Choice and Sterilization as Two Sides of the Same Coin

abortion Politics Wade's World Women

             New Orleans       Few political issues continue to be as contested today as women’s right to choose with bitter divisions on all sides of the abortion issue.  Some believe the 2024 US election could turn on this issue, particularly if it motivates women and the young to the polls, as it has in various state races, wrongfooting many of its conservative and evangelical backers.

Talking to Felicia Kornbluh, a historian at the University of Vermont, on Wade’s World about her recent book that looked at the struggles, particularly in New York City and State around the issues of abortion and sterilization in the 1950s to early 1970s, it seems this has been a fight often waged and never settled.  Kornbluh’s book, A Woman’s Life is a Human Life:  My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice, pairs these issues in that period as the first state laws were being fought and won to various degrees.  She also comes at these issues interestingly, not only from her expertise in gender and women’s studies, but in the personally surprising and rewarding discovery of her own mother’s role in the struggle for abortion rights in New York, as a lawyer and feminist and their close neighbor, a Puerto Rican doctor Helen Rodriguez-Trias, who was critical in the health care reforms around women’s rights to oppose forced sterilization.

If it’s a bit mind-boggling to get your head wrapped around what seems like a contradiction, the history becomes clearer.  In the same way that the dominant and misogynistic culture wanted to prevent women from accessing abortions in that time, the same culture often made the quid pro quo forced or compelled sterilization to impose future morality and behavior, especially among lower income and non-white women.  Perhaps we have done better in restricting sterilizations, than we have in handling abortion, but we have to wonder.

Kornbluh’s book argues for the early and prominent role that New York played at the state level in passing one of the first laws around abortion.  Her mother was the key drafter of the bill.  More interestingly were the compromises then that continue to reverberate to this day.  Many advocates and women’s rights groups believed that the individual right for a woman to determine their health care should be absolute, just as it is for men.  No legislation was needed for that camp, just clarity about health standards and a woman’s role in determining her own course of treatment.  Others, on the reform side, believed that legislation was needed to reform the contemporary reality for women, which was dire and dangerous.  The legislative process that produced New York’s law forged the compromises that added time limits on abortion’s availability, which have become part of the current wrought political landscape.  Oregon and California passed earlier bills for emergency situations, but New York’s was the first more comprehensive law.

Refreshingly, Kornbluh credits the women’s movement and critical marches for pushing the issue forward.  She also unpacks the role of the Young Lords, which some may remember somewhat as a Puerto Rican version of the Black Panthers, and their sit-ins and campaigns around horrid care in New York’s public hospitals, as the trigger that launched the kinds of reforms that brought her neighbor to prominence and buttressed Dr. Rodriguez-Trias role in the fights to ban forced sterilization.

Everyone has a part to play in making change, and understanding how this happens is a gift.