Reproductive Freedom: The Genealogy of a Human Right

Monday, January 5, 2009: 8:50 AM
Lenox Ballroom (Sheraton New York)
Ann T. Allen , University of Louisville, Louisville, KY
The overall theme of this round-table is the "ethic of care" and the problems that it poses, especially when interventions designed to protect vulnerable people threaten their liberty and autonomy. A classical example of this conflict is provided by the early history of the birth-control and eugenics in Europe--movements that involved many feminists. My presentation will focus on the ideas and practical work of these movements in three European countries--Britain, France, and Germany--during the period from about 1920-1950s.  These activists started from a classic maternalist "ethic of care," focused on the health and well-being of mothers and children.  They justified women's right to reproductive self-determination by citing the benefits of planned and voluntary child-bearing to families and communities. But this same argument could also justify authoritarian measures--such as restrictions on marriage or even compulsory sterilization--against people (both male and female) who were thought incapable of making wise reproductive decisions.  Because this is too long a story to tell in ten minutes, I will focus chiefly on problems of historical interpretation.  How should present-day historians assess this problematic history?  And what are its implications for reproductive policy-making in the present? Although the examples will be European, the issues raised here are of international significance.