Sexual Reproduction and the Law: Autonomy and Control
Although shocking to many, the majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson County Women’s Health, overturning Roe v. Wade, is just the latest in a long history of legal regulation of sexual reproduction and bodily autonomy generally. The roots of U.S. abortion and sexual reproduction law can arguably be traced to a range of historical antecedents, including the Elizabethan Poor Laws, colonial laws regulating sex, marriage, and inheritance, and a range of other regulations informed by early American eugenic theory. How can we understand the U.S. state’s long-standing intervention (local and federal) into peoples’ sexual and reproductive practices? How can we connect the regulation of reproduction with state and social interests in regulating race, gender, property, labor, and class? And how has the law shaped our understanding of sexual and reproductive autonomy—and vice versa?
In this course, we will take a historical, expansive view of reproductive autonomy as it is expressed and suppressed in US law, with a critical eye toward the impacts and influence of ‘race,’ gender, ability, and class. Over the course of four weeks, we will come to understand the Dobbs ruling within its proper American context, through an investigation into both colonial and contemporary histories of regulating sexual reproduction. We will begin by considering the function of biological reproduction and inheritance laws on the pre-bellum Southern plantation; examine civil and criminal restrictions on marriage and sex such as miscegenation laws; plumb America’s abominable history of eugenic sterilization (still upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Buck v. Bell); and analyze the wide range of restrictions applicable only to those who give birth: welfare rules that restrict eligibility based on number of births; “fetal assault laws” that criminalize pregnant people based on speculations about the effects of drug use on fetuses; laws regulating access to birth control, childcare, housing and healthcare; and, of course, abortion. Together, we will construct a fuller picture of the current legal landscape for persons capable of pregnancy, the high stakes of Dobbs, and the future of reproductive rights in America. Readings will be drawn from a combination of legal texts and works of history and critique, including essays by Dorothy Roberts, Jennifer L. Morgan, Melinda Cooper, Wendy Bach, Silvia Federici, and Deborah Dinner, along with landmark opinions like Roe, Dobbs, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
May 08 — May 29, 2023