Throughout the 19th century, American women experienced vast changes regarding possibilities for childbirth and for enhancing or restricting fertility control. At the beginning of the century, issues involving reproduction were discussed primarily in domestic, private settings among women’s networks that included family members, neighbors, or midwives. In the face of massive social and economic changes due to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, many working-class women became separated from these traditional networks and knowledge and found themselves reliant upon emerging medical systems for care and advice during pregnancy and childbirth. At the same time, upper-class women sought out men in the emerging profession of obstetrics to deliver their babies in hopes of beating the frightening odds against maternal and infant health and even survival. Nineteenth-century reproduction was altered drastically with the printing and commercial boom of the middle of the century. Families could now access contraception and abortion methods and information, which was available earlier in the century albeit in a more private and limited manner, through newspapers, popular books, stores, and from door-to-door salesmen. As fertility control entered these public spaces, many policy makers became concerned about the impacts of such practices on the character and future of the nation. By the 1880s, contraception and abortion came under legal restrictions, just as women and their partners gained access to safer and more effective products than ever before. When the 19th century closed, legislatures and the medical profession raised obstacles that hindered the ability of most women to limit the size of their families as the national fertility rate reached an all-time low. Clearly, American families eagerly seized opportunities to exercise control over their reproductive destinies and their lives.
Shannon K. Withycombe
Decided by the Supreme Court in 1973, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion across the United States. The 7-2 decision came at the end of a decades-long struggle to reform—and later repeal—abortion laws. Although all of the justices understood that Roe addressed a profoundly important question, none of them imagined that it would later become a flashpoint of American politics or shape those politics for decades to come. Holding that the right to privacy covered a woman’s choice to terminate her pregnancy, Roe and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, struck down many of the abortion regulations on the books. The lead-up to and aftermath of Roe tell a story not only of a single Supreme Court decision but also of the historical shifts that the decision shaped and reflected: the emergence of a movement for women’s liberation, the rise of grassroots conservatism, political party realignment, controversy about the welfare state, changes to the family structure, and the politicization of science. It is a messy and complicated story that evolved parallel to different ideas about the decision itself. In later decades, Roe arguably became the best-known opinion issued by the Supreme Court, a symbol of an ever-changing set of beliefs about family, health care, and the role of the judiciary in American democracy.
The reproductive experiences of women and girls in the 20th-century United States followed historical patterns shaped by the politics of race and class. Laws and policies governing reproduction generally regarded white women as legitimate reproducers and potentially fit mothers and defined women of color as unfit for reproduction and motherhood; regulations provided for rewards and punishments accordingly. In addition, public policy and public rhetoric defined “population control” as the solution to a variety of social and political problems in the United States, including poverty, immigration, the “quality” of the population, environmental degradation, and “overpopulation.” Throughout the century, nonetheless, women, communities of color, and impoverished persons challenged official efforts, at times reducing or even eliminating barriers to reproductive freedom and community survival. Between 1900 and 1930, decades marked by increasing urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, eugenic fears of “race suicide” (concerns that white women were not having enough babies) fueled a reproductive control regime that pressured middle-class white women to reproduce robustly. At the same time, the state enacted anti-immigrant laws, undermined the integrity of Native families, and protected various forms of racial segregation and white supremacy, all of which attacked the reproductive dignity of millions of women. Also in these decades, many African American women escaped the brutal and sexually predatory Jim Crow culture of the South, and middle-class white women gained greater sexual freedom and access to reproductive health care, including contraceptive services. During the Great Depression, the government devised the Aid to Dependent Children program to provide destitute “worthy” white mothers with government aid while often denying such supports to women of color forced to subordinate their motherhood to agricultural and domestic labor. Following World War II, as the Civil Rights movement gathered form, focus, and adherents, and as African American and other women of color claimed their rights to motherhood and social provision, white policymakers railed against “welfare queens” and defined motherhood as a class privilege, suitable only for those who could afford to give their children “advantages.” The state, invoking the “population bomb,” fought to reduce the birth rates of poor women and women of color through sterilization and mandatory contraception, among other strategies. Between 1960 and 1980, white feminists employed the consumerist language of “choice” as part of the campaign for legalized abortion, even as Native, black, Latina, immigrant, and poor women struggled to secure the right to give birth to and raise their children with dignity and safety. The last decades of the 20th century saw severe cuts in social programs designed to aid low-income mothers and their children, cuts to funding for public education and housing, court decisions that dramatically reduced poor women’s access to reproductive health care including abortion, and the emergence of a powerful, often violent, anti-abortion movement. In response, in 1994 a group of women of color activists articulated the theory of reproductive justice, splicing together “social justice” and “reproductive rights.” The resulting Reproductive Justice movement, which would become increasingly influential in the 21st century, defined reproductive health, rights, and justice as human rights due to all persons and articulated what each individual requires to achieve these rights: the right not to have children, the right to have children, and the right to the social, economic, and environmental conditions necessary to raise children in healthy, peaceful, and sustainable households and communities.