A Body Not Her Own: The Role of Policy in Limiting Women’s Reproductive Rights

On the morning after Thanksgiving in 2015, a gunman attacked a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, eventually killing a police officer and two civilians while injuring nine more before surrendering. In the following court hearings, the attacker, Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., expressed his anti-abortionist and anti-Planned Parenthood opinions, identifying himself as a “warrior for the babies” (Turkewitz and Healy, 1). This attack followed similar violent assaults on clinics or doctors’ offices where abortions are performed, adding to the aggressive climate brought by protestors who harass women and professionals outside of these facilities daily. The topic of abortions and, more generally, women’s reproductive rights has divided Americans, prompting some to execute what they believe is vigilante justice to protect the unborn, while allowing women to suffer physically and emotionally. Women’s reproductive rights, however, go beyond pro-life and pro-choice arguments. When lawmakers begin to judge who should be allowed to get pregnant and see pregnant women as merely a vessel that carries the valuable life of a fetus, as opposed to cherishing the already-existing life of the woman, women effectively lose any bodily integrity. These policies degrade all women, but also disproportionally affect minority, poor, and young women.

As a sociologist, author Jeanne Flavin takes an interesting choice by analyzing policies and other qualitative data, as opposed to gathering her own data. This choice, however, allows for a synthesis of many pieces of information, not yet put together in one place. Flavin, who worked in a prison as a young woman, admits her bias toward protecting women in the criminal justice system. She also hints that she does not intend to have children of her own. This creates a new perspective on the topic: from a woman who has personal experience with mothers in the criminal justice system and, while not planning to become a mother herself, wants to share the importance of supporting these women.

The monograph follows the same timeline of reproduction, focusing on the government’s involvement in women’s lives and bodies before, during, and after pregnancy. The first section “Begetting,” discusses sterilization laws, like those upheld under Skinner v. Oklahoma, that some states use to control “who” has the right to reproduce. Again, these unjust and invasive laws disproportionally affect women of color or of a lower socioeconomic class. The lawmakers justify this by saying these women are not in a position to raise a child to be a productive member of society. Instead of fixing the injustices in government and social institutions that unfairly keep people of color and lower income levels in these positions, the government at every level consistently chooses to punish these women and control their bodies.

This section also discusses the most prevalent reproductive rights issue: abortion. Often the argument of abortion focuses on a choice: whether to end an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy or carry to term and raise the child or give it up for adoption. The famous Roe v. Wade case established a woman’s right to choose, but since this decision, states have tightened their laws as far as they can to render this landmark case relatively ineffective. While this affects all women, Flavin notes that for most minority women, there still is no “choice.” Because of a lack of information, money, transportation, and, on a larger scale, education, women with an unwanted pregnancy cannot often obtain an abortion. This incredibly hypocritical statement by the government – that minority women should not be able to raise children, but if they do get pregnant, they shouldn’t be allowed to have an abortion – puts these women, and their future children, in a dangerous situation. In this section, Flavin flawlessly brings the discussion of abortion out of a pro-life/pro-choice argument, so readers realize the more damning effects these policies have on women without a choice, women who have been betrayed by their own government in many ways and now must give over control of their own bodies.

In the second section, “Bearing,” Flavin examines the discriminatory policies that turn pregnant women into second-class citizens. As soon as a woman becomes pregnant, her fetus becomes the one who must be protected, and she is simply a body, which the government can control in order to protect her future child. Again using policy to enhance her argument, Flavin notes how “fetus-centered laws” such as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA), which claims a fetus as a second victim in domestic violence cases, leaves the pregnant women out of the realm of security. These kinds of laws do little to protect the woman, a victim in this violence, from the perpetrator, and instead only emphasize the harm done to the unborn child. Here, Flavin brings in an argument about drug uses, explaining how they have not made a choice to do drugs and instead institutional racism has driven them to this decision. Therefore, these women should not be further punished and deemed unfit to be a mother. While I follow this argument, as I note later, this segue may take away from Flavin’s strong argument.

In this section, Flavin also begins to note how the criminal justice system, not just government policy, devalues pregnant women. These women do not receive proper medical attention for diseases like HPV or even access to an abortion if impregnated by a guard. Flavin again notes the hypocrisy in the viewpoints of lawmakers who fear for the future lives of fetuses, but do not give the proper health care for imprisoned women, which will inevitably have public health consequences.

Lastly, Flavin delineates how, even after a child is born, policies subjugate the mother to high levels of scrutiny, continuing to impede on her rights to her body and her children. First, for women in the criminal justice system, the government strips them of any rights to motherhood. While Child Protective Services policies tend to deter child visitation to their incarcerated mothers, Flavin notes how important the relationship between a child and mother is to their future growth, and by taking that visitation away, children may be sucked back into a dangerous world. Going beyond just the benefits to the child, a mother who has the chance to build ties to her child will be more motivated in her own rehabilitation, better prepared to re-enter society. While not incarcerated, battered women also must battle for custody of their children if they speak of their abuse, as again, ineffective policies, like the flawed Violence Against Women Act, tend to protect the children over the mothers. While the children should certainly be safe, this fear of losing their children, silences many women who stay in abusive situations which continue to harm them and their children. Laws must defend the mother and the child and ensure they will not be separated.

          Our Bodies, Our Crimes fits most easily into feminist studies, as it highlights the impediment of women’s citizenship and their place in society. This monograph also fits into legal studies as Flavin uses myriad court cases and policies as examples in her argument. Notably, this book does not incorporate queer studies. While some queer populations cannot become pregnant, they can still be subjected to the same discriminatory treatment in sexual assault or parenting cases that infringe on their own rights to their bodies and their privacy.

The strength of this monograph lies in its organization. It clearly separates the information into pre-birth, during birth, and post-birth consequences of governmental interference into women’s bodies and lives. As the book proceeds, the reader realizes how extensively policies have been enacted to keep women under governmental control and to place the life of a fetus above that of a woman. The breath of research, legal and academic, Flavin performs roots her argument in evidence, giving more credibility to her case, that at times, can be controversial. She also redirects the conversation at certain points to make readers re-consider their perspectives on the age-old issue of reproductive rights. She does not focus on the pro-life/pro-choice debate as she points out that many women do not really have a choice even if the laws say they do. She also notes the implications of a discriminatory criminal justice system that gives up on its inmates, automatically assuming they cannot and should not be pregnant or mothers. These topics are largely overshadowed in the discussion of reproductive rights, which often focuses on the plight of upper-class white women, which while still relevant, as most social movements, leaves out many other affected women.

While Flavin fills Our Bodies, Our Crimes with an abundant amount of relevant citations from other legal and academic work, in order to make her argument more coherent, I would have left out her interlude into drug users. While after careful thought, I understand her point about the institutional racism that inevitably can cause women to take drugs but should not determine her ability to have a child and mother, this argument may not be easily accepted by other readers. For a more conservative reader, it is difficult to believe that drug users, whose habits may harm the child – a detail she dedicates only a few sentences to – should be able to raise their children away from government agency surveillance. While Flavin may not be targeting this more conservative group of readers, in order to spread her well-thought-out and developed argument to more people, she should tailor her argument a little more. This added point complicates the details of her argument even more, so leaving it out could make for an even more definitive conclusion.

In all, Our Bodies, Our Crimes, opens up the discussion about reproductive rights – moving away from just a debate between pro-life and pro-choice – and toward an inclusion of all intersectional backgrounds. While I would implore everyone to read this book, I believe at least white, liberal-minded people must pick it up. Flavin’s research shows that this group, while often well-intentioned, tends to mistake their rhetoric as improvement for all. Many liberals center themselves in the pro-choice debate, not recognizing how many other people lack the fundamental right of a choice. Institutional racism and classism often place women at a position where they do not have the means of information to make the same decisions upper-class, white women can, and their doubled struggles should be brought to the forefront. This book outlines the effects of infringing reproductive laws at every stage of a pregnancy – from conception to motherhood – with an eye, not just on the effects on upper-middle-class white women, but on those from a lower-socioeconomic or minority background. While these laws burden less-privileged women even more, laws that limit any woman will have a lasting negative impact on the lives and opportunities of all women.

 

Works Cited

Flavin, Jeanne. Our Bodies, Our Crimes. NYU Press : 2009.

Turkewitz, J. and Healy, J. “3 Are Dead in Colorado Springs Shootout at Planned Parenthood Center.” The New York Times, 27 Nov. 2015.