History of Women’s Reproductive Rights Movement

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During the 1960s and 1970s, American Civil Rights movements were at the direct center of American domestic policy. African American Civil Rights Activists were challenging racist Jim Crow Laws and winning, the Gay Rights Movement rioted at Stonewall, and the Women’s Rights movement was experiencing huge legislative wins. Women’s rights has a long and torrid 1 history, even in the “land of the free”. They have gone from being only the wife of a man with little to know rights, to almost completely equal citizens with voting rights, property ownership, and many more privileges. While there are a multitude of historic moments in this movement, this paper will focus on the the Women’s Rights movement in the 1970’s, and more specifically, a Woman’s right to choose or reproductive rights. I will discuss legislative achievements and organizations that made that happen as well as the modern and historical impacts of this movement.

If we are going to really understand the importance of a woman’s reproductive rights, we have to understand the history of the movement. Women’s Rights activists are often referred to as Feminists, which is what will refer to them as in this paper. A Feminist is someone who believes in Feminism, which is defined as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” or in the case of this paper “organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.” Feminism in the United States can be separated into four different waves. The first wave is the Women’s Suffrage movement that came to a head with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920. The second wave, which will be discussed in this paper was intermixed with other civil rights movements but its main focus was reproductive rights. The third wave focused on women’s empowerment. The fourth wave, the one happening right now, has tended to lean towards the idea of intersectionality, or the encompassing of women’s rights for women that are also black or brown, LGBT, disabled, etcetera. The fight for women’s is ever present and ever changing.

The women of second wave feminism were fighting for reproductive health. Reproductive health really comes in two facets- technical and health related function and societal stigma. The societal stigma around reproductive health comes down to the perception of sexuality and the way it differs between men and women. The stigma around women’s sexuality comes down to a history. Women historically go from their parents home to their husband’s or as some women around here say to their kids, “straight from my daddy’s house to yours.” They never were allowed to live their own lives as single, independent women. When I say allowed I mean by the societal and familial expectations that they are held to. This coupled with the religious standard that one should wait until marriage means that women and women’s sexual desires are completely trapped in their marital lives.

They are taught that they are giving their virginity to their husbands and if that is not their first time they are not good enough. This concept does not get laid upon men, as much. While the concept of waiting is still important, they are also praised for their “conquests.” According to Butler University, men statistically experience less guilt around sex than women. 3 While this idea of shame, guilt, and sexual ownership may seem abstract to the concept of reproductive health care. What societal expectation of women’s sexuality does have to do with health care is that societal expectations turn into morals, which turn into policies, which turns into law. Margaret Sanger was a pioneer for the first Birth Control pill and birth control clinics, and in 1960 birth control was finally available, which meant that women, for the first time, really got a say in their own reproductive life. This was the huge first victory for second 4 wave feminists and reproductive rights activists. The Roman Catholic church as well as many politicians stood staunchly against this. Birth Control was seen as sinful and against G-d’s plan which lead to many laws across the country outlawing it.

In 1965, the first landmark Supreme Court Decision on reproductive care was made. Griswold vs Connecticut said “gave married couples the right to use birth control, ruling that it was protected in the Constitution as a right to privacy.” This meant that couples could regulate their birth rate for the first time without having to be abstinent. Birth Control meant the separation of sexuality and reproduction, at least for married couples. Single women did not get access to Birth Control on the national level until Eisenstadt vs Baird in 1972.

Reproductive activism does not just mean giving people the choice not to have kids, it means allowing them the choice to have kids on their own schedule. In 1965, the same year as Griswold, Native American women began to be forced into sterilization. According to Planned Parenthood, 25 percent of Native American women were sterilized. Indian Health Services coerced and tricked women with threads of refusing to treat their children and “accidental tubal ligation” One woman describes her experience with the IHS - “ A young Indian woman entered 5 Dr. Connie Pinkerton-Uri's Los Angeles office on a November day in 1972. The twenty-six-year-old woman asked Dr. Pinkerton-Uri for a 'womb transplant' because she and her husband wished to start a family. An Indian Health Service (IHS) physician had given the woman a complete hysterectomy when she was having problems with alcoholism six years earlier. Dr. Pinkerton-Uri had to tell the young woman that there was no such thing as a 'womb transplant' despite the IHS physician having told her that the surgery was reversible. The woman left Dr. Pinkerton-Uri's office in tears.. These 6 tactics of Eugenics were turned on Native American women because the IHS believed birth rates were too high on Native American Reservations.

This continued on through to 1976 when Dr. Pinkerton-Uri’s, a leader in the movement against forced sterilization and eugenics, research came out. Hr research said that “one in four American Indian women had been sterilized without her consent.” and that it was mostly focused on “full-blooded Indian women.” The Government finally admitted to doing this and Gerald Ford passed the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act to help create actual informd solutions in Native American Communities. During this time period of birth control and pregnancy preventative measures, the topic of abortion began to arise. While abortion had been illegal since the 1840’s, women had never stopped getting them. Feminists, when talking about making abortion safe and legal, talk about coat hanger abortions. This refers to the time in American History when abortion was illegal. Women went to drastic measures, from drinking heavily to the dangerous “Coat Hanger Abortions” that women landed upon after having no other options. During this time of back alley and self inflicted abortions, the death toll annually is estimated to be around 5,000 women.

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The reasons women get abortions are vast. SOme women are impregnated without their consent, whether that be through rape, incest, or a partner not disclosing a lack of protection. Some get abortions because the health of the baby or the mother are at risk. Some women are not ready for a baby, financially or otherwise (Finer 4). No matter the reason for the abortion, Women’s Reproductive Rights activists believe that women deserve access to safe and legal abortion.

Some of the first medically safe abortions were performed by the Jane Collective. They were an underground abortion service that “trained members to perform safe abortions.” According to records they performed nearly 11,000 abortions in the 5 years they were running. Jane Roe will always be the landmark woman in the landmark case in reproductive care in the United States of America. She was single and pregnant and looking to get an abortion in Texas, but since the laws were too strict she filed a suit against them. Jane Roe’s case rose to the Supreme Court. With a landmark 7-2 decision by the highest court of the land, holding women back from getting an abortion was declared unconstitutional and a violation of due process and citizen privacy. The majority stated that once the fetus was viable, abortion could be regulated, but until then, it was not a crime to receive or give an abortion.

To talk about the fight for safe and legal abortion it is hard not to mention Planned Parenthood. Funded in the 1930s right after Margaret Sanger’s clinic, Planned Parenthood has been providing easy access to reproductive care since 1916. A basic overview of what services Planned Parenthood offers is: general health care, birth control (from the pill to condoms), STD and STI treatment and screenings, cancer screenings, pregnancy tests and care, patient education, vaccines, and of course, abortion care. Planned Parenthood is often seen as purely an abortion clinic but according to their annual report, only 3.4 percent of their cases are abortions. Planned Parenthood represents the meaning behind the reproductive rights movement. Women deserve the right to family planning services in a safe and secure way.

While Planned Parenthood performs more than just abortions, the abortions they, and other providers like them, do perform are important and life saving to those that receive them. As stated earlier, before Roe, in the era of coat hanger abortions, terminating a pregnancy was dangerous, scary, and deeply guarded. Adele Zimmerman received an Abortion in 1965 while blindfolded, from an intensely frightening man. She describes the experience as more “mob like than medical.” 53 years after the fact she told her story to ABC as this, 'Damn, I was scared. The bleeding wouldn't stop. I didn't know how to stop it. I didn't know what would happen. And I was one of the lucky ones, I survived. A lot of women did not survive, or they developed horrible complications, complications that ruined their health.” She is very aware of the danger she was in, and yet does not regret her decision.

When the women’s rights movement is fighting for safe and legal access to abortion they are fighting for women to not have to go back to the abortion Adele Zimmerman had. According to the New York Times, women will not only get abortions whether or not they are legal, but also a significantly less number of women die from pregnancy in countries where abortion is legal than in countries where it is not.

The accomplishments of women like Margaret Sanger and Dr. Pinkerton-Uri, the bravery of Jane Roe and others, as well as the support provided by healthcare networks like Planned Parenthood means that death from pregnancy is more than halved in America compared to countries like Uganda, where family planning services are nearly non existent. The US is the land of the free, and the decision of Roe v Wade finally gave women a freedom they had not had before, the freedom choose. This freedom is important the health women, children, and families alike. Roe made America freer and safer.

The greatest challenges that the Women’s reproductive rights movement has faced has been that of religious clergy and conservative politicians in the Republican Party. In early as December 1973, politicians passed a law called the Helms Amendment saying that the government could not fund any abortion services at all. Recent challenges to Reproductive care, specifically the right to choose have been the Trump Administrations Gag Rule which basically makes it illegal for doctors to tell a woman they offer abortion services, suggest it to mothers that are at significant risk if they do not have an abortion, or really under any circumstances.

The biggest challenge recently, even in the last week, is that a plethora of states are passing bills known as heartbeat bills. This is a bill that means it is illegal to have an abortion after you can hear the baby's heartbeat or after six weeks. Most pregnancy tests cannot detect a very reliable reading at six weeks, that is two weeks missed on a period, that is the first doctor's appointment. The main point of this bill seems to be to end up challenging Roe in a newly definitively conservative leaning Supreme Court since it goes directly against the part of Roe that says abortion is legal until the baby is feasible outside the womb (it is not at 6 weeks). Another facet of the bill in Georgia is that every miscarriage would lead to an investigation into the cause and possibly life in prison for the mother. These bills are being challenged by the ACLU or the American Civil Liberties Union. They will most likely be taken all the way to the Supreme Court where, once again, women’s right to choose will be challenged again.

Second wave feminism and its success with Roe v Wade and access for all women to birth control was a great basis for women’s reproductive care, but leaving it there to never be defended again would be a waste. The way that this civil rights movement affects my life as a young American woman is that it makes me a fourth wave feminist. I know that these women and organizations that have come before with this movement and given me access to critical family planning and reproductive care. Birth Control is not just for preventative measure but also for hormone and menstrual regulation, like I use it for. The ability to access a safe and legal abortion if I desperately need it is comforting. This movement set the foundation up, but it also taught my generation of women that as long as the attacks keep coming on our healthcare, we must keep fighting. Just like Margaret, Dr. Pinkerton-Uri, and Jane Roe this generation continues to fight through educating young girls, pushing for more rights, like comprehensive sexual education and increased access to Planned Parenthood services, and by working with politicians that support women’s reproductive care.

Women’s reproductive health care comes down to women having the ability to separate sexuality from reproduction in a healthy and safe way. The successes of the movement have lead to women having access to preventative measures as well as abortion access. Activists for this movement have gotten things done through protests, education, and legislative and judicial action. Landmark supreme court cases have lead the way for policies that protect women’s reproductive care. While challenges have recently been coming hard and fast, the movement stands strong.

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History of Women’s Reproductive Rights Movement. [online]. Available at: <https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/history-of-womens-reproductive-rights-movement/> [Accessed 22 Jun. 2024].
History of Women’s Reproductive Rights Movement [Internet]. WritingBros. 2021 Feb 10 [cited 2024 Jun 22]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/history-of-womens-reproductive-rights-movement/
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