The Reproductive Freedom that Could Have Been Feminism and the agon of 1968.

On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the Humanae Vitae, an encyclical letter reaffirming the Catholic Church’s unequivocal judgment of the evil of any artificial means of interrupting conception and birth (including abortion). But before the release of the letter, the Catholic Church seemed to be headed towards a more accommodating relation with contraception. Paul VI’s predecessor, John XXIII, had formed a commission in response to the United Nations’ stated concern with global population growth. The secretive Pontifical Commission for the Study of Population, Family, and Births delivered its report to the Pope in 1967, advising that the Church ought to accept that, as long as a married couple wanted and pursued having children, a couple could morally use contraception to control the number and timing of their children. When the report was leaked in 1967 and published as a book by the National Catholic Reporter in 1968, American Catholics hoped that finally, the Church would end the struggle of their faith versus their economic and social realities. Instead, Pope Paul VI’s letter firmly reaffirmed Catholic morality against contraception.


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On November 14, 1968, The New York Times reported that, for the first time, Planned Parenthood voted to endorse both abortion and sterilization as valid medical procedures and as such, governments should work to liberalize their laws that prohibit them. That year, Planned Parenthood also elected Jerome Holland as their first African American chair. Dr. Holland “pledged support for the group’s program, saying that those who call birth control a form of genocide ‘are not aware of the real meaning of family planning and its uses’” (Kaplan 1968). Of course, in 1968, black women were still routinely being sterilized without their consent under eugenic sterilization statutes. For example, Elaine Riddick was forcibly sterilized at age 14 in 1968, after she gave birth to a child after being raped. Riddick and thousands of others, mostly black women, were assessed by the North Carolina Eugenics Board to be unsuitable for reproduction and subsequently sterilized. Planned Parenthood’s stance on the importance of legalizing sterilization would be cold comfort for those people for whom legal sterilization had been imposed upon them.


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On March 24, 1968, Shulamith Firestone spoke at an abortion repeal rally being held partially in support of Bill Baird, a reproductive rights activist who had been arrested several months before for illegally handing out contraceptives to unmarried women in Boston. Baird’s 1967 action later became the basis for the 1972 Supreme Court decision, Eisenstadt v. Baird, which extended the right to contraception to unmarried people. Both Betty Friedan and Planned Parenthood distanced themselves from Baird’s confrontational techniques. But in 1968, radical feminist Shulamith Firestone publicly thanked Baird for his sacrifice and had this to say:


“Let’s face it. Woman is scared shitless. And she has good reason to be! She has been told to shut up and stop talking a million times … We refuse to be your passive vessels becoming impregnated for the greater good of society. We want a society that exists for our good as well as yours! We are not just grease between men, links between generations, not just the mothers of sons and their future wives! We are tired of being pawns in a male power game. Tired of being bought and sold and traded and used to sell your deodorants and hair sprays.”


Firestone’s group, New York Radical Women, would dissolve within a year but not before staging the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant where they dumped bras, girdles, and high heels in a “freedom trash can” in protest of male control of women’s bodies.


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Nineteen sixty-eight resists easy declarations of winners and losers or heroes and villains of reproductive politics. Demographers were urging that the “population bomb” required immediate and even coercive contraceptive policies at the same time that the Catholic Church was reasserting the moral evil of abortion and artificial birth control. Radical feminists, joined by LBJ’s Committee on the Status of Women, were calling for the repeal of all abortion laws at the same time that hormonal birth control was injuring and killing some women due to dangerously high doses of hormones. Planned Parenthood finally joined the fight to liberalize abortion laws in the United States, but it was also supporting coercive global population control efforts that have been seen as imperialist and dangerous to women’s health across the Global South. The collision between racism, feminism, medical expertise, and religious doctrine in 1968 should force Americans to reread our reproductive legacy. What are we to do with this mess in 2018?

So long as our reproductive imagination begins and ends with Roe v. Wade, we miss how the racial, religious, and radical politics were already setting up potential alternative reproductive futures.

Because of its messiness, 1968 serves as a productive staging ground for imagining what feminist reproductive politics could mean today. But 1968 has been eclipsed in our collective political memory by 1973.  That was the year the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, declaring that the right to privacy encompassed a woman’s right to abortion. Nineteen seventy-three feels settled, determined, and a real turning point. The emerging Religious Right seized upon the moment as the emblem of America’s moral fall. The organized abortion repeal moment first saw Roe v. Wade as ending the political contestation over abortion; when they discovered how wrong their supposition was, they began to see protecting Roe v. Wade as the limit of their political imagination. So long as our reproductive imagination begins and ends with Roe v. Wade, we miss how the racial, religious, and radical politics were already setting up potential alternative reproductive futures. This essay reclaims 1968 in the history of reproductive politics. In the process, I want to help us create a more honest appraisal of the vexed nature of reproductive freedom in American life.



The 1973 Roe decision has typically been taken to be both a beginning and an end. The typical narrative has the pro-life movement finding its voice in reaction to Roe v. Wade. When the Supreme Court categorically denied that fetuses were legal persons, previously apolitical Evangelical Christians were mobilized by this moral affront to take on active political roles to push for a constitutional amendment affirming a fetus’s right to life. According to this tale, Roe v. Wade produced a new set of political actors who, once mobilized, set themselves to producing a moral conservative revolution based on reversing the forces they saw as undermining the family, including feminism, homosexuality, and reproductive rights.

Several historians today, including Daniel Williams and Mary Ziegler, explicitly reject this narrative, arguing that the anti-abortion movement has a much longer history. In the couple of years prior to the Roe decision, anti-abortion activists were seeing more legislative and judicial victories than abortion law repeal advocates. While anti-abortion activism predates Roe, Randall Balmer argues that the formation of the religious right as a political force only occurs late in the 1970s. For Balmer, it is not Roe v. Wade but Green v. Kennedy that provides the crucial motive for Evangelical politics. The 1970 Supreme Court decision stripped tax-exempt status from the whites-only private religious schools that were established in response to Brown v. Board of Education. After several years fighting the IRS to retain its segregationist practices, Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status in 1976.  That loss convinced key Evangelical actors to mobilize politically. Maintaining racial segregation and tax-exempt status was the motive to take over national politics; opposition to abortion, and the need to overturn Roe v. Wade, was merely the means to achieve political power.

In reality, Roe v. Wade should not be read as a feminist decision but as an affirmation of the authority of medical expertise.

Roe v. Wade is also understood to be the triumphant culmination of feminist organizing to secure women’s bodily autonomy. Abortion law repeal had become synonymous with second-wave feminism by 1973; the National Organization of Women placed the repeal of criminal abortion statutes in its 1968 Bill of Rights (adopted in 1967); in 1969, organizations like the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws began to coordinate campaigns across the United States; radical feminist groups like New York Radical Women and Redstockings organized abortion rallies and speak-outs; and the Jane Collective (a subset of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union) actually performed illegal abortions. Roe v. Wade seemed to be the result of such direct feminist organizing and it confirmed that women should be seen as the primary decision-makers about their reproductive lives.

In reality, Roe v. Wade should not be read as a feminist decision but as an affirmation of the authority of medical expertise. Roe v. Wade created a trimester framework for understanding how to balance women’s right to privacy and state interests that limit that right and justify state regulation. Harry Blackmun outlined two state interests that had to be balanced with a woman’s right to privacy: women’s individual health and the potential life of the fetus. In the first trimester, a women’s right to privacy outweighs both concerns; in the second, the state’s interest in a woman’s health justifies regulations to make sure an abortion is safe, and when a fetus is viable (around the beginning of the third trimester), the state’s interest in potential fetal life justifies the prohibition of abortion. It might seem, then, that at least in the first trimester, Roe is still a feminist ruling. But Blackmun’s language makes such a reading unwise; “For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician” (1973, 164, emphasis mine). Both the decision to have an abortion and its procurement lay in the hands not of the woman, but of her physician. The decision is a medical one, relying on a physician’s medical judgment, turning what could have been a sexual right into a health right. Women are placed in a submissive relationship to medical professionals and medical institutions that have the right to determine women’s life courses, similar to how state could act before Roe v. Wade.

Reading Roe v. Wade outside of the common feminist narrative helps us understand why abortion politics today take the form that they do; the Supreme Court has said that fetal life is only a justification for abortion regulation after viability, so anti-abortion legislation cannot use fetal life as a justification.

Reading Roe v. Wade outside of the common feminist narrative helps us understand why abortion politics today take the form that they do; the Supreme Court has said that fetal life is only a justification for abortion regulation after viability, so anti-abortion legislation cannot use fetal life as a justification. But a physician’s judgment and action is necessary for an abortion at any point of the pregnancy. There are both national and state medical conscience clauses that allow hospitals and individual physicians with moral objections to abortion to refuse to perform them. Plus, concerns for women’s health can now be invoked at any time during pregnancy. Anti-abortion activists have crafted innumerable pieces of legislation under the guise of protecting women’s health and regulating the medical conditions of abortion, including informed consent statutes, mandatory ultrasounds, targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP laws), and waiting periods that force women to make multiple trips to an abortion provider over the course of several days. Had Roe v. Wade been the culmination of feminist organizing, the ruling would have affirmed women’s autonomy rather than medical authority and perhaps the incrementalist strategy of eroding women’s actual access to abortion would not have been so compatible with women’s so-called right to abortion.



By destabilizing the mythic status of Roe v. Wade and 1973, one can come to appreciate how the openness of 1968 can provide an appreciation of a multidimensional reproductive politics. Nineteen sixty-eight is a study in contradictions. As evident in the vignettes that begin this essay, the consolidation of official Catholic opposition to birth control, the first white radical feminist agitation for abortion access, the central place of population control and forced sterilization in the experience and politics of black women and other women of color, were all taking place simultaneously with legislative and judicial efforts to liberalize abortion laws. We have to accomplish the difficult task of keeping all these movements in view simultaneously.

If we only considered white radical feminism and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, we have a simple story of enmity. The Catholic Church saw the marital relation and procreation as expressions of God’s natural law; white radical feminists located their oppression squarely in that same marital and procreative order. Consider the following passage from the Humanae Vitae: “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law … teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life … the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love.”

The mutual love of husband and wife requires its intrinsic relationship to procreation be preserved in every intimate encounter and thus cannot tolerate contraception. Contrast this understanding of the nature of marriage and procreation to Beverly Jones and Judith Brown’s Toward a Female Liberation Movement, the 1968 manifesto that many white radical feminists credit with consolidating the intellectual core of the emerging movement. “No one would think to judge a marriage by its first hundred days. To be sure there are cases of sexual trauma, of sudden and violent misunderstandings, but in general all is happiness; the girl has finally made it, the past is but a bad dream … And then reality sets in … The man moves to insure his position of power and dominance.” Jones, who authored the first section, speaks of the isolation that women experience in marriage, women’s conversations reduced to mundanities, their work mechanical, and once they have children, exhaustion becomes their main mode of life. The threat of divorce or desertion, Jones argues, keeps women in their marital place of submission. Jones’s section of the manifesto ends with a list of demands, including equal pay for equal work and the legalization and availability of abortion and contraception, as women need economic freedom to escape degrading social relations and need control of their bodies to have control of their destiny.

This smooth identification of enemies and allies in reproductive politics becomes complicated when a third group becomes part of the conversation: black radical feminists. Frances M. Beal, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Black Women’s Liberation Committee in 1968, wrote one of the most anthologized essays that dealt with the particular position of black women between black liberation and white women’s movements. “Double Jeopardy” both warns of the dangers of black liberation built on masculine dominance and the dangers of women’s liberation that was not explicitly anti-racist and anti-capitalist. Beal argues that the description of oppressive marriage was based on an ideal inaccessible to black women. The “bedroom politics” of Beal stand in stark contrast to the sole focus on the availability of contraception and abortion Jones calls for. Instead, she notes that “perhaps the most outlandish act of oppression in our times is the current campaign to promote sterilization of nonwhite women in an attempt to maintain the population and power imbalance between the white haves and the nonwhite havenots” (150-151). This “surgical genocide” is found in India, Puerto Rico, and in black and Puerto Rican communities across the continental United States. Beal sees criminal abortion laws, which disproportionately resulted in black women’s deaths from illegal procedures, as of a piece with coerced sterilization and argues that “the lack of the availability of safe birth control methods, the forced sterilization practices, and the inability to obtain legal abortions are all symptoms of a decadent society that jeopardizes the health of black women (and thereby the entire black race) in its attempt to control the very life processes of human beings … the elimination of these horrendous conditions will free black women for full participation in the revolution, and, thereafter building of the new society” (1995 [1970], 152-153).

Nineteen sixty-eight exposed a different relationship which fits the term of antagonism within agonism, where real disagreements without a rational solution exist, but the articulation of these disagreements can take place in a context of shared ethical and political principles.

Given the black radical feminist call for reproductive freedom, a natural alliance would seem to exist with white radical feminists. But such an alliance was hindered by deep mistrust, in part because mainstream abortion law repeal efforts often allied with calls for increased access for sterilization for white women. While coerced sterilization was the norm for many women of color, white women found it nearly impossible to find a physician willing to permanently sterilize them. Groups like NARAL allied with voluntary sterilization organizations and even their most strident white feminist members were also members of population control activist organizations. In fact, historically, the Catholic Church had served as the most vocal opponent of eugenic sterilization laws and continued to object to the deployment of population control programs across the globe as violating human dignity. Enemies and allies are more difficult to parse when the Catholic Church’s dedication to the natural law intersects with revolutionary black women’s call to be free from coercive sterilization but challenges their call for abortion access which intersects with the radical white women’s call for abortion access but challenges their call to center women’s oppression in the family form which itself challenges the Catholic Church’s dedication to the natural morality of the marital, procreative union.

To speak of enemies and allies is to invoke the notion of antagonism, which political theorist Chantal Mouffe has defined as “a type of conflict with no possibility of a rational solution” (2014, 267). Insofar as the religious right condemns feminists as “feminazis” bent on destroying the moral familial order and insofar as feminists see in religion the unqualified source of their oppression, antagonism as enmity seems appropriate. But 1968 exposed a different relationship which fits the term of antagonism within agonism, where real disagreements without a rational solution exist, but the articulation of these disagreements can take place in a context of shared ethical and political principles. Thus, the fact that white women saw the lack of access to sterilization as a problem at the same time as black women were calling for an end of coerced sterilization should both be understood as a fundamental conflict (not simply wished away by an appeal to voluntariness) but one that is taking place under a moral dedication to anti-capitalism, antiracism, and women’s freedom. The very messiness and unsettled nature of 1968 reproductive politics reveal the importance of struggle amongst like-minded groups. Such struggle produces new ways of apprehending the meaning of gender, race, and the family without requiring that contemporary readers decide on the question of who should have won and who should have lost.


The future that could have been

In 1987, Robert Blair Kaiser, a one-time Jesuit who left his pastoral training to marry and become a journalist, published The Encyclical That Never Was, an examination of the pontifical committee whose recommendations were rebuffed by the Humanae Vitae. The intense debate amongst the pontifical council, the liberal wing of the Catholic Church, and the ultimately successful Vatican insiders who held the line on Catholic opposition to artificial contraception nearly created a schism in the Church, but Kaiser stressed just how deep the disagreement on sex and reproduction was, even in the spheres closest to the Pope. In the end, things could have turned out differently for the Catholic Church and contraception.

Instead of thinking about the reproductive freedom that never was, I want to conclude this essay by reflecting on the reproductive futures that could have been. It is certainly true that the focus on Roe v. Wade has changed the way we think about reproductive politics, not only because abortion became the anchoring issue organizing the universe of other reproductive issues but also because it transformed the debate of reproductive freedom into a debate about reproductive health. Lucinda Cisler, a feminist member of NARAL and Zero Population Growth, presciently recognized the danger of abortion reform masquerading as the repeal of all criminal abortion laws as one that would place expediency over the central demand for justice for women: “unless a well-thought-out feminism underlies the dedication of these people, they will accept all kinds of token gains from legislators and judges and the medical establishment in the name of “getting something done NOW”— nevermind what that is, or how much it cuts the chances for real changes later by lulling the public into a false sense of accomplishment” (1970). In the process of placing Roe v. Wade on its pedestal, we have also lost an appreciation for the radical discourses of white feminists and feminists of color that preceded the decision. We have also lost the meaning of reproductive freedom embedded in their disagreements. What, then, can a well-thought-out feminism, tracing its roots to 1968, tell us today about reproductive politics?

First, 1968 feminism invites a direct and sometimes painful confrontation with the terms of embodiment and freedom. Before reproductive freedom was a question of being pro-choice, it was a question of systems of power and control that manifested in the organization of raced and gendered bodies. That control was not an abstraction but implicated the most intimate relationships women had. Reproduction mattered to feminists because the desire to control reproduction, both in terms of eugenic anti-black sterilization and the organization of the white middle-class ideals, manifested in the direct control of women’s bodies. The vilification of homosexuality and transgender identity are both related to this equation of women’s bodies with ideal reproductive capacity. But we should be wary of the claims of white radical feminists who took gender oppression to be paramount. While the body and the imposition of reproductive control might be best understood as undergirding an oppressive gendered order, the reproductive politics of transgender people, lesbians and gays, women of color, and white women are not only different; they may be at odds with one another. This possibility brings us to a second lesson.

Before reproductive freedom was a question of being pro-choice, it was a question of systems of power and control that manifested in the organization of raced and gendered bodies. That control was not an abstraction but implicated the most intimate relationships women had. Reproduction mattered to feminists because the desire to control reproduction, both in terms of eugenic anti-black sterilization and the organization of the white middle-class ideals, manifested in the direct control of women’s bodies.

The politics of radical feminists in 1968 were uncompromising. Yet the rigidity of some aspects of radical politics is partly responsible for the demise of organized radical feminism. The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union voted to dissolve instead of allowing a Maoist faction to take over the organization; New York Radical Women saw infighting and accusations of unsisterly behavior almost from its outset. Shulamith Firestone so firmly believed in the need for separation that she posited that black women similarly would want to organize separately from white women without recognizing that such exclusivity would come at a cost. The lesson to be found in these problems is not that uncompromising positions are politically useless. Rather, uncompromising political principles might be necessary for creating new political possibilities. Instead, what 1968 teaches us is that political purity should not be confused for political principle. Disagreements in prioritization, strategies, and even political goals themselves need not be coded as the basis for enmity. Following Francis Beal, perhaps we should posit that so long as political principles (anti-racist, anti-capitalist, women’s freedom) undergird political projects, disagreements become generative of new possibilities. But to place short-term political achievement above principle is to risk undermining the pursuit of these principles themselves. While feminist alliances with physicians in pushing for abortion law repeal in organizations like NARAL and the ACLU was expedient, their principles were not aligned and so the more radical demand of women’s freedom was bartered away for the protection of medical authority.

Nineteen sixty-eight has one more potential lesson for the politics of reproductive freedom. Good faith efforts to work within established institutions are not necessarily rewarded. The good faith efforts of the Catholics who served on the pontifical commission, the first black chair of Planned Parenthood, and Sarah Weddington, who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, all espoused faith in the legitimacy of their respective institutions that turned out to be more interested in preserving Catholic hierarchy, global population control, and medical and state authority rather than a radical call for feminist imagination. Faith was often rewarded with disappointment and unanticipated decisions. The experience with such institutions reinforce a core of both black feminist and white feminist organizing: you become radicalized by fighting your own battles. Such a sentiment invokes a politics where pluralism means that goals will never be perfectly aligned amongst all groups but where active involvement in politics itself is a revolutionary experience. The future of reproductive freedom can be found in the same place it was left in 1968. Namely, reproductive freedom exists whenever populations mobilize in its political defense and are willing to risk losing the battle in the pursuit of a greater goal of embodied revolution.

Works Cited:


Beal, Frances, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” in Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. Words of Fire : An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. The New Press, 1995. EBSCOhost,,ip,url,shib&db=nlebk&AN=516641&site=ehost-live&scope=site.


Cisler, L., and New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal. Abortion Law Repeal (Sort Of): A Warning to Women. New Yorkers for Abortion Law Repeal, 1970.


Firestone, Shulamith, “Abortion Rally Speech,” Notes from the First Year, 1968, 24-25.


Allan Dreyer Hansen & André Sonnichsen (2014) Radical democracy, agonism and the limits of pluralism: an interview with Chantal Mouffe, Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 15:3, 263-270, DOI: 10.1080/1600910X.2014.941888


Jones, Beverly and Brown, Judith Toward a female liberation movement. New England Free Press, Boston, Mass, 1968.


Morris Kaplan, “Abortion and Sterilization Win Support of Planned Parenthood,” New York Times, November 14, 1968.


Paul VI, and Marc Caligari. Humanae Vitae: Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Pope Paul VI, on the Regulation of Births. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983. Print.


Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

Claire McKinney

Claire McKinney is assistant professor of Government and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the College of William & Mary. Her work has been published in Disability Studies Quarterly and Politics, Groups, & Identities. She is currently working on a book project that conceptualizes U.S. abortion politics in the context of women’s citizenship and the professionalization and politicization of medicine. The book argues that abortion politics in the United States have failed to be guided by feminist political judgment and articulates the need to decenter concerns of reproductive health in order to open new political possibilities for reproductive freedom.