The rights of women

Issue: 123

Farah Reza

Jeanne Flavin, Our Bodies, Our Crimes (New York University, 2009), £30.95

“When she said, ‘rights terminated’, I just felt lost… Those are my kids…you snatch them, that was my world. You just took that. What I’m a fight for? What I’m a fight for? You took my babies. I just continued using drugs. I didn’t even think.”

These are the words of a former prisoner who was deemed an unsuitable mother by the US state. She is one of many working class women in the US who have had their children taken away without ever being offered adequate support to keep them in the first place. They have returned to civilian life unable to see or write to the children they had missed every day in prison. Flavin puts such cases in a historical context that stretches back to the turn of the last century, and argues that the “-paternalisic belief that poor people, especially poor people of colour, are not competent to control their own fertility and that government is empowered to intervene still influences reproductive policies today”.

Our Bodies, Our Crimes looks at, but also well beyond, the abortion argument, discussing recent government legislation that has introduced “fetal rights” into US law, the treatment of working class mothers, pregnant women, young women whose future reproductive health is being threatened through “abstinence programmes” that neglect the issue of safe sex, and the general lack of affordable sexual health services. Flavin explores the all round policing of women’s bodies in terms of reproductive rights, that has, for example, led to pregnant drug addicts being prosecuted for damage to the “unborn” rather than being given support to deal with their addiction. These women can find themselves being forced into a Caesarean to “rescue” the child and are then led directly to a cell.

Flavin looks at the lack of pre-natal care for women in prison and the way in which it is often assumed by judges that working class women—especially those who are black—cannot be trusted to have children, take care of their bodies while pregnant, or control their own fertility. Flavin shows how the state authorities, however, abuse the same people, ordering incarcerated women to give birth while shackled and in some cases denying imprisoned women in intense pain the chance to get to hospital for emergency treatment—because the prison managers claim they don’t run “a taxi service”.

This book is well researched, and turns over every piece of relevant US legislation on reproductive rights, as well as exploring women’s activism and political protest. The context she provides for her arguments is impressively thorough, and it is entirely possible to come to this book with no prior knowledge of women’s rights in the US and walk away feeling like an expert on what needs to change. Flavin’s book is unashamedly polemical, and while her perspective is not socialist, it has a left-leaning feminist slant that exclusively focuses on working class women, and especially on the relationship between race and class in America. This means that her chapters on women in prison are particularly strong, as class and race play a massive part in why these women end up in prison and why they are maltreated.

Flavin’s exploration of the legacy of the eugenics movement is also pertinent and impassioned. For example, she shows how activists successfully brought an end to “no-procreation orders” and forced sterilisation programmes that targeted mainly black women right into the 1970s—after the Roe v Wade decision had officially granted women the right to determine what happens to their own bodies and lives. By this time between 60,000 and 100,000 women had been forcibly sterilised nationwide. Flavin argues that racist, anti working class eugenicist arguments still play a part in the minds of lawmakers, who generally define the feminine ideal as upper or middle class, married, white, desirous of having children, and possessing “restraint” (ie not getting pregnant more than two or three times). This becomes the basis for institutionalised discrimination against women who do not fit this model, including working class women who simply want regular and affordable access to contraception or smear tests.

This book serves as an invaluable introduction to all of these issues, and points to what needs to be changed. However, Flavin falls into the liberal trap of framing “rights” within a framework of “property” and “privacy”. For example, she appears to be limited to the Roe v Wade approach of seeing the right to an abortion as being essentially about the individual’s freedom to privacy and the freedom from state interference—an approach that defines our bodies as private property and our family lives as belonging to a private sphere.

This becomes a problem when Flavin starts to discuss the rights of working class women to keep their children. She seems to see the issue as a woman’s right to her private life at home (free from intervention) and a right to the things that biologically belong to her. But this appears to define children as property, and in particular as the private property of their mothers.

This view could be used to support the idea that women should not be helped by the state to keep their children through publicly funded services, because the state should not be poking its nose into the private sphere. Such an approach leads to an excessively individualist attitude to child rearing that can actually allow child abuse and domestic violence in general to thrive—because it sees the family as a sacred “private sphere”.

Despite this flaw, Flavin has produced an incredibly useful book for activists. It brings together information that we need to be aware of, at least in part because if women in the US can be treated in this way, so could we. Many right wing tactics used in the US have been used by the anti_choice lobby in the UK. For example, the relatively new tactic of focusing on abortion time limits rather than getting rid of abortion completely, has won the anti_choice lobby a new hearing in the UK.

Flavin is also right to see beyond abortion, to stress that it should not be seen as the only reproductive right. Unless the agenda is broadened, it can lead to the neglect of other issues that are incredibly class based, such as access to good, free sexual health services from the NHS or adequate state support for disabled women who want to keep their children. It is also refreshing to read a book that sees all of these issues as related, not separate, and that sees these problems as ones that can be dealt with through a political movement that asks questions and demands a better deal for all women.