Book Club: Her Body, Our Laws

By 2014, law professor Michelle Oberman was no stranger to El Salvador. She had already spent four years making research trips to the Central American country, but that June she would need a local guide during her travels. An activist had volunteered to accompany her on the interview she needed to conduct, a task that required a two-and-a-half-hour trip outside the city to an area that is not well mapped — in fact, to a village where there are “no signs or numbers” to help visitors find their way among the cinder-block houses and the patchwork of land where the clucks and lowing of livestock punctuate the silence.


Paid maternity leave, monthly child allowances, and affordable day care and health care decrease demand for abortion.


Once in the village, it took Oberman and her guide an additional 45 minutes to find the house they needed to visit. Inside, a curtain was all that separated the main room from a small bedroom in the back. A bucket and outdoor basin served as a shower, and an outhouse completed the bathroom facilities. The living conditions there were not uncommon — not in a country where roughly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.

That poverty was both the cause and consequence of a conflict between left-wing rebels and government forces that lasted from 1979 to 1992. In many ways, that conflict set the stage for the abortion war in El Salvador, the subject of Oberman’s recently published book, Her Body, Our Laws: On the Frontlines of the Abortion War from El Salvador to Oklahoma (Beacon Press, 2018).

From Civil War to Abortion War

In the early 1980s, the small republic of El Salvador was in the grip of civil war, while in the U.S., debates raged over the emerging Sanctuary Movement that was aiding Salvadoran and other Central American refugees. The movement began in 1981, when Quaker activist Jim Corbett and Presbyterian Pastor John Fife, both of Tucson, pledged to “protect, defend, and advocate for” the many people fleeing warfare and political turmoil in El Salvador and neighboring countries. Tucson was at the forefront of the movement as refugees crossed through Mexico and arrived at the Arizona border. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 2: Race and Abortion from Roe to the Reagan Years

This article is our second installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined how fears of immigration — and racist notions that associated abortion with the barbarism of so-called “savage” races — fueled the opposition to abortion that led to its prohibition in the late 1800s. This installment examines the social forces that helped racism and opposition to abortion converge again in the first years after Roe v. Wade.

Replica of a banner used at NAACP headquarters from 1920 to 1938

A principle of democracy holds that while majority rule should serve as the guiding force of government, at times it must be reconciled with the rights of individuals and minorities. It was an idea Thomas Jefferson captured in his inaugural speech of 1801:

All … will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail … that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect.

With that understanding, the framers wrote the Constitution to include provisions for a judicial branch, composed of judges whose lifetime appointments would free them from the pressures of elections and afford them greater independence in their decisions. The branch would serve as the nation’s highest judicial body, above state and local courts.


Before his obsession with abortion and Tinky Winky, Jerry Falwell fought civil rights and integration.


For much of U.S. history, local, state, and federal judicial systems existed alongside another judicial system, one far less formal and conceived not in the interest of protecting minorities, but often in meting out the harshest possible punishments for them. It was the vigilante justice of lynching, sometimes known as Lynch law. Named after the Virginia plantation owner Charles Lynch, it was a form of mob justice that took root in the Revolutionary War era, before an official court system was fully established. It came to mean quick trials that ended in public hangings.

Though lynching was initially used against British loyalists, eventually Southern blacks became the overwhelming majority of its victims. Many Native Americans, Asians, Jews, and Mexicans were also lynched. According to the NAACP, between 1882 and 1968, in the period of racial tension in the post-slavery and civil rights years, 4,743 lynchings took place, and 3,446 of its victims were black. Rather than taking place under the cover of night or in countryside seclusion, many lynchings were staged in broad daylight, even in front of courthouses, and they were often advertised beforehand in newspapers — a blunt assertion of their existence as a separate judicial system for people of color. Though associated with the South, they took place in the North as well. In fact, only a few states — Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — had no lynchings between 1882 and 1968. Continue reading

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

Abortion: What’s Faith Got to Do with It?

sunsetPlenty, actually. Whenever I hear a politician claiming he or she is a person of faith, I cringe. All too often it’s followed by the words: “I believe in the sanctity of all life, which is why I’m against abortions and will work to defund Planned Parenthood.”

In one sense, faith is a belief in a supreme being or in a particular religion. Not all religions are opposed to abortion, however. A 2013 Pew Research article reveals a wide range of opinions.

Traditional Judaism, for example, approves abortion as “a means of safeguarding the life and well-being of a mother.” Most of the branches openly support a woman’s right to safe and accessible abortions.


Let’s build bridges across our beliefs, instead of building ideological walls between one another.


Though Buddhism has no official position on abortion, many Buddhists hold the belief that human life begins at conception and that, therefore, abortion is morally wrong. However, in Japan, with a large Buddhist population, abortions are common.

Traditional Hinduism condemns abortion except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk. It follows the general value system “that the correct course of action in any given situation is the one that causes the least harm to those involved.”

Although Islamic scholars disagree over exactly when life begins or when abortion is acceptable, most view terminating a pregnancy after four months — “the point at which, in Islam, a fetus is thought to become a living soul” — as not permissible. Many also believe that, prior to four months, abortions should only be permitted in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger. Continue reading

STD Awareness: June Is National Congenital Cytomegalovirus Awareness Month

CMVPop quiz: Can you name the virus that most commonly infects developing fetuses when they are still in the womb?

Here’s a hint: June is National Congenital Cytomegalovirus Awareness Month.

In case that clue didn’t make it obvious enough, I’ll tell you the answer. The most common infection among developing fetuses is caused by a virus you might not have heard of: cytomegalovirus, or CMV. Around 30,000 children are born with this infection every year, and some of these babies will go on to develop serious problems because of it. National Congenital Cytomegalovirus Awareness Month is a time to learn about how CMV can affect pregnancy.


Cytomegalovirus can damage developing brain cells early in an embryo’s gestation.


This year, it might be of even greater interest, given the parallels that can be drawn between CMV and Zika virus, the emerging pathogen that has been dominating headlines lately. First of all, both CMV and Zika virus can be transmitted sexually, though they are not the first things you think of when the topic of STDs comes up, as they are overshadowed by more famous sexually transmitted viruses like herpes and human papillomavirus. While many of us are infected with CMV as children, we can also be infected as adults, often through sexual transmission — the virus can be found in cervical and vaginal secretions, saliva, and semen. The sexual transmission of Zika virus is not as well understood, but we know it can be found in semen, and there are documented cases of men passing the virus to sex partners through vaginal and anal intercourse. It might even be transmitted from a male to a partner by oral sex.

Second of all, both CMV and Zika virus are associated with birth defects. However, while the connection between CMV and birth defects has been known to us for decades, it was only in April that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that Zika virus can cause fetal brain defects (though we’re still waiting for conclusive proof). Microcephaly is probably the most infamous of the birth defects associated with Zika virus, as well as CMV, but it’s not well defined. When you get down to it, though, microcephaly just refers to an abnormally small head, which itself might be indicative of a brain that has failed to develop fully. Continue reading

Let’s Talk Contraception: Dispelling Myths About Emergency Contraception

EmergencyContraceptionSince 1998, when the Food and Drug Administration first approved the morning-after pill, there have been controversies about its sale and use. Initially, age restrictions were enforced to regulate its sale, and some hospitals and pharmacies refused to provide it to their patients. After considerable pressure from public and medical groups, emergency contraception (EC) is available for sale to anyone at their local pharmacy, with the exception of ella and the copper IUD, both of which require prescriptions.


Emergency contraception is widely available, easy to use, and safe!


And yet, after almost 20 years of remarkably safe use, there are still myths regarding its safety, actions and use. Let’s look at some of those myths right now!

First, there are misunderstandings regarding EC’s availability:

Myth: EC is hard to get and you need a prescription.

Since 2013, most ECs are available to buy in pharmacies over the counter to anyone, regardless of age or gender. There are two exceptions: If you need ella, another morning-after pill, you do need a prescription, and the copper IUD requires placement by a health care provider.

Myth: There is only one type of EC available.

There are several different pills available, such as Plan B One-Step or generic equivalents. These all contain levonorgestrol, a progesterone hormone that is also in many other contraceptives. Ella contains ulipristal acetate and works effectively and evenly up to five days after unprotected sex. Ella is dispensed with a prescription. The copper IUD also needs a prescription but is the most effective EC when placed within five days of unprotected sex. It is recommended for obese women or women who have had several episodes of unprotected sex, and its contraceptive effect lasts 10 years. Continue reading

Book Club: Pro – Reclaiming Abortion Rights

Pro PollittPro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt, prize-winning author, poet, essayist, and columnist for The Nation, is a book for people who are in the “muddled middle” of the abortion debate. YOU are a member of this group — more than half of Americans — if you do not want to ban abortion, exactly, but don’t want it to be widely available, either.

Pollitt argues that “muddlers” are clinging to an illogical and ultimately untenable position and need to sit down and examine their reasoning carefully. She does so in a witty, engaging manner, taking us through 218 pages in the following six chapters:

RECLAIMING ABORTION. Pollitt states her case:

“Abortion. We need to talk about it. I know, sometimes it seems as if we talk of little else, so perhaps I should say we need to talk about it differently. Not as something we all agree is a bad thing about which we shake our heads sadly and then debate its precise degree of badness, preening ourselves on our judiciousness and moral seriousness as we argue about this or that restriction on this or that kind of woman. We need to talk about ending a pregnancy as a common, even normal, event in the reproductive lives of women … We need to see abortion as an urgent practical decision that is just as moral as the decision to have a child — indeed, sometimes more moral.”

WHAT DO AMERICANS THINK ABOUT ABORTION? Polls are one thing; voting, another. Voters in even the most conservative states reject extreme abortion restrictions, despite polls predicting passage. Continue reading