A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice

  • By Felicia Kornbluh
  • Grove Press
  • 448 pp.

An admirable, overly ambitious account of the road to Roe.

A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice

On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Roe v. Wade that a woman had a right to choose whether to have an abortion. Afterward, many believed the fight for reproductive freedom was over and won. In fact, it was never over, as last year’s Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe, proved.

Almost from the start, a conservative backlash threatened this fundamental right. Just four years after Roe, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion except to save the life of the mother. By first targeting the poorest, most vulnerable women, the anti-abortion movement has continued to chip away at the rights of every woman and won’t rest until all 167.5 million of us are back where we started — without autonomy over our own bodies.

Where we started on the long road to reproductive freedom, and what comes next in the struggle, is a critical part of human history. Felicia Kornbluh, in her meticulously researched A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice, takes on the formidable task of reviewing the work done by activists, legislators, lawyers, doctors, and even clergy — yes, clergy — to secure a woman’s right to control her body. The book aims to chronicle the legislative and courtroom battles that led to the liberalizing of abortion law; to examine the roles played by myriad activists in changing the law; and to expose the insensitivity of white leaders in the movement to the valid suspicions of women of color.

Unfortunately, Kornbluh takes on too heavy a lift for one book, and the result is a confusing jumble of multiple stories about people, organizations, and their competing philosophies that detracts from her important message.

New York was ground zero in the fight for liberalized abortion laws in the 1960s. Ironically, abortion was less fraught with negative legal ramifications in the early 19th century than it was in the mid-20th. Back then, it was no crime to abort a fetus before “quickening,” which was when a woman could feel kicking in the womb — usually anywhere from the 16th to the 20th week of pregnancy. But by 1880, laws were enacted limiting the procedure, until, by the 1960s, legal abortion was only available to save the life of the mother.

To get one depended on a doctor’s willingness to certify its necessity. This led to a slew of injustices, from limiting access to safe abortion to wealthy women, to creating a climate — mostly for the poor and for women of color — in which doctors would pressure patients to consent to sterilization so their “promiscuous” ways wouldn’t lead to future terminations. However, for about 1 million women a year, ending a pregnancy in the bad old days meant a visit to an illegal abortionist and the potential for dire consequences.

Kornbluh, an academic and an activist, is at her best when she recounts the step-by-step process of change in the nation’s abortion laws. In 1959, for example, the influential American Law Institute (ALI) proposed a model criminal statute that would liberalize the circumstances under which an abortion could be obtained. The updated law would’ve allowed access to legal abortion if a mother’s mental or physical health required it, if there was a possibility the fetus would suffer a serious abnormality, or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. The ALI imprimatur led to campaigns around the country to reform abortion laws in that direction. In 1965, Democratic state legislators in New York introduced bills based on the ALI model. By 1967, there were similar bills sitting in 28 state legislatures around the country.

With the late ‘60s came changes in American politics (e.g., the emergence of the anti-war, Black Power, and gay-rights movements). Most of all, women rose up to be heard; the National Organization for Women formed its first chapter in New York City and, as noted by Kornbluh, was “the first organization in the history of the modern women’s movement…to claim access to abortion as integral to civil rights.”

Reforming abortion laws was no longer enough; feminists wanted the laws repealed and lobbied hard in statehouses for that result. Simultaneously, the abortion-rights battle was fought in the courts as lawsuits were filed alleging abortion restrictions violated the rights of women.

Most surprising was the speed with which abortion restrictions fell. Within 11 years of the proposed ALI model code, and within five years of the first reform bill being introduced in the New York Assembly, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller signed into New York law the most progressive abortion statute in the country, which took effect on July 1, 1970. What followed, of course, was the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe, finally giving women the reproductive freedom for which they’d fought so hard by declaring it a fundamental constitutional right.

A Woman’s Life Is a Human Life was born with the death of Kornbluh’s mother, a white Jewish lawyer and pioneer in the abortion-rights movement (and an author of an early version of New York’s abortion-repeal bill). Sadly, like many daughters, Kornbluh regretted not knowing more about her mother’s trailblazing work. Simultaneously, she also became interested in the life of a neighbor, Helen Rodriguez-Trias, a Puerto Rican physician with an agenda similar to her mother’s but whose background caused her to eschew the population-control policies that encouraged poor women to have fewer children but did not address the root causes of poverty.

Although each sought to empower women, because of their different social perspectives, Kornbluh’s mother and Rodriguez-Trias were “not really allies.” While pairing them in a dual narrative feels like something of a stretch, in doing so, the author seeks to convey two important messages. The first is that the family-planning rationale provided by some advocates of abortion rights did not ring true for women of color who wanted the freedom to choose family size. The other is that the next generation of activists must find ways to cross racial and cultural divides to work together for reproductive justice. Because unfortunately, the fight is far from over.

Diane Kiesel is a judge of the Supreme Court of New York. A former journalist, she is the author of Domestic Violence: Law Policy and Practice, published in 2017 by the Carolina Academic Press, and She Can Bring Us Home: Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, Civil Rights Pioneer, published in 2015 by the University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books imprint. She is currently at work on The Trials of Charlie Chaplin: How the Federal Government and One Woman Drove the Little Tramp from the United States, to be published by the University of Michigan Press.

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