USA Book Review: The Stories Behind Twelve Significant Reproductive Rights and Justice Legal Cases

We’ve all heard of the famous Supreme Court abortion case of Roe v. Wade, but have you heard of Madrigal v. Quilligan—when in the 1970s ten Mexican American women sued their doctors at the USC Medical Center in Los Angeles for coercively sterilizing them?

Or Ferguson v. City of Charleston—when in the 1990s pregnant low-income women of color sued their doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina, where the doctors had reported them to the police after urine tests done during routine prenatal exams tested positive for drugs?

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2001 that the hospital’s policy of involuntary drug testing of pregnant women violated their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches.

A fascinating new book, Reproductive Rights and Justice Stories, tells behind-the-scenes stories about these cases and others—some famous and others not-so famous—explaining who brought them and why, what strategies feminist lawyers used in the cases, and what impacts the cases made.

The Stories Behind Twelve Significant Reproductive Rights and Justice Legal Cases
Reproductive Rights and Justice Stories tells the movement and litigation stories behind important reproductive rights and justice cases. 

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This volume is the latest in a series of “Law Stories” textbooks that includes Women and the Law StoriesFamily Law Stories, and Civil Rights Law Stories. Twelve law professors wrote the essays in Reproductive Rights and Justice Stories, including the collection’s co-editors Melissa Murray (NYU), Katherine Shaw (Cardoza) and Reva Siegel (Yale).

Siegel told Ms. that she hopes the book will foster intergenerational conversations about social change.

“At a time when the law is shutting down possibilities for change in so many directions, it felt really important to recover those histories and to show the roots of the law, so as to teach another generation of students that the law they inherited wasn’t given to them by courts but grew from people, debating in communities and fighting for change, like they could do in their own communities.”

The cases covered in the book involve not only abortion, coercive sterilization, and criminalizing pregnant women, but also pregnancy discrimination in employment, family and medical leave, LGBT parenting, and the right to federal funding for abortion.

“We wanted to nest in one volume the traditional reproductive rights cases with important cases that would count within a reproductive justice framework,” Siegel said.

Whereas traditional reproductive rights advocacy are primarily concerned with the right not to have children, and on laws restricting contraception and abortion, reproductive justice activists focus also on the right to have children, and the right to raise them in a safe and healthy environment, especially for low-income women and women of color. The stories in this volume reflect this expanded reproductive justice framework.

Many of these cases grew directly out of the women’s movement, and were made stronger by these connections, says Siegel. And while some people today criticize the 1970s reproductive rights movement for the narrowness of cases like Roe v. Wade, the book reveals a more complex story.

“What women originally argued in these cases was so much richer and wider than what made it into the cases,” said Siegel.

The collection reveals the deep social movement roots of these cases, and their lasting impact, sometimes in unexpected ways, such as in the Madrigal case. The women lost in court, but later won legislative change barring doctors from sterilizing women without informed consent.

“Change happens in unexpected ways and against all odds,” said co-editor Kate Shaw.

With daily attacks now on reproductive rights and justice, we do well to remember these wise and inspiring words—and to learn our history.