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“History is important. If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.” –Howard Zinn

INTRODUCTION

As a former colony of the British Empire, the United States is directly influenced by the history of European women’s plight prior to the “founding” of this country. Therefore, it is imperative to understand that history so that the near past and current state of affairs related to women’s health rights in this country can be understood in complete context.  The implications of a history that includes a legal system that stems from the struggles of women throughout Europe to defend their reproductive rights against some of the most repressive, genocidal, social and legal structures in history is critical in understanding how the rights of some of the most vulnerable groups of women in this country are infringed upon by existing legislation. It is also critical in grasping the gravity of the current legislative reform related to healthcare that is happening in this country.

This brief is not meant to be complete history of women’s rights in Europe nor the United States, rather a condensed listing of some of the most relevant issues that have lead to the current state of women’s rights in this country. The paper’s perspective is decidedly Western mainstream and certainly an overwhelming amount of information could be contributed if written from the perspective of the myriad cultures that exist in this country. But the for the purposes of this paper, this perspective is a first step in understanding the complete picture of the history of women’s rights in this country.

AN ANCESTRY OF GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION & DISAPPEARANCE OF PRIVACY

By the end of the 14th century, European states began the subtle and slow transition from a nature-based society to mercantilism, which eventually evolved into capitalism. The effect this had on women and their reproductive, economic and class circumstances is a steady decline toward subjugation. Women went from positions of equity with men to being perceived as servile, infantile, commodities and reproductive machines. Increasingly, women were seen as reproductive beings, their most important contributions to society being the ability to increase the citizenry. This perspective lead to widespread social and legal restrictions on women’s access to traditional forms of birth control, abortion and holistic healthcare. Their autonomy in these decisions were completely stripped away and became affairs of the State.

There are many historical “moments” that have contributed to the current US social perception of women and legal barriers to their autonomy in controlling their reproductive choices. Some of which include:

  • In the 16th century Europe experienced a decline in population growth, which some historians attribute to “low natality rates and the unwillingness of the poor to reproduce themselves.” Sylvia Federici argues that this population crisis was the beginning of state intrusion into once-private reproduction issues. [i]
  • By the mid 16th century, the prevailing thought of the State was that a larger citizenry determined its stature on the world stage. French political thinker Jean Bodin wrote, “In my view, one should never be afraid of having too many subjects or too many citizens, for the strength of the commonwealth consists in men.” Additionally, Henry IV was known to say “the strength and wealth of a king lie in the number and opulence of his citizens.” This new widespread belief system signaled the beginning of laws punishing any behavior obstructing population growth.[ii]
  • The Great Witch Hunt of the 16th and 17th centuries were a full on assault on women the world over. The primary focus of the witch hunts, says Federici, was to co-opt control over women’s bodies, seizing power of contraception and non-procreative sexuality from them. During this time, European governments enacted severe penalties against reproductive crimes, including contraception, midwifery and infanticide.[iii]
  • There were also very strong social norms that developed indicating that women were incapable of controlling themselves and needed to be hidden away for their own and society’s benefit; women were popularly conveyed publically as unreasonable, vain, wild, wasteful, mouthy, gossipy, scolds, witches, etc. [iv] Read the rest of this entry »
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