Introducing our ROE Scholar-In-Residence, Dr. Laura Briggs

Introducing our ROE Scholar-In-Residence, Dr. Laura Briggs

Laura Briggs is a Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, specializing in U.S. and international child welfare policy and on transnational and transracial adoption.  Her publications include: How all Politics Became Reproductive Politics,   From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump and Taking Children: A History of American Terror.

Laura Briggs has joined the WAM Theatre team as a Scholar-In-Residence for our up-coming production of ROE.  She will be on hand to answer questions and put the play in context for our production team including our director, designers and actors.  

ROE audiences will get a chance to meet her and pose questions during a special online Live interview to launch our ROE website on Saturday October 10th at 7pm.  In the meantime, WAM’s Associate Artistic Director and ROE dramaturg Talya Kingston got a chance to ask a few opening questions.

Talya: At WAM, we’ve been framing our production of ROE as a conversation about Reproductive Justice rather than a re-hashing of the “abortion debate”, can you explain what reproductive justice is for those who might not have heard the term before?

Laura: The idea of reproductive justice has many sources—including Latin American mothers who fought for their disappeared children in the ‘80s, the “mothers” of Black Lives Matter whose children were killed by the police, and the long history of activism against coercive sterilization in the United States. But the term was coined in 1994 by Black women, particularly those connected with SisterSong in Atlanta [editor: one of the ROE beneficiaries]. It refers to the human right to (1) have a child; (2) not have a child; and (3) parent the children we have under conditions that allow them to thrive, as well as to control our birthing options, such as midwifery.

This framework brings to the fore some of the things we don’t always pay attention to about Norma McCorvey when we think of her only as the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade. She had lost her first child, Melissa, involuntarily when Norma’s mother tricked her into signing the adoption papers. She lost her second child, perhaps consensually or more as a result of despair. She never stopped trying to get Melissa back. She was poor, she was sexually abused by multiple people, she had a substance abuse problem, and she spent much of her childhood in juvenile jail. She was a lesbian. When we look at her decision to try to get a legal abortion in 1969, “choice” hardly seems like the right word for it. At least from the outside, it seems like a lot of what she would have wanted to have in her life to parent a child—support, housing, economic security, a sense of her own worth, bodily integrity, good health, and control—would have been out of reach. Maybe to be “against” abortion in that context would mean to build a society free of homophobia, sexual violence, with easy access to substance abuse treatment, universal housing, better paying jobs, and maternity leave. Leaving aside her deathbed confession that her support for the anti-abortion movement had been “all an act” and that she had been paid for it, perhaps some of things that might have drawn her to a religious movement against abortion was also the desire for a sense of wholeness and spiritual well-being that had eluded her in her early life, and that neither an abortion (which she didn’t get) nor placing a third child for adoption gave her. A reproductive justice perspective can stop a lot of fights about abortion in their tracks.

Talya: Most Americans have heard of the Roe v Wade Supreme Court Case, but the history of abortion before this case is not widely known.  Can you fill us in a bit on the historical context of women’s options for birth control prior to Roe?  And is there anything else that you think is important to know about this case that is not widely discussed?

Laura: Women have been getting abortions for at least 1,000 years that we can document. For most of U.S. history, abortion “before quickening” (in the first trimester, or until you could feel the baby moving) was legal and commonplace. Midwives provided herbs to end a pregnancy if it was the wrong time, for example too close to a previous pregnancy, or when the mother was ill or too young. Birth rates for enslaved women were notoriously low, which spoke to ill-health, poor diet, and brutal work regimens, but historians have also found evidence that African and African-descended women in the Americas were familiar with abortifacient substances. For most of the 19th century and even the first half of the 20th, newspapers advertised drugs you could buy through the mail for “blocked menses.” Abortion restriction came with the effort to professionalize medicine in the 1880s and thereafter.

Male physicians sought to transform birthing from a practice dominated by midwives (and other irregular practitioners, including homeopaths) to one where women turned to a medical doctor. Claiming to offer a more scientific basis for delivering babies, they also challenged abortion care, ultimately making abortion illegal in states, territories, and possessions throughout the US.  However, this didn’t make abortion less common—in fact, by simultaneously making birth control hard to get, it almost certainly made abortion more common. Birth rates were dropping rapidly in the United States. In 1800, the average woman had 7 children. In 1900, it was 3.5. By 1940, it had dropped to 2.2. So people were certainly doing things to limit births. Hundreds of thousands of abortions were occurring annually in the years before Roe v. Wade. One thing that surprises a lot of people is that it was also pretty safe, certainly safer than birth. Some doctors and lay practitioners were regular abortionists and they knew what they were doing.

However, after World War II, abortion became a lot less safe. As police and sensationalist journalists started hounding regular abortionists, it became a fly-by-night operation. Since this also corresponded with the sexual revolution, increasing divorce rates, and a rise in premarital sex (and, until 1972, restrictions on birth control for unmarried people were common), desperate girls and women turned to what came to be called “back alley abortionists” or tried to self-abort. Neither were safe, and women died.

In the 1960s and 1970s, ministers, rabbis, and others started organizing referrals for safe abortions. Because of the alarming number of women who were coming to emergency rooms with botched abortions, many doctors in this era also became activists for abortion. And, of course, the emergence of a renewed feminist movement in this era brought the question of abortion to the fore once more. And, as the play tells us, it was young, feminist lawyers who fought to legalize abortion nationwide by bringing the case to the Supreme Court.

Talya: One of the things we loved about Lisa Loomer’s play is that it puts multiple conflicting narratives and people who disagree with each other in the same space.  Are there other places where this kind of dialogue is happening around reproductive politics? and/or what is to be gained by this?

Laura: The effort to shift the feminist conversation from abortion or the “right to choose” to reproductive justice is an effort to bring about exactly those kinds of conversations. In the nineties, the Black women’s health project SisterSong came to define a “reproductive justice” framework in part out of their disagreements about abortion. Some thought of themselves as pro-choice, others, pro-life. However, in talking and really listening to each other, they came to realize that they agreed more than they disagreed. They agreed that the singular focus on the “choice” to have an abortion did not speak to their experience as Black women. Their struggle was often to attain the material conditions that would allow them to have the children they wanted—adequate housing, food security, income and jobs, freedom from a coercive foster care system, safe neighborhoods, decent schools, good medical care for pregnant women and babies, and protection from coercive sterilization and doctor’s decisions to implant long acting contraceptives. In addition, while some felt that the right to abortion was fundamental to their control over their own bodily integrity, others felt uncomfortable with the procedure and even the idea of “wanted” or “unwanted” babies. However, they also found that no one thought that if someone else wanted to have an abortion, it should be illegal. And so, despite the fact that they didn’t see abortion in quite the same way, they could agree on a framework that integrated reproduction with social justice.

Especially as the COVID-19 crisis is bringing the question of childcare front and center as parents struggle with the absence of daycare and, often, in-person schools. Free, universal, 24-hour daycare was the original feminist demand that went together with abortion. The growing support for Black Lives Matter (which emerged out of Black feminism) has brought questions of racial justice and systemic racism to the fore. As these things come together, we are poised to start having real conversations about reproductive justice.

Talya: Given that one of your books is titled “How all politics became reproductive politics”, how do you think the play speaks to this election year?

Laura: Beginning around 1980, the Republican Party committed itself to being the anti- abortion party in response to the emergence of an evangelical Christian voting block that focused on abortion (interestingly, before the mid-70s, evangelical Christians had been neutral to slightly positive about legalizing abortion). This means that President Donald Trump has to oppose legal abortion rights, even though he described himself as “very pro-choice” throughout the eighties and nineties. Democrats in contrast have made themselves the pro-choice party.

But there is only scant evidence so far that the conversation engendered by the election will really speak to the broader issues of reproductive justice. Democrats at the national level could say that Trump has forced schools and daycares to close by refusing to implement a national covid response: universal masking, testing, contact tracing, and bar, gym, and restaurant closures. That he is deliberately making housing scarce for non-white people by aggressively opposing housing anti-discrimination measures. That he has encouraged police violence against unarmed people of color. That he encourages school segregation and unequal access to high quality schooling for African Americans. That he terrorizes Latinx, Arab, and Muslim children by threatening deportations based on the color of people’s skin. That he puts refugee children at the Southwest border in cages. This would be a reproductive justice case for the Democratic Party: that all people, including those who are impoverished, immigrants, or people of color, should have the ability to raise their children in conditions in which they could thrive.  So far, it’s not one they’ve made.

Talya: Thank you so much Laura!  I look forward to continuing this conversation with you and our audiences on October 10.

Dr. Laura Brigg’s residency at WAM Theatre is made possible by the generosity of the Mass Humanities and the Brabson Library & Educational Foundation