Felicia Kornbluh argues that the movement must now focus on broader issues and on grassroots politics, not the courts.
This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. But since the ruling has been obliterated by the recent Dobbs decision, the struggle for abortion rights continues.
Felicia Kornbluh, our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, is a veteran of that battle. She is professor of history and of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of Vermont, and the author of A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice.
She argues that the fight for reproductive rights is about more than just abortion rights.
Kornbluh, whose mother was an early pioneer in the pre-Roe abortion struggle in New York, believes that activists must also address the racial and economic biases that women face, especially when dealing with the American medical establishment
She believes that, post-Dobbs, the movement is better served by a grassroots political battle, rather than one conducted in the rarefied atmosphere of the courts.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. In a few days, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court recently obliterated by the Dobbs decision. Much of the debate has turned on the states and individual laws that accentuate perhaps the worst of federalism, but the battle for abortion rights is not just about the stage or ability to terminate a pregnancy.
It’s part of a much larger, more complex struggle that addresses the protection of sexual freedom and choices of all women. It portends great disparity and racial and economic bias in the American medical system and it signals a larger battle for freedom and liberty for all people. Abortion and reproductive rights are a political issue, but they’re also a medical issue and an economic issue. We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, Felicia Kornbluh.
Felicia is a professor of history and of gender studies, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of Vermont. She’s the author of the previous books, The Battle for Welfare Rights and Ensuring Poverty. She’s a former board member of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and a current board member of the Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund. Her newest work is A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice. Felicia Kornbluh, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Felicia Kornbluh: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. One of the things that really, I think, comes through powerfully in your book is this idea that the abortion debate is more than just the abortion struggle, that it really is symbolic of a much larger struggle. Talk about that first.
Felicia: Well, I think the way that you described it was really fantastic. What I found, somewhat to my surprise, was that the demand for abortion rights as a feminist demand, it really grew out of the National Organization for Women now, which when it started was a fighting group. They were really demanding women’s civil rights and were fashioning themselves after the Black civil rights movement.
And so the demand for abortion was part of a bigger civil rights demand and a bigger menu of demands that were also about political access and the ability to run for office and the ability to have your vote count. And it was about educational access and the ability to get into good jobs and it was about employment access. And abortion was seen as a lynchpin of all these other civil rights. And it was also seen as a prime case study of how the law worked in a discriminatory way, [and] in a sexist way.
It may sound very familiar to have those kinds of ideas today, but in the early and middle 1960s, that was all brand new. And activists and theorists and lawyers were theorizing those things for the first time. So the abortion right is very much part of that and it also, since the 1970s and even more since the 1990s, is part of this much wider movement that today is called the movement for reproductive justice, which demands abortion rights and so many other things that enable people to make free choices about when and whether to have children.
Jeff: To what extent has the battle for abortion rights been impacted either positively or negatively by being part of this larger social framework?
Felicia: Well, I think it’s benefited very positively, but I think what’s gotten in the way, I think, of the movement and of the politics is an overly legalistic approach to it. It’s hard because this was a mass social movement that ultimately won some great victories through the law. So, of course, it’s obvious that people would come to understand it in legal terms and they would come to focus on the Supreme Court and that sort of thing.
But I think that that’s led us astray. That, really, what we need to do is go back to the roots of this movement and understand that what it took was mass grassroots action by all kinds of people. Many of whom understood themselves as feminists. Some of whom didn’t even understand themselves as feminists but who understood that abortion rights were part of larger struggles and that they had a vision of the world they wanted to create. A world not just access to this one medical procedure.
Of course, access to this one medical procedure is really, really important, right? But I think what worked politically was to have this wider, emancipatory, freedom-oriented, [and] future-oriented vision of the world that they wanted to create. A world of greater racial equality, a greater economic equality, a world of overcoming some of the sex discrimination that is now so familiar in the Me Too movement, and so on, right? So abortion alone, I think, is weaker as a political demand than the big picture. And I also think abortion as a legal demand in particular is weaker than abortion as a part of a mass grassroots movement coming from the bottom up.
Jeff: Do you think that that’s true today? Do you think in terms of dealing with and responding to Dobbs that it is more effective to be part of the larger social movement or not when we look at it in today’s political landscape?
Felicia: Today, it’s absolutely essential that we understand and that we demand abortion rights as part of larger demands and larger movements. I think it’s absolutely critical. I think people have been learning this by necessity since Roe v. Wade was overturned last June. But in the very, very immediate period right after the Supreme Court leak occurred last spring and then after the Dobbs opinion itself, what I heard was a lot of people trying to wrap their minds around the niceties of constitutional law and trying to get smart about that.
“What’s going on in the Supreme Court? What are their doctrinal arguments?” blah, blah, blah. “How can we defeat them at that level?” And I think that is a complete red herring, right? In my opinion, it’s fun to be smart about that, but I think it’s a total red herring in terms of organizing and in terms of really thinking about why abortion is important.
I think what matters and the only way that rights are going to be preserved and expanded in the next few years is if we go back to the grassroots and if we understand it’s not really about all that doctrinal blah, blah, blah. The Supreme Court justices may think that it is, but that’s not really what’s going on. This is really about politics. It’s about power and it’s about mobilizing people on behalf of our own rights and the well-being of our communities. I think that’s the way to win.
Jeff: If you look at this through the lens of the electoral battles that have happened in this last election cycle in places like Michigan and Kentucky and California, how does that fit into this framework?
Felicia: Well, I think what’s been happening at the state level with the referenda and other battles over state constitutional decision-making and so on, I think we see the power of this kind of grassroots organizing. And it has been incredibly inspiring to me to see what people have been able to do. Again, this is not a function of people being smart in court, right? This is not a function of a couple of judges on some fancy judicial bench giving us our rights.
This is a matter of people doing what every organizer would tell you to do, knocking on doors, talking to your friends, giving the donations so that the ads can go up on TV or on Facebook, and doing all of that building a complicated spider’s web that will be strong enough to sustain a movement for the short term and for the long term. And there has been so much of that activity. And I think everyone who participates at every level, including by funding the movement, should congratulate yourself.
And we should all understand that we need to keep going. Those successes in places like Kansas, even in my own state of Vermont, which is liberal, but we had a referendum on abortion that was more successful than anything- more successful than Bernie Sanders, which is astounding in the state of Vermont. Those are the places where we look to see the strategies that really work. Those strategies change people’s minds. They change public opinion and they change public policy.
Jeff: And as an example of that, you go back to the ’60s and look at the social movements that were going on at the beginning of this battle in New York in the early ’60s. Talk a little bit about that, one of which your mother was involved in.
Felicia: Yes, so my mother was a member of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, which was, at the time, the umbrella organization for people who are interested in women’s civil rights and women’s emancipation and people who had an understanding of discrimination on the basis of sex. For people with that politics, it was the only game in town.
And my mother, as a member of NOW and a member of its abortion committee, drafted the first version of the New York City legislation that decriminalized abortion. Basically, the backstory is that abortion didn’t used to be a crime, right? Before the 19th century, abortion was not a crime according to the New York statutes. There was some stuff in the common law, the old law inherited from England.
So there was some stuff in the common law, but basically, nobody was ever prosecuted. Then in the late 1820s, New York created a crime around abortion, and then it took until 1970 to decriminalize it. So it was my mother’s legislation that she wrote the first draft of that said, “We want to decriminalize what the state law has criminalized [and] has turned into a crime. We say it should no longer be a crime. We should take it out of the state legal code.”
So when that law was finally passed in the spring of 1970, it wasn’t as radical as what my mom wanted. That’s what happens with legislation, right? You negotiate, you amend, but it was still the most liberal abortion law in the United States. And what was critically important about it was that there was no residency requirement and it was the only abortion law in the country that had no residency requirement.
So that meant that people could come from everywhere in the United States and even from countries abroad and seek a safe, legal abortion procedure in New York. And people did come. The data are very, very clear. People came from every state in the union. And it transformed the practice of abortion and people’s experiences of abortion immediately. And it also made people very aware of the inequality, right?
And we see this today, people who could make it to this safe haven state of New York; then, New York was really an outlier. Today, we have a bunch of safe haven states, but people who could make it to that safe haven state had a kind of access to a safe and legal procedure that people in other states who didn’t have the money or didn’t have the childcare or whatever simply couldn’t do. So I think the law was important in two ways, right?
On the one hand, it showed this could be done. It could be safe and legal and that people really wanted it. And on the other hand, it showed that there was gross inequality. And I think both of those things, the good and the bad of my mom’s law, really provide the fuel and the engine that then drives into the liberal decision in Roe v. Wade that Justice Blackmun would publish in 1973.
Jeff: And how was the battle against abuse of sterilization part of this whole social justice movement at that period of time?
Felicia: Well, what happens is that before abortion is decriminalized, when abortion is still a crime everywhere in the United States, there’s a very, very widespread movement. But then after Roe v. Wade, there’s a group of people who come to understand that having legal abortion, access to abortion, isn’t enough, [and] that it’s very important as one element of a reproductive rights struggle but that there are other things that also matter. And the key figure here is a woman who was my next-door neighbor for about a decade, a Puerto Rican doctor named Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías.
She was in favor of legal abortion and then once that was more or less handled around Roe v. Wade, she became a founder of this group called the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse or CESA. And what they were arguing [for] was what they called sterilization abuse: people being pressured into having sterilization surgeries that maybe weren’t right for them, being approached by doctors maybe when they were in a vulnerable moment after a difficult pregnancy or something like that. That that was as much of a denial of reproductive rights as was the denial of access to abortion, right? If you can’t get an abortion, then you’re forced to have a child when you don’t want one.
If you are forced or coerced into having a sterilization surgery, then you can’t have a child when maybe you want one, right? At some point in your life, you might want to have a child. And it was happening in America. People were being coerced into sterilization, especially Puerto Ricans and other Latinas in the United States and Black women in the South and many working-class and poor women, including some white women, right? It was really happening in America in the ’70s. And so there was a new wing of the reproductive rights movement that arose in the 1970s after Roe v. Wade saying, “Look, legal abortion is great and it’s not enough. We also need the right to have children and the right to not be pressured or harassed by our doctors.”
Jeff: Coming back to what you were talking about earlier, the battle is no longer just in the federal courts as it has been for so, so long, that it is now a political and economic battle in every single state and in the country as a whole. Do you think that this is going to be better for the movement in the long run? It’s hard to imagine that it’s better as a result of Dobbs, but there is the bigger picture here.
Felicia: I don’t think it’s better. I do mourn the loss of Roe v. Wade, absolutely. And I mourn it not just for itself but for what it means. As a feminist, as someone who identifies as a woman, as someone who teaches young people about the history of feminism in America, I really experienced what happened in the Supreme Court last spring and summer as a slap, almost physically like a body blow.
They’re saying to me and my students that our lives are not fully important in this country. So I’ll just underline that for a moment. And I will also say that for a long time, it’s been really important that we do this kind of demystification if that word rings for people. We had a myth that somehow, the Supreme Court was going to preserve our rights and at the other federal courts. And, meanwhile, our rights actually were dribbling away for a long time.
And so if there’s a silver lining here, it’s kind of the tear-off-the-Band-Aid silver lining like, “Oh, right, that’s who these guys are,” right? “Why did I ever think that they were going to preserve my rights? [chuckles] They’re not interested in doing that.” So I think it has helped in that way and it has made a lot of people understand what probably we all should have understood all along, which is this is a grassroots struggle.
It’s a long-term struggle. It goes on every day. It’s never done. The struggle against male dominance, white dominance, all of that stuff. It’s a struggle that we’re in every single day of our lives and we got to be there. I wouldn’t say it’s good but at the same time I would say, “Look, this is an opportunity for us to learn and rebuild,” and many, many people have been learning and rebuilding.
Jeff: And is this a state-by-state struggle at this point or is it a national struggle? Obviously, it’s both, but where is the locus of the action at this point or where should it be?
Felicia: I think a lot of the action is at the state and local level. And I think the story that I’m telling in A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life may help us with a kind of blueprint for that. So what I see in the earlier movement to decriminalize abortion is that people were able to go very, very quickly from what seemed like an impossible task to one that was done, right?
In New York, which, today, we think of as such a liberal jurisdiction on issues like abortion. When people started doing this work, when Percy Sutton, who was a representative from Harlem and later Manhattan Borough president, when he introduced the first law that would’ve liberalized the abortion laws in New York State, they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Pardon my language. People really thought this was a desperate effort. They thought they were going to have to amend the New York State Constitution in order to change abortion law, or maybe even amend the federal constitution, right?
That’s what they were looking at in 1965-66. But by 1970 – so it’s only five years, less than five years – they won in New York. And then in 1973, they won in Roe. And it was a very unanticipated victory for the movement in Roe v. Wade. They didn’t see it coming. So I think the struggle is absolutely a state and local one and we have to really dig into our localities and wherever we’re able to be efficacious. All kinds of different entities make meaningful decisions about our reproductive rights.
It can happen in the city council. It can happen in your hospital system, in your public hospital system, or even in the guidelines that are being established for private hospitals, right? There’s all kinds of decision-making that happens that can either support our reproductive rights or can deny reproductive rights. So I think that, obviously, as you were suggesting, we need to work both locally and nationally in support of reproductive rights, but I think it’s like 75 percent local. And with the [remaining] 25 percent, we can think about what we might want at the national level, but this is mostly a local and a state-level struggle and it will be for some time.
Jeff: Of course, the danger with that, the problem with that is that it creates such a patchwork of laws around the country.
Felicia: Yes, and it’s unfair and it’s unequal. And I think we need to be calling that out all the time and insist that there be equality and universality of access. Right now, today, somebody’s reproductive rights in my state in the relatively liberal Northeast are completely different from the rights that somebody has in a state that has shut down abortion access, in a place like Texas where they’re seeking to close the window up to six weeks of a pregnancy, which is really not a very big window if you know how pregnancy works.
I don’t understand why the Supreme Court thinks that that’s constitutional or why they think that’s legal or why they think it’s moral. So I think we need to have the struggle where we are and where we can win and sustain our rights. And we need to keep educating ourselves and each other and we need to have one eye on this national inequality, which is totally unacceptable.
Jeff: And you teach younger people in your classes. Is the younger generation today up to this challenge in your view?
Felicia: I think so. I love my students and I think my students are very much like the people that I’m writing about in A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life. My fear or my concern is that there’s been so much dispiriting bad news that they may decide that it’s not winnable. So that’s part of the reason that I wrote this book, is because I want people to understand. I want this rising generation to understand that, in my view, these battles are winnable.
On the evidence of the past, they’re winnable. I got very sad when Justice Kavanaugh was under scrutiny when he was being chosen for the US Supreme Court. There were mass demonstrations in Washington and disabled people and feminists were in the halls of Congress. And I actually said to my students, “Look, if you feel like you need to go to Washington and participate in this, then we’ll figure out a way for you to make up the work.” I didn’t quite say, “Leave. Please leave.”
Felicia: I almost said that. Yes, students felt like – as people who identify as gay or trans or feminists – if they felt like they needed to go, I would work with them. And my students said, “It’s not going to work. We’re not going to win this one.” So they stayed home. And that’s what scares me is that the generation that lived through the promise of the Obama years and then had this terrible Trump era reaction, and now this absurd Supreme Court that they may feel like it’s not winnable. And I want to tell them, “Look, it really is. It’s winnable if we all work together.”
Jeff: And what happens if they think that it’s not winnable? If this generation, this younger generation, is not up to the challenge, how does it play out, do you think?
Felicia: I don’t know. I don’t have a scenario. What I see right now is that people are stepping up, right? And it doesn’t have to be everyone, but as we know throughout our history and the history of all human societies when there’s an empowered group, even if it’s an empowered minority that really, really cares and is willing to go to the mat and put everything they have on the line, then they win. So that’s what I see happening here. And if my students stay home, then I don’t know what happens then. They were in some crazy Handmaid’s Tale kind of situation. And I prefer not to think that we’re going that way, at least not this week.
Jeff: Well, the work, once again, gets left to the boomer generation.
Felicia: Right. Well, I think there also have been people my age and older people who remember what it was like before 1973 or before New York changed its law in 1970 who are stepping up as well, right? And I think that’s powerful and I think that we need to all work together.
Jeff: Felicia Kornbluh, her book is A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice. Felicia, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Felicia: Thank you too.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.