thirty, forty years, and more--completely unimpeded by the law. In many communities, the local abortion practitioner's name and address were well known, not only to women who might require the service but also to police and politicians, who generally regarded the presence of a good abortionist as a public health asset. For decades after the American Medical Association worked with state legislatures in the nineteenth century to outlaw abortion, abortion prosecutions were rare relative to the number of abortions performed. In most communities an unwritten agreement prevailed between law enforcement and practitioners: no death, no prosecution.

But after World War II the old agreement was rather suddenly canceled, and practitioners--chiefly the female ones (presumed by law enforcement to be unskilled, untrained, and unprotected in comparison to their male counterparts, and therefore more likely to be convicted)--were arrested, convicted, and sent to jail in unprecedented numbers, even when there was no evidence of a botched abortion. Many of these practitioners were highly skilled and experienced, having performed twenty some abortions a day, year after year.

If we look at when and how these arrests were carried out and at how abortion trials were conducted, we can get a sense of what was at issue and begin to understand the agendas of the district attorneys judges, and politicians who managed the postwar crackdowns. In many cities what stands out is that everything about these prosecutions--the sensationalized media coverage of police raids, arrests, and trials--transformed abortion from an everyday, if semi-secret, occurrence into a crime. Often scandal-tainted mayors and police forces were looking for opportunities to demonstrate that municipal governance and law enforcement were not ineffectual or corrupt, as charged. Many police chiefs, in concert with a district attorney's office, an eager crime-busting reporter, or a clutch of city fathers concerned with civil probity, scouted for fodder for municipal exposes. Theirs was a peculiarly postwar-cold war project: to root out the "hidden" enemy within and "cleanse" the city in the process. In Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Trenton, Portland, Oregon, and other cities, even though there was no expressed anti-abortion agenda (nobody raised the specter or even the subject of unborn babies), women abortionists and their clients became attractive targets. These women represented a political opportunity because they were vulnerable, with almost no recourse to credible defense. Moreover, given the associations of sex and secrecy, the arrests were exciting; the lurid headlines sold newspapers and made law enforcement appear well deployed.

What one finds in the abortion courtroom is that in the postwar decades such trials became first-rate occasions for men--doctors, lawyers, judges, police, jury members--to gather in a public place and affirm their right to govern women's bodies, to define women's rights, and to enforce women's vulnerability. In addition, these trials were titillating dramas that pitted one woman against another--the alleged abortionist (cast most often as a perverse and mercenary harridan) against her putative client (the slut). The whole event was drenched in sex. Wherever it occurred, the trial emerged day by day as a species of pornography, a cryptoporn show in which, in the name of the law and public morality, men invoked women's naked bodies, their sexuality, and their vulnerability in a style that was both contemptuous and erotic.

In the largest sense, the abortion trials became arenas to address the culturally crucial question: Who is not a "real" woman? By defining female abortionists and their clients as perverse and unwomanly, the qualities of real womanhood were reaffirmed. The lawyers, doctors, and judges in command of these trials met no resistance as they defined the female transgressors before them. The political context made it easy to interpret an act of "exposing deviance" as an act of concern for the safety of the community. The social context sanctioned efforts to reinforce rigid gender roles in the aftermath of the war. To promote their defensive ends, the men who ran the show almost always adopted an offensive mode: cryptoporn, titillating the crowd while at the same time provoking shame and repugnance.

The men in charge at the courthouse shared a dreadful sense that the gender roles and relations they had depended on were threatening to give way. That they conducted the proceedings so brutally indicates how strongly they felt this. Women were on trial; the script called for them to be degraded, humiliated, divided against each other, and exposed. The most private facts of their lives were publicly revealed and reviled: their bodies (even their wombs), their sexuality, the intimate sources of their personal dignity. At the same time, the script allowed for men--doctors, lawyers, judges, journalists, and myriad expert witnesses--to stand up, one by one, and reaffirm their prerogatives over women's bodies and lives.

These scenarios were enacted against a backdrop of demands for the domestication of women after the Depression and war years, during which women had shouldered economic and social responsibilities outside their homes. Cultural arbiters of every sort ordered women to go back home, to be proper wives and mothers, to be content. The incidence of abortion after the war provided distressing evidence that many women were resisting some parts--or all--of this prescription. The trials provided the opportunity to humiliate resisters, to reiterate the injunction, and to underscore an important source of cultural as well as legal authority.

The politicians and the law enforcement officers who canceled the old arrangement that had tolerated abortion as long as nobody got hurt, together with the courthouse men in charge of naming women's guilt and setting their punishment, were fighting the prospect of a community in which women could decide when and whether to associate sex and marriage, sex and maternity, marriage and maternity. In the 1950s these men had the institutional power to mount their opposition by targeting individual women. And their leverage extended even farther: the newspaper headlines and the courtroom dramas carried powerful cultural messages to the general citizenry.

These spectacles announced the danger and the just desserts for any woman associated with abortion. They also announced that the law was predicated on a willingness to place women in danger and on a contempt for women's self-determination. Anyone could see that enforcing anti-abortion laws involved the degradation of women. Every woman, whether she ever had or ever would climb up on the abortionist's table, was endangered by the statutes that criminalized abortion.

The prosecutions (and our memories of them) also carried the message that abortion practitioners were vulnerable vermin--an attitude that lives on in the anti-abortionists' hit list, as well as in the pro-choice claim that the chief function of Roe v. Wade has been to protect women from the back-alley butchers of the past, despite the historical reality that most illegal abortions were performed by highly skilled and experienced practitioners, who compiled an astonishing record of successful procedures under extremely difficult conditions. In actuality, the power of Roe v Wade has been, since 1973, to diminish the danger and the degradation of women mandated by the anti-abortion statutes of the criminal era.

At the same time that police and politicians were busy burnishing their reputations by cracking down on illegal abortionists, medical doctors were experimenting with opportunistic and oppressive supervisory structures of their own. In the late 1940s doctors designed these structures--hospital abortion boards--to govern the meaning and the course of the pregnancies of millions of women. The boards ensured that experts, not women themselves, had final control over the abortion decision.

In the postwar era, after several generations of performing abortions themselves, looking the other way, or facilitating, through referrals, illegal abortions, a great many doctors adopted an aggressive position against abortion. Before the war many women had found cooperative doctors, as evidenced by the vast number of approved medical indications for "therapeutic abortion" (a list that kept expanding through the 1930s). Even a woman who did not have a medical problem had little trouble finding one of the hundreds of illegal practitioners who practiced undisturbed, in the shadows of cities and towns across the country. One way or another, thousands and thousands of women each year who wanted to end their pregnancies found a way. But after the war things changed. Many doctors said abortion was no longer necessary.

For one thing, the list of illnesses that doctors had defined as incompatible with pregnancy began to shrink year by year with the advent of new therapies and technologies. By the early 1950s, influential physicians were standing up to make the claim that almost no medical contraindications to pregnancy remained. Even a woman with breast cancer or cardiovascular disease, who could have gotten a routine hospital abortion in the 1930s, was now told not to worry about having a baby.

The doctors' turnabout, however, did not stop the many women who had grown accustomed to a certain degree of abortion availability from coming to their offices, begging for abortions or referrals to abortionists. It was an awkward situation all around. Most doctors were simply not willing to break the law, no matter what their private thoughts might be about abortion. But they still had to find a way to deal with the women in their offices seeking help.

Doctors dealt with these women by explaining to them and to each other that pregnancy no longer represented an added burden or an increased strain on a woman, even on a woman with a preexisting illness. In many cases, of course, this rationale had the effect of diminishing the relevance of a pregnant woman's condition and her own assessment of it. Doctors implied now that pregnancy was an event that transcended a woman's body and had, in an odd way, ceased to be a medical issue.

In these postwar years, pregnancy became fundamentally a moral issue. As new imaging technology allowed doctors to construct the fetus as a "little person," they tended to describe pregnancy first as a process of fulfillment and realization for the fetus, and to refer to the pregnant woman's body in terms that suggested a safe reproductive container. Now the pregnant woman, along with her physician, had the moral duty to keep the container fit. As one obstetrician put it: "Woman is a uterus surrounded by a supporting mechanism and a directing personality." Completely effaced, the woman-as-uterus simply housed the child.

As doctors adopted and promoted these ideas, the number and the rate of therapeutic abortions performed in U.S. hospitals plummeted. But women did not necessarily accede to the new medical definition of pregnancy. They did not stop seeking abortions. Underground abortionists knew that. And so did hospital-affiliated obstetricians and gynecologists, whose dilemma was graver than ever. In some ways the situation was paradoxical. On the one hand, many people believed that doctors were scientific and humanitarian heroes for subduing the dangers of pregnancy and for developing methods to conquer diseases that threatened pregnancy and the pregnant female. On the other hand, state laws still required that a pregnant woman's life had to be endangered for her to get an abortion. Medical advances had seemingly wiped out any legal grounds for demanding abortion--but they had not changed women's determination to get abortions, the law and their doctors' proscriptions notwithstanding.

There is no question that doctors were feeling the squeeze from all sides and from within their own ranks as well. Any two doctors might disagree about which woman should be given permission for an abortion, under which conditions. Nevertheless, doctors still had a legal responsibility to make the decision. And they were still interested in holding on to their medical authority to do so. The result was that many physicians struggled to find new grounds for making medical decisions about abortions. To a significant extent, psychiatrists helped out in the crisis, providing myriad esoteric ways of selecting who should and who should not be permitted an abortion. It must be added that most of these ways were based on providing a clinical answer to the question, "Is this woman psychologically fit to be a mother?" Answers in the negative--those that gave women permission to abort--defined the petitioner as unfit, unwomanly, to some degree depraved. The means and the ends here were both degrading to women seeking to control their fertility.

Beyond this help from psychiatrists, though, physicians felt a need to create institutional structures to strengthen their position as abortion decision makers. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, they began to assemble hospital-based abortion committees. From these official groups, professional, expert diagnoses and decisions regarding individual women could be issued in one voice. The abortion committees gave doctors legal protection and ensured that the "right" ratio of births to abortions was maintained in the hospital. The ratio varied from hospital to hospital, but doctors everywhere believed that a high ratio of births to abortions would protect the reputation of their hospital.

By associating abortion decisions with the scientific objectivity of the group of doctors, and with the probity of the profession, all committee members could disassociate themselves personally from widespread concerns that an unreasonable number of abortions--legal and illegal--were being performed. Through the committee, doctors could diminish their individual vulnerability and perhaps their crises of conscience. And they could promote the aura of medical solidarity and legal compliance For all these reasons, many doctors were satisfied that hospital abortion committees were a good solution.

As might be expected, women seeking abortions were not so thrilled with them. Imagine the physically exhausted pregnant woman, already the mother of three little ones and determined to have no more children, being told by her doctor that abortion was unnecessary and immoral. Imagine that the woman was determined enough to persist and to make an application to the abortion committee (a humiliating and coercive innovation, from her point of view, which no one had even heard of the previous year). What if she were turned down?

Today we can look back at how the committees functioned and understand the pain and humiliation with which women remember these ordeals. At the time Dr. Alan Guttmacher, a great champion of these committees, described how his committee worked at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York:

The director of the obstetrical and gynecological service is chairman of the permanent abortion committee. The other members are the chief, or a senior attending, from the departments of medicine, surgery, neuropsychiatry, and pediatrics. The board has a scheduled weekly meeting-hour, and convenes routinely whenever a case is pending. No case is considered unless the staff ob-gyn desiring to carry out the procedure presents affirmative letters from two consultants in the medical field involved. Five copies of each letter must be filed at least forty-eight hours in advance of the meeting. The ob-gyn whose case it is, and one of the two consultants who made the recommendation must make themselves available at the meeting for further information when desired. In addition, if the chairman feels that an expert from some other department would be helpful in arriving at a proper decision, this specialist is requested to attend as a non-voting member. The case is then carefully discussed and if any member of the five on the committee opposes therapeutic interruption, the procedure is disallowed.

The fact is, many women whose unwanted pregnancies were vetted by abortion boards in the 1950s and 1960s say that these experiences were among the most awful of their lives. Many could not bring themselves to submit to such a process and went off on their own, in search of an abortionist. Other women did apply to the board, were denied an abortion, but emerged with their determination undiminished. These women, too, often went into the so-called back alley.

It is a shocking fact that many women who were "successful" with the committee found out, to their horror, that they could have the abortion only if they agreed to be sterilized at the same time. One doctor explained, "A serious effort is made to control the need for dealing with the same problem in the same patient twice." A doctor who objected to this practice chose a pointed analogy to explain why: "For some while now, I have called attention to this irrational policy of insisting that a patient be sterilized at the time of the therapeutic abortion as a guarantee that the patient will not return again pregnant seeking another therapeutic abortion. Such an argument possesses hardly less logic to recommend it than one which advocates amputation of the penis along with routine leutic therapy because, unless this is done, the patient may return with another chancre sore." Another doctor, equally angry at his colleagues for their hostility to women seeking abortions, declared, "The fairly common practice of insisting on sterilization if an abortion is permitted may have arisen from dealing with epileptics or feebleminded women. It carries on as a punishment or a threat--as if the physician is saying: 'All right, if you do not want this baby, you are not capable of having any.'"

Studies conducted in the early 1950s showed that, indeed, sterilization had become a fairly common practice. Over 53 percent of teaching hospitals made simultaneous sterilization a condition of approval for abortion, and in all U.S. hospitals, the rate was 40 percent. One doctor, unhappy that unwillingly pregnant women were being forced to accept sterilization, observed that the practice was driving women to illegal abortionists because dealing with law-abiding physicians was likely to entail the permanent loss of their fertility. He added, "I would like to point out because the package [therapeutic abortion/sterilization] is so frequent, I therefore consider them fortunate to have been illegally rather than therapeutically aborted and thus spared sterilization."

This doctor had a good point, although it was a point rarely made at the time. Many of his colleagues knew it was true but proceeded, week after week, to gather in their abortion tribunals and warn each other that, as one put it, "The physician must have a high index of suspicion for the patient who tries to pull a fast one." Another doctor spoke for many committee members when he raised the specter of the "clever, scheming women, simply trying to hoodwink the psychiatrist and obstetrician" when they appealed for permission to abort.

Despite what they could plainly see in their own offices and at the weekly committee meetings about the determination of ordinary women to make their own decisions, doctors bolstered their personal righteousness about intervention by referring to the hefty and growing body of literature affirming that women's role on earth was to have children and that a woman's healthy sex life was predicated on her desire to have children. Leading postwar experts in the psychology of women argued that women who insisted on separating sex and procreation, for example, by deciding to abort, were consigned to the hell of "sexual limbo." A Portland, Oregon, doctor expressed his pleasure when an illegal abortionist in town was arrested by explaining that he believed in stamping out abortion because the operation caused guilt complexes, frigidity, and divorce. Stamp out abortion, he said, and these neurotic symptoms would disappear naturally. Many doctors told each other about women like "Laura," whose case exemplified the problem. After her abortion, Laura "lost her sexual desire and moved to a separate bedroom. So seriously was her marriage affected that Laura was sent to a psychiatrist for treatment. She was on the brink of divorce. And all this was caused by interrupting the most vital biologically sacred function of womanhood--conception." In line with this 1950s orthodoxy, the committee doctors forced a woman who did not want to carry any given pregnancy to term to declare herself insane. That was what the structure demanded.

Doctors also justified their committee work by referring to the force of women's will to have children. They basically accepted the adage that nobody gets pregnant who doesn't want to be. In this way, any and every pregnancy became a choice. It may well have been an unconscious choice (a favorite Freudian explanation in the 1950s), but it was a choice nonetheless, despite what the woman herself might think she wanted. (A doctor said at the time, "If we have learned anything in psychiatry, we have learned to respect the unconscious far more than the conscious and we have learned not to take abortion requests at face value.") In a cruel twist on the meaning of choice today, a woman who said she wanted an abortion could be understood to be proposing to violate her own choice to be pregnant.

As they made their way through this nightmarish maze of new psychological and cultural ideas about pregnancy and abortion, many pregnant women declined the opportunity to become supplicants before the abortion panels. They did not accept the new definition of pregnancy that granted primacy to the fetus, nor did they give up the idea that a particular pregnancy could be dangerous to them, or damaging So while abortion boards were sitting in hospitals around the country, hundreds of thousands of pregnant women each year did the only thing they could. They sought out abortionists elsewhere.

The physicians who developed hospital abortion committees were not, it should be noted, primarily concerned with the issue of when life begins. They were, however, very concerned with what they took to be their cultural mandate in postwar America to protect and preserve the links between sexuality, femininity, marriage, and maternity. They were also deeply concerned about their professional dignity and about devising strategies to protect and preserve the power, the prerogatives, and the legal standing of the medical profession.

An important strategy of many doctors in this era was to draw on the vulnerability of pregnant women to construct a definition of pregnancy that effaced the personhood of the individual pregnant woman. This definition created a safe place for the fetus and also for the doctor forced by law to adjudicate the extremely personal decisions of women, many of whom were resisting effacement. The subordination of the pregnant woman to the fetus revitalized medical participation in the abortion decision because the doctor was now required to make sure that the woman stayed moral, that is, served her fetus correctly. These postwar ideas are powerful demonstrations of the prevailing relationship then between scientific advances and ideological positions on women, pregnancy, and fetuses.

While mayors and police chiefs and obstetricians and psychiatrists were using the abortion issue to resolve issues of municipal and medical politics in cities and towns across the country, the role of reproductive politics on the national political scene in the postwar years is in many ways even more terrifying. What we can learn from examining the point at which female fertility emerged as a national political preoccupation is that, from the start, reproductive politics provided legislators and the judiciary with rich opportunities to support agendas hostile to female autonomy and racial equality.

The postwar experiences of white and black females who were unmarried and pregnant make it clear, first of all, that when lawmakers take the right to regulate and control female fertility--to answer the question "Who is a mother?"--all women are degraded. And beyond that, when lawmakers take this right, they simultaneously and quite "naturally" take the additional right to treat different groups of women differently, in this case depending on the race of the woman and her "illegitimate" child.

I have written extensively in Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade about the different treatments and experiences of white and black unwed mothers in this country at midcentury. Briefly, after World War II tens of thousands of white girls and women who became pregnant outside of marriage each year were unable to determine either the course of their pregnancies or the conditions of their maternity They were, in astonishing numbers, deeply shamed by their families, removed from school, diagnosed as psychologically disturbed, and defined as not-mothers without husbands. They were pressed, even coerced, into giving up their "valuable" white babies for adoption to infertile, white, married couples prescreened and judged by social workers to be eager and proper parents.

In contrast, black girls and women who were unmarried and pregnant kept their "illegitimate" children, often with the help of their families and community-based institutions. But politicians in every region of the country began to blame unwed black mothers for producing "excessive" numbers of "unwanted" black babies. Politicians and journalists said these babies created burdens for white taxpayers. Worse, many politicians, policy makers, and ordinary citizens began claiming at midcentury that the wombs of poor black women, excessively and wantonly fertile, were the source of all problems in the black community (including poverty, juvenile delinquency, and urban disorders) and, by extension, in America as a whole.

Consequently, beginning in the late 1940s and continuing with increasing determination throughout the postwar decades, politicians threatened unwed mothers of color with incarceration, sterilization, and removal from welfare rolls. Social scientists and social commentators of diverse political persuasions began--at a time when the whole country was a battleground in the war of integrationists versus segregationists--to use the out-of-wedlock pregnancies of some women of color to bolster policies of white supremacy. Many used these "illegitimate" pregnancies to justify stands against school integration and for restrictive public housing policies. Numerous politicians associated welfare with oversexed black women who had too many children, thus giving focus to white opposition to government aid to poor mothers and their children, especially African Americans.

This review of some of the ways that players on the terrains of municipal, medical, and national politics opportunistically targeted, constrained, and degraded millions of American women on the basis of their gender and reproductive capacity in our recent past illuminates how deeply vulnerable fertile women may be in an era lacking a collective, vibrant, feminist political culture. To the degree that such a political culture is weakened or unrealized in the contemporary United States, many politicians and others are seizing the same opportunities today as they did in the 1950s.

We can find additional roots (and lessons) in this history. To begin with, it seems to me that the poisonous attacks and deathly threats against abortion providers today depend heavily on a continuing cultural hostility to women who take the right to separate sex and maternity. The attacks also depend, just as heavily, on a misreading of the past, a misreading that says that cravenly greedy back-alley butchers were the chief source of danger to helpless women in the criminal era. Given the salacious and sensational prosecutions of illegal abortionists in the postwar decades, it is easy to understand why so many people on all sides of the abortion issue find it reasonable to marginalize or target practitioners. They forget that it was the law, not illegal abortionists, that created, even mandated, danger for all women before Roe v. Wade.

When we also consider the history and the projects of hospital abortion boards in the 1950s, we can clearly recognize the dangers fertile women faced when male authorities (who often ignored these women's perspective) had the right to control pregnancy-related decisions. The history of hospital abortion boards strikes a particularly chilling note at the end of the twentieth century when, for the first time since legalization, congressional Republicans, free from substantial opposition by the medical establishment, are determined to legislate medical matters and to start outlawing abortions by type, thus once again forcing women (any woman, all women) into roles of supplication and obedience.

Perhaps most resonant today is the history of the ways that politicians have used race-based reproductive politics to shore up and advance a politics of male supremacy and white supremacy. It is sad, frustrating, and frightening that these politics are still dividing women against each other.

The lessons of midcentury reproductive politics are not, however, all cautionary and grim. For example, it is instructive to know that in the late 1950s, among broadly middle-class white girls and women who got pregnant while unmarried, over 95 percent gave their babies up for adoption. Today the rate for all such girls and women is a percent. This is a startling change and suggests that with Roe v. Wade, women won more than the right to decide whether to stay pregnant. They also won the overlapping but distinct right to decide whether to become a mother. With the dramatic decline of coerced adoptions and the advent of legal abortion, many women in the United States have rights and choices that were virtually unimaginable in the recent past and certainly unobtainable. Social change is possible and, in the case of reproductive politics, was realized largely during the resurgence of the feminist movement from 1965 to 1980.

At the end of the twentieth century, racism, misogyny, and prejudice against poor people are factors that deeply stain our national culture and consequently stain the politics of female fertility. Against this culture, women have been and are determined, whenever and however they can, to control their own bodies and their lives, and to answer for themselves the questions: What is a woman? And who is a mother? In the future American women will continue to exercise the same determination. The task before us is to revitalize a vast feminist movement so that women's determination can be exercised in a climate that honors the relationship between reproductive autonomy and citizenship rights for each and every female.

(C 1998 Regents of the University of California All Rights Reserved ISBN: 0-520-20256-2

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