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In new book, UVM historian shares how activists — including her mom — fought for abortion rights

A protestor holds a pro-choice sign in front of the U.S. Supreme Court
Joel Carillet
Pro-choice supporters celebrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 after the court, in a 5-3 ruling, struck down a Texas abortion access law.

Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling: Roe v. Wade.

It also coincided with the release of a new book called A Woman's Life Is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice.

Among other things, the book chronicles how activists fought to decriminalize abortion in the United States.

It was written by Dr. Felicia Kornbluh. She's a professor of history and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of Vermont – and a former Vermont Public commentator.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke to Kornbluh about her book and the reproductive rights movement. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: As the title alludes to, you've got some close connections to the subjects of this book. They both play major roles in the reproductive rights movement. One of those people is your mom, and another is your neighbor from your time growing up in New York City. Can you explain what they did?

A woman poses for the camera.
Carmen George
Dr. Felicia Kornbluh

Dr. Felicia Kornbluh: My mother, she worked as a labor lawyer actually. But in her limited free time, having three children, she was a member of the National Organization for Women. And as a member of NOW, she drafted the law that would decriminalize abortion in New York State. And it was a very important thing in the history of New York, but also in the history of the whole country. Three years before Roe s. Wade, New York wound up very ambitiously decriminalizing abortion and saying that you didn't even have to be a resident of New York State in order to get a safe legal abortion in that state through the first 24 weeks of a pregnancy. So it changed the map on abortion care and abortion access all over the country.

And after many years, I remember that we had had this astounding woman who was our next door neighbor. And her name was Helen Rodríguez Trías. She was a Puerto Rican woman doctor, and she fought for abortion rights before Roe v. Wade. And then after Roe vs. Wade, she said the reproductive rights movement should be even wider than that, and that we should also focus on the sterilization abuse that was happening to working class, disabled and non-white women. And we should really stand for a reproductive rights movement that respected all people's decisions around reproduction. Not just whether we wanted to not have kids, but also when we wanted to have children and everything that we might need in order to be able to make that choice freely.

Why did you decide to write a book about that era of history that they were involved in?

A book cover is displayed.

First of all, I think it's fascinating. I tried to bring out the texture of that time of the '60s and '70s and '80s, when things were changing so fast.

But beyond the sheer fascination with it, I thought it was so important even before the [Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization] from the U.S. Supreme Court last June — but especially since then — that it was important for us to know about what changed in the past and how people made legal change and social change.

I think, in retrospect, it often seems like "Well, it was easy in those days. You know, it was a liberal time," or something like that. But it wasn't necessarily a liberal time; it was a time that people made more liberal and more responsive to civil rights demands. Whether they were women's civil rights demands, or communities of color civil rights demands — they made that from the bottom up, I set out to help us all understand what it takes to make these very, very major social changes and legal changes. And we may need to have a movement like that. I think we do need to have a movement like that again.

Tell me about writing a book about people that you're so familiar with, especially your mom.

It's very challenging. I'll say, in a way, there was something very, very tender and very lovely about doing this project. The book starts with my mother's death. And I really didn't know this story until my mother was gone. Researching it and writing it was a way to stay close with her and a way to honor her memory. That's been just such a rich experience for me.

But I also had to confront some of the ways in which her political perspective was different from mine, and was different from the perspective of this amazing woman who was our neighbor. You know, my mother was fierce about her advocacy for abortion rights. But she often didn't understand that the things that were most important to her as a white woman and a professional class perso, that there were different needs for people who were working class or poor black women, Native American or Indigenous women, Latinas. They were having different experiences, including different experiences around reproduction and how they were treated by their doctors and hospitals.

And those were things my mom didn't see. So I also had to confront that. To be tender about her and her history and to have enough distance so that I can also see the partiality in the places where she didn't get things right.

What role did Vermont play during the reproductive rights movement in the late '60s and '70s?

Well, Vermont was not quite as quick as New York to change its abortion law. But it still did decriminalize abortion before Roe v. Wade. By 1972, Vermont also was ready to change its law. I think it was important that this state, along with other states, were moving in that direction, because the Supreme Court knew that this was going to be controversial. And Justice [Harry] Blackmun, who wrote the opinion for Roe v. Wade, was worried about the backlash. You know, this is from 1973. So I think the fact that there was this rising group of states, including Vermont, that were willing to take a new path — that gave the justices a sense that they weren't stepping out too far on a limb.

With Roe struck down, the fight over abortion rights has reached this different level of intensity across the US. In Vermont, though, elected officials and voters amended the Constitution last year, protecting reproductive rights. What is the next frontier for reproductive rights in Vermont?

I think one next step is to make sure that our health care practitioners are protected — that nobody in Texas, for example, could bring suit successfully against a Vermont practitioner. We need to understand the wider agenda beyond protecting reproductive liberty; what about ensuring that everyone can afford reproductive health care services? What about ensuring that we have a really robust system when someone does have a child so that they can raise that child in dignity and health? And the campaign for universal school meals in our K through 12 system, we could look at that as a form of reproductive justice because it enables people to raise children and health and dignity. So for me, that's the next frontier. And that is going beyond reproductive rights, to think about reproductive justice for all of our citizens.

Are there any other lessons that we can take from your book and apply those to present day?

I think the most important thing is to understand that whatever our experience has been — and our political starting point — that others have different experiences, and that we we need to have a wide and encompassing movement. Of course, we should be fighting the battles that we already know about. Beyond that there may be other battles that we don't even know about yet, because we haven't talked to everybody in our community about their needs and their experiences. And I think that's the next chapter.

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