Pregnancy and Power

Reviewed by Kim Nielsen

Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America.

By Rickie Solinger

New York: New York University Press, 2005, 301 pp., $27.95, hardcover


Grounded in a vision of what a country with reproductive justice could be, Rickie Solinger persuasively argues in her smart, readable new book Pregnancy and Power that "reproductive politics"-the question of who has power over pregnancy and its consequences-has shaped and continues to shape the lives of both women and men in the United States. Policy-makers, government officials, religious figures, and media commentators [and feminists?] have claimed that reproductive politics hold the solution to social problems such as poverty, race relations, and social upheaval.

Solinger explains, "When the state takes the right to decide which women are legitimate mothers, the state has, historically, also taken the right to treat different groups of women differently." Such differential treatment is of course unjust; and it limits feminists' ability to organize against it by making cross-class or cross-race coalitions difficult to sustain. Solinger believes that "the right to reproduce safely and with dignity is a fundamental human right, as is the right not to reproduce." When the state denies women control of their own sexual and reproductive bodies, when it denies them maternal legitimacy, it denies them full citizenship.

Solinger tells story of how, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day, women's reproductive capacity has been used ;m uncomfortable with the passive voice here & elsewhere-who has used it, and how?] as a tool to ensure privilege. At the same time, women have struggled to make their own reproductive choices. Before the Civil War, the regulation of sexual intimacy and reproduction was a primary way that the state created and then policed racial and gender boundaries. These boundaries defined citizenship; thus, enslaved women had almost no reproductive control: they could not choose their partners, maintain their reproductive health, live with their families, or mother their own children. Their offspring were commodities. In contrast, white womanhood and motherhood were ennobled-at least, for those who pledged themselves to chastity and supported the criminalization of abortion and contraception. Violating those strictures meant illegitimate motherhood, even for whites.

During the period of urbanization, from the 1870s to the 1920s, women's reproductive experiences were further stratified. Despite the 1873 Comstock Law and others that banned contraceptives and abortion, more and more white, middle-class women took advantage of emerging notions and possibilities of privacy to make their own reproductive choices. [explain or give example of how these 2 contradictory trends could happen simultaneously?] On the one hand, contraception and abortion were becoming commercialized. [example?] On the other, eugenic policies, miscegenation laws, and poverty brought the sex-and-pregnancy experiences of poor white women, African American women, and others deemed unfit for reproduction under public scrutiny. For example, Native American women were considered inherently unfit mothers; many lost their children to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their language or practice their religion.

The economic stresses of the Great Depression increased the desire of many women [of all races & classes? Poor & women of color?] to manage their fertility. However, it also strengthened and made more explicit the claim [who made this claim and where & how?] that uncontrolled reproduction by poor, irresponsible women had caused the country's social and economic problems. The Aid to Dependent Children program of the 1935 Social Security Act further racialized legitimate motherhood. Officials routinely defined poor mothers of color as "reproductively expensive and producers of worthless children." They refused them economic assistance and took away their children. Some women were sterilized against their will or without their knowledge. Poor white women were more likely to be considered legitimate mothers under this bureaucratic, centrally planned system.

Stratified reproductive politics did not disappear with the advent of the birth control pill. Public debates about the pill were racialized: young white women were encouraged to use it to protect their reputations and futures; young African American women were encouraged to use it to curb the social problems supposedly caused by "too many" poor black babies. Poor women became potent symbols of danger-of "what could happen when the wrong people got rights." Yet increasingly, [in the feminist movement?] single mothers both of color and white argued that their motherhood was legitimate. Women of color in particular demanded an end to coerced sterilization.

Solinger's analysis of the results of the increasing use of the language of choice in reproductive politics is chilling. Persuasively, she argues that hidden behind choice rhetoric and ideology is the reality that "a woman's race and her class position... profoundly shape her access to reproductive self-determination." Almost universally, "the good choice-maker" is defined "as the woman who has earned the right to exercise choice properly by having enough money to be a legitimate and proper mother." Women without economic resources are considered bad choice-makers, who should not reproduce-even as poverty and public policies like the Hyde Amendment limit poor women's access to birth control. Choice language thus obscures the disparities of access.

Usefully, [ok?] Solinger concludes with a visionary statement of what a society dedicated to reproductive justice would look like. We would share a commitment to the reproductive health, safety, and dignity of all women; we would stop blaming poor people for their problems; and we would consider the choice of whether or not to reproduce to be an essential human right. Obviously, we're not even close. The accumulating restrictions on abortion, sentiments that value the fetus over the pregnant woman, female prisoners' almost complete lack of reproductive control, and the increasingly limited reproductive information given to teenagers are all symptoms of increasing state[?] control over the definition of legitimate pregnancy and motherhood. Reproductive politics continue to reinforce privilege and to shape society-even for groups of women outside of Solinger's class/racial analysis, such as for women with disabilities.

Although I agree with Solinger that women can be full citizens only when they have reproductive control, I struggled with this book. Sometimes, I saw in myself the ideology Solinger argues against. I'm one of those white, middle-class, able-bodied women with maternal legitimacy. While I don't want to argue that motherhood is a class privilege, I have to admit that I've heard the grumpy internal commentary in my own head about "those women" who live in poverty with more children than I. I've made my maternal decisions based on my economic capacity, and proudly consider myself a responsible choice-maker. I've caught myself doubting the legitimacy of some women's motherhood. I believe that some actions [such as...] do render a person an illegitimate mother. [unfit parent?] The feminist task, at least for me, is to reconcile or resolve the conflicted debates in my brain. While Pregnancy and Power made me uneasy, it made me think-and for that, I like this book immensely.

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