BCRW @ 50

The Center’s Beginnings: Abortion rights and sterilization abuse

The years leading up to the creation of the Center saw much activism at Barnard on the topic of reproductive rights and reproductive justice. In a Barnard Bulletin article from December 2nd, 1970, Lynda Horhota, a member of Barnard Women’s Lib., wrote an op-ed about a recent Women’s Liberation march that took place on August 26th, 1970, in New York City. In it, she outlines the demands of the march—free abortions on demand, 24-hour childcare centers, and equal pay for equal work—and notes that while the march was a success, these demands are “needless to say, [...] still unmet.” She ends her op-ed with a rallying cry to other Barnard students to join her and other members of Barnard Women’s Lib. at a march on December 12th, 1970. At the march, she wrote, they will demand free and equal access to abortion, as well as call for an end to the forced sterilization of poor and third-world women. On another page in the Bulletin, an ad that takes up more than half of the page gives the details of the march, including the date, time, location, and demands. 

This focus on reproductive health and justice took a central role in the Center’s first few years. Many of the first resource pamphlets that the Women’s Center made provided resources for women’s health, including abortion and birth control. One of the first public programs the center held, in the Spring of 1972, was a screening of a film about abortion by Amalie Rothschild; this event took place during a struggle over New York State abortion law, which at the time stated that abortions could only be performed by licensed physicians in accredited hospitals. In 1972, the New York General Assembly was attempting to overturn this (admittedly limited) abortion access. 

On January 22nd, 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, and less than a month later, the Barnard Women’s Center held their first conference: Women Learn from Women. On February 10th, 1973, a thousand participants gathered to ponder the questions, “How far will legal solutions take us? What are emancipated lifestyles? Do women have a separate experience of education? Should they?” In one panel, Deborah Rapaport spoke on the Roe v. Wade decision:

“The abortion decision by the Supreme Court is nowhere as good as it sounds. It’s not concerned with the rights of women but with the rights of doctors to give women abortions. There are lots of loopholes….The equal rights amendment is fading fast. Legal solutions can’t take us far, but they are useful tools to raise consciousness.” 

Not only is this quote chilling for its relevance nearly 50 years later, but it also signals a shift in the conversation around abortion post-Roe v. Wade: the difference between abortion rights and abortion access. While the fight for legal precedent on abortion was a battleground for many years (and, arguably, still is), the Supreme Court’s Roe decision shed light on how rights-based solutions are often lacking: there are loopholes and extralegal ways to get around providing abortion, and these pitfalls are much harder to fight and find solutions to. However, as Rapaport noted, the movement for legal abortion rights was incredibly important in the early 1970s, and thus was important to the Women’s Center as well. 

The Center’s conversations around reproductive justice in their first decade were not limited to abortion: forced sterilization was also uplifted as a central reproductive justice issue. In 1976, Helen Rodriguez-Trias gave a Reid lectureship on “A Woman’s View of Women and the Health Care System: Population Control and Sterilization.” She also later spoke at the fourth annual Scholar and Feminist Conference (Connecting Theory, Practice, and Values) in 1977 on “Medical Ethics and Sterilization.” In both of her talks, Rodriguez-Trias gave the history of sterilization as a form of coercive reproductive control, its connections to eugenics, and the current instances of forced sterilization.

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