Abortion and the Constitutional Right (Not) to Procreate
49 Pages Posted: 15 Nov 2014
Date Written: November 13, 2014
With the growing use of assisted reproductive technology (“ART”), courts have to reconcile competing rights to seek and avoid procreation. Often, in imagining the boundaries of these rights, judges turn to abortion jurisprudence for guidance.
This move sparks controversy. On the one hand, abortion case law may provide the strongest constitutional foundation for scholars and advocates seeking rights to access ART or avoid unwanted parenthood. On the other hand, abortion jurisprudence carries normative and political baggage: a privacy framework that disadvantages poor women and a history of intense polarization.
This article uses the legal history of struggle over spousal consent abortion restrictions as a new way into the debate about the relationship between ART and existing reproductive rights. Such laws would require women to notify or obtain consent from their husbands before a doctor can perform an abortion. Scholars use spousal-consultation laws to illustrate the sex stereotypes supposedly underlying all abortion restrictions. This article tells a far more complex story. When feminists and pro-lifers battled about spousal consent in the 1970s, they wrestled with many of the questions motivating current battles about ART: Do women enjoy a unique role in child-rearing and childbearing? Does gestation, caretaking, or a genetic connection explain the decision-making power conferred on women in the context of reproduction? How could feminists reconcile demands that men perform a greater share of child-rearing with arguments that women should have the final decision on reproductive matters? By reexamining the history of the consent wars, we can gain valuable perspective on what can go right -- and wrong -- when we forge a jurisprudence based on the relationship between genetic, gestational, and functional parenthood.
The consent wars helped drive a wedge between feminist sex-equality arguments -- which challenged sex stereotypes and reproductive rights law -- which partly relied on similar generalizations about sex roles. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, legal feminists pushed new laws on publicly funded child care and pregnancy discrimination in a quest to assign more caretaking responsibility to men and to the State. Feminists believed that separating women's gestational and functional parenthood would help root out damaging sex stereotypes and dramatically expand women's role in the political, economic, and social spheres.
The consent wars flipped this project on its head: for both strategic and ideological reasons, feminists assumed a more traditional vision of the roles, rights, and responsibilities of both mothers and fathers. Feminists argued that women had a unique role not only in the context of gestation but also in the context of child-rearing. While these contentions strengthened the constitutional case against spousal consent laws, they were unnecessary. Without contradicting their support for equal parenting responsibilities, feminists could have stressed that the law did not treat the fetus as a child. Consequently, a man's interest in equal parenting might have looked quite different before, rather than after, viability. Moreover, conflating gestational and functional parenthood had damaging, unintended consequences, entrenching sex stereotypes about gender roles at the heart of abortion jurisprudence.
In chronicling the consent wars, we can gain a better understanding of the proper relationship between ART and the existing constitutional framework governing reproduction. As feminists recognized in the 1960s and 1970s, pregnancy -- not the burdens of caretaking or genetic parenthood -- puts women in a unique biological and social position. In the 1970s, by reading a broader understanding of women's disproportionate share of parenting into Roe v. Wade, feminists inadvertently created an opening for courts to fall back on deeply rooted stereotypes about women's role in the home. To avoid this trap in ART cases, we should read abortion jurisprudence as standing for the connection between sex equality and women's gestational role. The consent wars powerfully demonstrate the costs feminists can face when they fail to unbundle women's genetic, gestational, and functional parenthood.
Conversely, ART jurisprudence spotlights the path not taken by feminists during the consent wars. Separating the strands of parental rights allows us to define women's equal citizenship concerns in abortion with greater precision. Because only women can carry pregnancies to term, abortion bans necessarily implicate women's interest in equal treatment, regardless of who takes on caretaking responsibilities after childbirth. Equally important, the injuries associated with unwanted pregnancy itself -- to bodily integrity, dignity, and autonomy -- can justify a woman's right to abortion regardless of who assumes caretaking responsibilities later in life.
Keywords: legal history, reproductive rights
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