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1980s and 1990s: A Broader Analysis of Reproductive Justice
While in the early years of the center saw sterilization abuse alongside abortion rights and access as an integral part of the reprodcutive justice fight, this issue seems to be less in the forefront of reproductive justice work at the Center in the 80s and 90s. The conversation shifts from the right to abortion to abortion access, with many speakers articulating the ways that, despite Roe v. Wade’s ruling, state governments across the country were limiting access to abortion.
In a 1990 talk on “Dominating Women through Reproduction” at the 17th Scholar and Feminist Conference (Apocalypse Now? Race and Gender in the Nineties), Suzanne Lynn, Assistant Attorney General of the State of New York said that the right to choose when to bear children is a “recently and incompletely won right.” Citing examples of access being dependent on wealth and ability to pay, she asks, “What constitutes real choice in a society marked by such glaring disparities in wealth and opportunity?”
In a statement that feels eerily similar to the current mainstream political conversation around Roe v. Wade, Lynn talked about the ways that the conservative Supreme Court was threatening to revoke the 1973 ruling, as well as other protections in place for reproductive rights. In her mind, “the fact that aboriton remains a battleground in this society bespeaks a deep-seated ambivalence and fear on the part of the American public towards the changes in women’s status and roles over the last 30 years.” These questions and analyses point to broader questions around reproductive justice as it connects with the overarching power structures of patriarchy and white supremacy in the United States. In a time when the Clinton administration was slashing welfare benefits, BCRW was attuned to the neoliberal idea of “family values” and how it negatively impacted reproductive health—while President Clinton vetoed a late term abortion ban in 1996, he passed many laws restricting abortion access to women in federal prison, and changed welfare laws to deny benefits to many new mothers, include rape victims and those who had children out of wedlock.
Another topic the center engaged with frequently in the ‘80s and ‘90s was lesbian motherhood and lesbian reproductive rights. In 1981 at the 8th Scholar and Feminist (The Dynamics of Control), participants gathered to hear a presentation of the paper “Lesbian Rights and the Struggle for Reproductive Freedom.” The 1986 Scholar and Feminist Conference (Women’s Images and Politics) featured a workshop titled “Lesbian Mothers ‘Choosing Children,’” and in 1988, at the Scholar and Feminist Conference dedicated to Motherhood Versus Sisterhood, partiticpants gathered to discuss “Creating Families: The Experience of Lesbians.” These events focused on the experiences of lesbians raising children, and the differences between being born into a lesbian family versus being born into a heterosexual family in which the mother eventually came out as a lesbian. Additionally, speakers at the 1988 talk emphasized that many of the questions they were asking—about male nurturing, which mother was considered the “real” mother—were specific to white family roles, and that kinship models in Black communities were very different than in white communities. Finally, at the Scholar and Feminist conference in 1996 on Our Families: A Feminist Response to the Family Value Debate, there were two workshops on lesbian families and lesbian motherhood: “Forming and Maintaining Lesbian Families” and “Lesbian Parenting: Radical or Retrograde?” These workshops raised questions about what family means in our society, and what it means to be part of a lesbian family. They engaged with questions of legality—such as access to partners and family members in the hospital, at a time when lesbian relationships were not recognized by the state—as well as if having children was a “great equalizer” that lesbians had in common with all humans, or if choosing to have children meant you were “deserting” the lesbian community and returning to heterosexual values. This string of events in the late 20th century explored how lesbians fit into the reproductive rights narrative, and what it meant for lesbians to choose to have children.