It also coincided with the release of a new book called A woman’s life is a human life: my mother, our neighbor and the journey from reproductive rights to reproductive justice.
The book describes, among other things, how activists fought for the decriminalization of abortion in the United States.
It was written by Dr. Felicia Kornbluh. She is a professor of history and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of Vermont — and a former commentator for the Vermont Public.
Mary Williams Engisch of Vermont Public spoke to Kornbluh about her book and the reproductive rights movement. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Williams Engisch: As the title implies, you have close ties to the subjects of this book. They both play important roles in the reproductive rights movement. One of those people is your mother, and another is your neighbor from your days growing up in New York City. Can you explain what they did?
Dr. Felicia Kornbluh: My mom, she actually worked as an employment attorney. But in her limited free time, with three children, she was a member of the National Organization for Women. And as a member of NOW, she drafted the law that would decriminalize abortion in New York State. And it was something very important in the history of New York, but also in the history of the entire country. Three years before Roe s. Wade, New York ended up very ambitiously decriminalizing abortion, saying you didn’t even have to be a resident of New York State to get a safe legal abortion in that state during the first 24 weeks of a pregnancy. So it changed the map of abortion care and access to abortion across the country.
And after many years I remember we had this wonderful woman who was our neighbor. And her name was Helen Rodríguez Trias. She was a Puerto Rican female doctor and she fought for abortion rights for Roe v. Wade. And after Roe vs. Wade said the reproductive rights movement should be even broader than that, and that we should also focus on the sterilization abuses that happened to working-class, disabled, and non-white women. And we really should stand for a reproductive rights movement that respects all people’s decisions about reproduction. Not only if we didn’t want children, but also when we did want children and everything we might need to be able to make that choice free.
Why did you decide to write a book about that era in history in which they were involved?
First of all, I find it fascinating. I tried to bring out the texture of that time of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s when things were changing so fast.
But aside from the sheer fascination with it, I thought it was so important even before the [Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization] of the US Supreme Court last June – but especially since then – that it was important for us to know what has changed in the past and how people have made legal and social changes.
I think in hindsight it often seems like, “Well, it was easy back then. You know, it was a liberal time,” or something like that. But it wasn’t a liberal time per se; it was a time when people became more liberal and more responsive to civil rights demands. Whether it was demands for women’s civil rights, or civil rights for communities of color – they’ve done it from the bottom up. I wanted to help all of us understand what it takes to make these very, very big social changes and legal changes. And maybe we need such a move. I think we need another move like that.
Tell me about writing a book about people you know so well, especially your mother.
It’s very challenging. I will say that in a way there was something very, very tender and very lovely about doing this project. The book begins with my mother’s death. And I didn’t really know this story until after my mom was gone. Researching and writing it was a way to stay close to her and a way to honor her memory. That has been such a rich experience for me.
But I also had to face some of the ways that her political perspective differed from mine, and differed from the perspective of this wonderful woman who was our neighbor. You know, my mom was fierce about her advocacy for abortion rights. But she often failed to understand that the things that mattered most to her as a white woman and a professional class, that there were different needs for working class people or poor black women, Native American or Indigenous women, Latinas. They had different experiences, including different experiences with reproduction and how they were treated by their doctors and hospitals.
And those were things my mother didn’t see. So I had to confront that too. To be tender about her and her history and keep enough distance so that I can also see the partiality in the places where she didn’t do well.
What role did Vermont play in the reproductive rights movement of the late 1960s and 1970s?
Well, Vermont wasn’t as quick as New York to change its abortion law. But it still decriminalized abortion before Roe v. Wade. In 1972, Vermont was also ready to change its law. I think it was important that this state, along with other states, moved in that direction because the Supreme Court knew this was going to be controversial. And Justice [Harry] Blackmun, who wrote the advice for Roe v. Wade, was concerned about the backlash. You know, this is from 1973. So I think the fact that there was an emerging group of states, including Vermont, that were willing to take a new path made the judges feel like they weren’t going too far ahead. a limb.
With Roe down, the fight over abortion rights in the US has reached this different level of intensity. In Vermont, however, elected officials and voters last year amended the constitution to protect reproductive rights. What’s the next frontier for reproductive rights in Vermont?
I think the next step is to make sure our health care providers are protected — that no one in Texas can successfully sue a Vermont doctor, for example. We need to understand the broader agenda beyond protecting reproductive freedom; what about making sure everyone can afford reproductive health care? How about making sure that we have a really robust system if someone has a child so that they can raise that child in dignity and health? And the campaign for universal school meals in our K through 12 system, we could see that as a form of reproductive justice because it empowers people to raise children and health and dignity. So for me that’s the next frontier. And that goes beyond reproductive rights, to think about reproductive justice for all our citizens.
Are there any other lessons we can take from your book and apply to the present day?
I think the most important thing is to understand that whatever our experience has been – and our political starting point – others have different experiences and we need a broad and inclusive movement. Of course we would have to fight the battle we already know. Beyond that, there may be other battles that we don’t even know about yet because we haven’t talked to everyone in our community about their needs and their experiences yet. And I think that’s the next chapter.
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