The Racial and Reproductive Justice of Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall, 1967. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

On January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as America’s 45th president, almost half a million people descended on Washington, D.C., in what the Washington Post called “likely the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history.” The Women’s March was held to protest the election of a highly unpopular president, who had been exposed in the months leading up to the election as someone who insulted the appearance and intelligence of women, boasted of his aggressive sexual advances toward others, and vowed to nominate a Supreme Court judge who would roll back women’s access to abortion. In D.C., and at solidarity marches around the nation and the world, people arrived for a massive show of support for women’s rights and reproductive justice.


Thurgood Marshall was a “great champion of intersecting struggles against racism and sexism.”


Actor Chadwick Boseman, who was on the set of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, a movie based on the first black superhero featured in mainstream comics, took a break from filming that morning to tweet, “Shooting Black Panther on a Saturday. But my heart is at the Women’s March.” It was a fitting sentiment for an actor who had also been cast to star in Marshall, the recently released biopic about the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall was known foremost for his role in important civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education, as well as for becoming the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice some 50 years ago this month, he was also an influential figure in the history of reproductive justice. While the biopic focuses on his early career, when he handled a 1941 case involving a black defendant facing racially charged allegations and a prejudiced criminal justice system, it was not until more than three decades after that case — and more than five years after his swearing in to the Supreme Court — that Marshall became a fixture in the history of abortion rights in the U.S. Continue reading

Celebrating Mexico’s Contributions to the Birth Control Pill

September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month. We’re celebrating by shining the spotlight on Mexico’s role in developing the birth control pill, one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century.


Humanity cannot fully unlock its potential until we release the bonds of oppression from all marginalized groups.


Underneath the surface of a large swath of Southern Mexico’s jungles lay the enormous roots of a wild yam, Dioscorea composita, known locally as barbasco. Mostly it was considered a nuisance, as it could get in the way of subsistence agriculture, but it did have its uses in traditional medicine — and it would change history forever when scientists figured out how to wrest valuable chemical compounds from it, a discovery that led directly to the development of the birth control pill.

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University ArchivesIn the 1940s, hormones held an untapped potential for research, but there was no cost-effective method of producing large quantities of them — including progesterone, the Pill’s essential ingredient. An American chemist named Russell Marker set out to find a way to synthesize progesterone in abundance, hypothesizing that plants from the genus Dioscorea, which includes yams and agaves, would be a good source for starting material. After some research, he set his sights on wild-growing yams that were found only in Mexico.

Marker’s hunch brought him south of the U.S. border, where locals helped him find and gather these yams, enabling him to develop a method for synthesizing large batches of progesterone — more than had ever been in one place. When pharmaceutical companies would not invest in further research in Mexico, Marker relocated to Mexico City and put his money where his mouth was. In January 1944, he co-founded a lab named Syntex — a portmanteau of “synthesis” and “Mexico” — devoted to finagling hormones from wild Mexican yams. That yam was called barbasco by the indigenous population, and it was the industry’s choice for the raw material in hormone synthesis. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Friday News Rundown

  • It goes without saying that these are uncertain, uneasy times for many of us living in America right now. We have an unstable, habitually dishonest, temperamentally unfit egomaniac in the Oval Office intent on decimating women’s reproductive rights and the American health care system as we know it. The future of Planned Parenthood and our patients, many of whom have no other health care options, is at grave risk right now — more than ever. (Buzzfeed)

  • Thank you to Lisa Patrick, a writer at The Good Men Project, for making the moral case for keeping Planned Parenthood funded. (The Good Men Project)
  • Women across America to Republican dolt Steve King, who recently and ironically lamented government’s role in regulating the bodies of citizens: “Welcome to our world, hypocrite!” (Raw Story)
  • Headline: “California’s “Trust Women” License Plates to Help Pay for Reproductive Care in Trump Era”. Can we get these in Arizona??? (Rewire)
  • Iowa is taking a stab at “personhood,” which has failed in literally every other state that has attempted to legally designate eggs as “persons.” Were this initiative to pass, it would represent a serious danger to women’s access to birth control as almost every method of contraception could be wrongly construed as “abortifacients.” (Iowa Gazette)
  • Birth control failure rates are lower than ever! (NPR)
  • After Texas suffered a major loss in their battle to defund Planned Parenthood, Rewire ponders: “What’s next?” (Rewire)
  • Sadly, women in our military have a very difficult time getting access to birth control. And, ironically, most of them are seeking birth control as a means to control their menstrual cycles during times of deployment — not to prevent pregnancy. (The Atlantic)
  • With birth control being so effective and so very vital to so many women’s lives, it’s incredibly disheartening to know that the Trump Administration could quickly and easily weaken or even eliminate the provision for full coverage of contraception in the Affordable Care Act. (Think Progress)
  • Congratulations, Colorado, on becoming the third state to allow pharmacists to prescribe birth control!! (Pharmacy Times)
  • Missouri House Republican Mike Moon is infamous for trying to pass as much anti-choice, forced-birth legislation as he can. Moon, who is so pro-life he has no history (that I can locate) of adopting or fostering children in need, is now trying to pass HB 1014, aka the “Never Again Act.” Moon wants to make an abortion museum exhibit that would feature abortion tools throughout the ages and their effects on “abortion victims.” Cluelessly, he also conflates abortion with slavery and the Nazi holocaust. Sure, Mike — making choices about one’s own body is exactly the same as forced enslavement, torture, and brutalization of human beings based on race and is also totally equivalent to burning people alive in ovens due to differing religious practices! (Romper)
  • The new president really is a moron of colossal proportions. He actually gave the quote “Nobody Knew Health Care Could Be So Complicated.” Um, excuse me, Stupid, but literally everyone knew that. Literally everyone. PLEASE WALK AWAY FROM THIS JOB! PLEASE! (NY Mag)
  • Republicans have no idea what the hell they’re doing with regard to the Affordable Care Act, but rest assured, it will leave more people uninsured, it will screw the poor, and people with preexisting conditions (including yours truly — I have an incurable autoimmune disease) will suffer. (WaPo)

“You Have No Idea How Important This Is”: Anita Hill’s Testimony and the Arizona Attorneys Behind the Scenes

Anita HillWhen Justice Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court in the summer of 1991, it didn’t bode well for women. Marshall, the first African American appointed to the court, was best known for his expertise and influence on civil rights law, but he had also been a defender of reproductive rights during his tenure in the nation’s highest court. He was among the court majority that legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, and he again stood up for abortion rights in two later cases, Harris v. McRae and Webster v. Reproductive Health Services.


The impact of Anita Hill’s testimony went beyond the question of Clarence Thomas’ appointment.


Marshall’s decision to leave the Supreme Court was announced during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, who had campaigned on an anti-abortion platform in his 1988 presidential bid. Predictably, Bush used the opportunity to replace Marshall with a more conservative judge. At a press conference on July 1, 1991, President Bush named Clarence Thomas, who was then one of the few African-American judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals, as his nominee.

Thomas had only served 19 months as a federal judge and, at 43, was relatively young for an appointee. Of the justices currently serving, he was the youngest at the time of appointment. Nonetheless, he had a record of statements and judgments that was enough to satisfy the Republican base. Though he had spent eight years as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), he had been critical of affirmative action and school desegregation initiatives, and he questioned the very idea that the government should take action to address racial inequality. A product of a Catholic upbringing and Catholic schooling, Thomas had called the right of married couples to use contraceptives an “invention.” Groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) immediately spoke out against Thomas’ nomination, expressing concern that his presence on the court could put Roe v. Wade at risk. Continue reading

Will St. John’s Wort Affect Birth Control?

Herbal remedies are very popular around the world. Many people prefer them to pharmaceuticals because they believe herbs can elicit positive results without serious side effects. However, plants produce a wide variety of chemicals at varying concentrations, and might have a number of effects on your body, both good and bad. Furthermore, since herbal supplements are not evaluated by the FDA for safety or effectiveness, consumers often don’t have ready access to evidence about herbal products. We can’t even be sure that they contain the ingredients that are listed on the label!


St. John’s wort might decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills, and might be unsafe during pregnancy.


One popular herb is St. John’s wort, or Hypericum perforatum. While the scientific evidence is mixed at best, many people believe that St. John’s wort can be used as an antidepressant. However, people often treat themselves with herbal supplements without guidance from a medical doctor or pharmacist — and without knowing whether or not these herbs are safe to use with any medications they might be taking.

Over the millennia, plants have evolved all sorts of powerful chemicals, such as toxins, to defend themselves against insects and other predators. For this reason, we can’t assume that plants only contain inert chemicals that won’t affect us or interact with the chemicals in other drugs and supplements we use. St. John’s wort, in fact, contains chemicals that interfere with other medications. It has been banned in France, and other countries require or are considering warning labels on St. John’s wort products so consumers can be aware of possible drug interactions. Continue reading

Let’s Talk Contraception: New Developments in Contraceptives for Women

Image: Microchips Biotechnology

Image: Microchips Biotechnology

With the availability of an array of birth control methods ranging from pills to patches, from rings to shots, from male condoms to female condoms, and from implants to intrauterine devices, you might think there is no need for further research into contraception. But not all women around the world have access to the choices that many of us reading this article might take for granted. In fact, many have no access to contraceptives at all.


What do you think about a birth control implant that lasts 16 years and can be activated by remote control?


The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is leading the charge in the development of new types of contraceptives for women, especially those who live in areas of the world without easy access to modern contraceptives. According to the World Health Organization, 225 million women in developing countries would like to delay or stop childbearing, but are not using any method of contraception. By giving large grants through their foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates are providing the financial backing for contraceptive research and drug development, which will enable women worldwide to take control of their health — and the health of their children.

In 2012, the Gates Foundation granted Microchips Biotech $6.7 million to develop a microchip implant containing the hormone levonorgestrel (which is a hormone in many oral birth control pills). This very small device, which measures only 20 millimeters by 20 millimeters by 7 millimeters, contains an internal battery and a microchip holding tiny reservoirs of the hormone. The device is implanted under the skin of a woman’s buttocks, upper arm, or abdomen. Once implanted, it releases 30 micrograms of levonorgestrel into the body each day when a small electrical charge inside the chip melts an ultra-thin seal around the hormone reservoir to release the daily dose of medication. Continue reading

Let’s Talk Contraception: Contraceptive Changes on the Horizon

MicrogestinThe Affordable Care Act has undeniably improved women’s ability to receive preventive care that includes contraception. Insured women are now able to have any FDA-approved birth control provided to them at no cost as part of their preventive health care. Access to contraception has been shown time and again to improve the lives of women, their children, and their families by allowing them to plan and space pregnancies, decreasing maternal and infant mortality and also increasing their economic stability.


Some states are taking steps to make birth control less expensive and more convenient to obtain!


The Affordable Care Act has also undeniably opened up a Pandora’s box of contraception-related issues.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states that “contraception is an essential part of preventive care and all women should have unhindered and affordable access to any FDA approved contraceptive.” In their yearly report, “Access to Contraception,” they advocate 18 recommendations, which include:

  • over-the-counter access to oral contraceptives that is accompanied by insurance coverage or some other cost support
  • payment coverage for 3- to 13-month supplies of birth control to improve contraceptive continuation

In the United States, statistics show that half of all pregnancies are unintended. A recent study has shown that if women who were at risk for unintended pregnancy were able to easily access effective birth control (such as the Pill) at low cost and without a prescription, their rate of unintended pregnancy would decrease significantly. Continue reading