A summary of articles concerned with population control and reproductive rights
It should be noted that this book is an American one, and hence the focus and examples used are American. This summary follows the book in this regard, in that it too focuses on the United States. However, a more in-depth analysis on fertility control would have to examine the position of women within different societies across the globe. This summary examines three articles from the above-mentioned book, and these take very different approaches to reproduction rights and population control. The first one looks t the historical battle and political ideas that surrounded the build-up to the Roe v. Wade (1973) Supreme Court decision.
The second article examines population control from a different perspective, in that it considers forced sterilizations, which occurred during the twentieth century. These sterilizations were many used for minority women or poor women. The final article considered looks at the ownership of reproductive technology, and also the difference between the way that women view this technology and the way in which the researchers view the technology. Susan Davies “Contested Terrain: The Historical Struggle for Fertility Control”
Davies offers a brief history of fertility control. She asserts that reproduction has also been an ideological battleground, where men and the state have battled for the control over women. Various reproductive controls have been used in different societies dating as far back as 1850B. C. E. Infanticide has also been used to control population growth. Davies cities an Ancient Roman law, which entitled the father to, decided whether or not to keep a child. This is a good example of men’s right of control over population, and also demonstrates that this has sometimes been the case throughout history.
Davies then turns her attention to the United States, and recent history of the right for fertility control. By the 1870s, there were diverse forces contributing to the drive to outlaw abortion. These included the growing ranks of licensed physicians, which “sought to monopolize women’s health care by eliminating women’s access to birth control and abortion and by outlawing, midwives” (p107). At the beginning of the twentieth century, the suffragist movement, which had a leadership of white, middle-class women, who were concerned with broader social issues including fertility control.
They articulated the idea that reproductive self-control was critical to equality between the sexes and to improve women’s position within society. However this movement was stopped though the “aggressive prosecution of family limitation activities” (p107). In the 1920’s there was movement to impose fertility control on U. S. women (particularly those that were poor and black, a point discussed more fully later) for whom it was thought to be “socially inappropriate” for them to reproduce. Fertility control was not abortion, but rather sterilization or the testing of contraceptive technologies.
During the 1960’s society in the United States changed quite significantly, in that living standards rose, and white women started entering the labour market in larger numbers. The development and widespread access of the pill had allowed young women to become more sexually active. Contraceptive rights and abortion became a political issue, and women rallied to expose the reality of women’s abortion experiences – abortion rarely involved anesthetic or sanitary conditions. Estimates range from 200,000 to over one million abortions being conducted annually.
By 1970 Colorado, Hawaii and New York had reformed abortion laws. Finally in 1973, the U. S. Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that the right to choose abortion belonged to the woman and her doctor, during the first three months of pregnancy. Angela Davies “Reproductive Rights” Davies introduces a different perspective on the drive for abortion rights during the 1960s and early 1970s in the United States. The media highlighted the plight of two Black girls in Montgomery, Alabama. These girls aged 12 and 14 had been sterilized.
Their mother had “consented” to the operation, having been deceived by social workers, they had asked her to put her ‘X’ on the document, which they had not explained to her. She subsequently learned that she had authorized the surgical sterilization of her daughters. In the aftermath of the public knowledge of this case, it was revealed that there were similar cases. More outrageous stories came to light, like the case of Nial Cox who filed suit against North Caroline, claiming that when she was 18, officials had threatened to discontinue her family’s welfare payments unless she underwent surgical sterilization.
They also assured her that such sterilization was temporary. It was learned that nearly 8,000 sterilizations had been carried out in North Carolina since 1933, and that since 1964, aprroximatly 65 percent of the women sterilized here were Black (p111). On a national level it was claimed that 16,000 women and 8,000 men were sterilized in 1972 under the auspices of federal programs. However these figures were revised, when Carl Scultz the director of Population Affairs Office, estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 sterilizations had been funded that year.
The domestic population policy of the United States has a racist slant. Minority women were sterilized in disproportionate numbers. However, their plight was not embraced by the general feminist movement, which reiterates that the feminist movement was primarily concerned with white middle class women. While women of colour within the U. S. were being “urged to become permanently infertile, white women enjoying prosperous economic conditions are urged, by the same forces, to reproduce themselves” (p113). Soheir Morsy “Biotechnology and the Taming of Women’s Bodies”
Morsy asserts that while discourse on “population” has been cleansed of overtly racist language, it “betrays a concerted effort to impose control over women’s bodies at home and abroad” (p114). Morsy focuses the article on the surgically implantable device marketed under the commercial name of “Norplant”. Norplant technology originated from William Shockley, who was an advocate of scientific racism. Shockley’s vision of controlling the population of allegedly low-IQ blacks and working class whites, who tended to have large families. Norplant has been approved for use in a number of countries including the United States.
Norplant is a five-year fertility control measure, but the antifertility vaccines are still in the phase of clinical trials (at the time of publication, and this articles was first published in 1997). Morsy presents several concerns that women have with regards to this technology, and contrasts that to the view of the researchers. Firstly women observe “no control over this new technology, while researchers flaunt it as long acting” (p115. ) Secondly, women express the concern that this cannot be stopped upon a woman’s request. Women see no advantage over existing contraceptive methods, while researchers emphasize “no user failure” (p116).
Morsy concludes by stating that feminist assessment of the new forms of biotechnology has contributed towards deconstructing the notions of “progress” and “development”. Both these notions commonly accompany the promotion of this type of technology (p116). There is an observation that Western medicine companies are more interested in controlling populations and making money rather than ensuring users’ safety or creating women-centered options. “Millions of women’s lives have been adversely affected by following advice or order to use such “miracle” technologies, oral contraceptives, Depo-Provera, or hormonal implants” (p116).
The three articles present very different arguments concerning the drive for and legislation surrounding reproductive control. It is useful to once again reiterate that women do not form one homogenous group and this is clearly reflected in these writings especially the second article. Women’s demand for access to reproductive control has seemed to be articulate through the voices of white middle class women from “developed” societies, but little has been done to investigate whether this is what all women want.
It is understandable that minority women within the United States could be suspicious of utilizing abortion clinics, especially when reading the history of forced sterilizations. However, the sterilizations were also a class issue, and not purely a racial one, in that it was poor women that were also targeted. This then means that poor black women faced a “double-whammy” in that they were targeted for sterilization on both counts – for their race and for their class.
However, the fight for women to take control of reproductive rights must be viewed in the global context, because their fight is larger than simply the one that has been and is being fought in the United States. Several pro-feminist American Internet sites (for example www. feminist. org) expressed concern when George W Bush became President because of his Conservative leanings. There was question on Internet sites such as this, about the “safety” of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, in that there was a fear that there might be an attempt to overturn it.
The final article highlights that medicines and contraceptives are all produced and marketed in a global economy, and that the drive for profit has at times be at the expense of women’s health. This again links into that the fight for reproductive rights and population control extends beyond the United States. Increasingly, although the differences between women’s position across the globe must be recognized, women’s movements including that of the fight for reproductive rights and access to population control, must be examined in the global context.
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