History of reproductive health panel educates CWRU and raises awareness

Nihal Manjila, Staff Writer

Recently, members of the Case Western Reserve University community held a panel on the history of reproductive health. This was the first of a speaker series that the Reproductive Health Task Force was hosting on reproductive health and justice. Provost and Executive Vice President Ben Vinson III gave opening remarks, and the three panelists were associate professor Aviva Rothman, professor of history and co-director of the Women and Gender Studies Program Renée Sentilles and assistant professor Noël Voltz. 

Opening the discussion, Rothman argued that medical legal history was at the root of the legal argument around abortion. She described how people had been thinking about abortion for a very long time, giving Aristotle’s reflection on fetal development as an example. She discussed the idea of epigenesis, a concept used to describe how a being gains a soul. Within this framework, humans are described as having rational souls that develop after conception. 

For male fetuses, this process takes 40 days and for female fetuses 80, meaning fetuses could be alive but lack a soul. 

She went on to describe how Christian thinkers, including St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, structured Christian beliefs of fetal development on this Aristotelian framework. Quickening, or the first movement of a fetus, began to be seen as the beginning of human life, determined by what the pregnant mother could physically feel. 

Rothman further described the lack of historical basis for the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Understandings of life have changed over time due to advances in technology. Additionally, total abortion bans are ahistorical when considering the history of abortion access in the U.S.

The second panelist to speak was Dr. Sentilles, who spoke about how abortion had been illegal in the U.S. for roughly 93 years. Medical politics were at the center of legal changes from roughly 1860 to 1973, and religion was not at the heart of the abortion debate until the 1980s. From the U.S.’s earliest days, abortion had been legal, as English common law allowed for the practice. Eventually, there came to be a period where state laws controlled access to abortion before the SCOTUS ruling that protected abortion access. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, control over abortion access has once again returned to state governments.

Sentilles explained that there were many methods of contraception and abortion practiced across times, places and cultures. Women controlled female reproduction prior to the 1860s, as midwives performed various procedures for women and their families. The U.S. birth rate dropped by half between 1800 and 1900, raising concerns among some white Americans who feared for the future of the “white race.” Sentilles continued on to say that due to this, motherhood became revered for upper- and middle-class white women who could help save the “white race.” The advertising and selling of abortion and contraception began to be seen as a sign of moral decay within the nation. 

Additionally, the panel noted that the creation of the American Medical Association in 1847—composed entirely of white men—was fueled by a desire to outlaw midwifery and villanize abortion as wrong when performed outside of hospitals. Police enforcing anti-abortion laws went after doctors and medical practitioners on the margins, as well as non-pregnant women themselves. This period of 93 years, from 1880-1973, was characterized by abortion being illegal except when performed by reputable doctors trying to save women’s lives. 

Sentilles also addressed that while it is often said that men are trying to take away women’s access to abortion, there are many women on both sides of the abortion debate. New state laws criminalizing abortion are more extreme than previous iterations, and are not advocated for by the medical establishment. These new laws also target pregnant women and people helping women get abortions, and rely on pregnancy tests that measure pregnancy based on implantation. 

The final speaker, Voltz, spoke on the importance of bodily autonomy when studying Black women in the U.S. In doing so, Voltz structured her discussion around four central themes: Black women seeing abortion as liberation, Black women seeing abortion as oppression, abortion being a part of healthcare for Black women and abortion fundamentally being about bodily autonomy. 

Voltz described how abortion had historically been a method of resistance against sexual assault and forced breeding by white slave masters in the U.S. In the scientific field, Black women experienced similar hardships with Voltz describing how James Marion Sims, the father of gynecology, experimented on enslaved Black women without the use of anesthetics. Even in daily life, Voltz explained, Black communities, particularly impoverished communities, lacked access to resources like contraception, abortion and health insurance which contributed to negative community health overall. 

At the end of the panel, Sentilles noted that discourse around abortion continues to be an issue today, and that social media has exacerbated the ability to have nuanced conversations. This first lecture in the speaker series was able to shed a historical light on abortion. In the future, the Reproductive Health Task Force speaker series will continue to provide students an educational resource for topics related to reproductive justice, giving them the power to engage in fruitful conversations and make educated decisions.