- Rickie Solinger
What do we mean by reproductive politics?
Beginning in the mid-1960s, women’s rights advocates known as “Second Wave feminists” (a name inspired by nineteenth-century “First Wave” feminists who focused on winning the right to vote and other reforms) coined the term “reproductive politics” to describe their involvement in issues related to contraception, abortion, sterilization, adoption, and sexuality as well as other related subjects. The term has been useful because it captures the way politics lies at the center of these issues. For example, who has the power to make the decision about keeping or ending a pregnancy: the pregnant woman, a physician, or a member of Congress? Who has the power to define a legitimate mother, that is, a woman who has the right to raise her own child: a city welfare official, an adoption agency and its client, a judge, or the mother herself?
In the early 1970s, a number of court decisions, culminating in Roe v. Wade in 1973, granted women new rights, including the right to make decisions about their reproductive lives. Perhaps most controversially, these rights hinged upon a previously unknown or untried legal concept, the “right to privacy,” roughly based on the “liberty” guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. Following these decisions, opponents and proponents of these new rights have used whatever means they can to enforce or erode them—from p. 2↵legislative to legal to populist, or taking their cause to the streets. Whatever the reaction to these new rights, the decisions have led to ongoing debate over whether women’s reproductive capacities were public or private matters.
Are sex and reproduction private or public matters?
Many believe that a woman’s decision to get pregnant, or not, and to have a baby, or not, remains a private matter, an orientation reflected in the commonly used term “choice.” We may assess some choices as good ones, others as bad, but in the end, a majority of Americans currently believe that such choices belong to those most directly affected.
Others believe that reproductive capacities are public concerns and therefore subject to legislation. A number of recent laws and policies have had profound impacts on private reproductive decisions. For example, Congress’s decision to deny federal funding for abortions and reproductive counseling services—the 1976 Hyde Amendment—has been perceived as mandating “forced motherhood” for those who don’t have enough money to pay for private services. Together with regulations governing contemporary welfare provisions for low-income families, these policies reflect a belief that childbearing, and even sex itself, is not, or not simply, a private matter.
The public versus private debate has played out in a number of areas, such as in federal, state, and corporate policies governing issues like family leave, health insurance, and day care, which have constrained or expanded individual choice. Decisions about reproduction, including decisions about whether to get pregnant or not, to stay pregnant or not, to be the mother of the child one gives birth to or not—these are all shaped by laws and policies. “Personal” or otherwise, these decisions are shaped, too, by the various degrees of value that society assigns to the childbearing woman and her offspring, depending on such variables as race, class, marital, p. 3↵and citizenship status. These variables have varied over time. The impact of public policies and societal attitudes on the reproductive decisions of women may be a particularly difficult insight to bring into focus, in part because of the way that personal choice has become the dominant way of characterizing pregnancy and motherhood in recent times.