The Pursuit of U.S. Women’s Reproductive Rights: From the Nineteenth Century to the Present
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Control over reproduction is obviously not the only component in the fight for women’s equality. However, control over one’s body is essential to control over one’s destiny. This control is essential for a person desiring to be an equal member of society. At the time the United States was founded, reproductive control was not fettered by the state. Unfortunately, however, the nineteenth century brought about restriction and regulation of reproduction. As a result, a fight for reproductive control for women has occurred in the United States ever since. This struggle includes three separate but interrelated aspects: birth control, abortion, and sterilization. In the early nineteenth century, U.S. women, uninhibited by government intervention, were free to control conception as they saw fit, albeit with inconsistent methods. Using conceptual morality as their central argument, some religious and political leaders, as well as many in the medical field, condemned various forms of contraception. By the end of the century, this disapproval had produced laws regulating access to birth control. The battle for birth control culminated in 1965 when the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that a constitutionally-guaranteed right to privacy protected the use of birth control. Controversy over birth control still continues today, however, with debates spotlighting government funding for birth control and access to emergency contraception. In 1800 there was not one law in the United States regulating abortion. Federal and state law reflected the common law notion that an abortion induced before quickening was a matter of a woman controlling her body. Within the next one hundred years, however, the federal government and every state had regulated, or even outlawed, abortion. The 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade declared that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose whether or not to bear a child. Today, this guarantee of a constitutional right to abortion still stands, but is less than secure. Compulsory sterilization laws in the United States were enacted due to the theory of eugenics, or the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding. Primary targets of forced sterilization were the mentally ill and repeat offenders. In the1927 case Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court gave explicit approval of eugenic sterilization. The 1942 case Skinner v. Oklahoma specifically ruled against punitive sterilization. The last documented forced sterilization in the United States occurred in 1981.
Blakley, John David (2006). The Pursuit of U.S. Women’s Reproductive Rights: From the Nineteenth Century to the Present. Available electronically from