Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Q&A with Felicia Kornbluh


Photo by Carmen George



Felicia Kornbluh is the author of the new book A Woman's Life Is a Human Life: My Mother, Our Neighbor, and the Journey from Reproductive Rights to Reproductive Justice. Her other books include The Battle for Welfare Rights. She is Professor of History and of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at the University of Vermont, and she lives in Williston, Vermont.


Q: What inspired you to write A Woman’s Life is a Human Life, which will be published around the 50th anniversary of the now-overruled Roe v. Wade decision?


A: I was inspired by what I already knew, in January 2017, about the vulnerability of abortion rights (remember, Donald Trump had just become president of the United States), about the strength of grassroots support for women’s rights (remember, too, the Women’s March, which was one of the largest protests ever held in Washington, D.C., and was a kind of popular referendum on the policies he was likely to support on women’s, queer, and abortion rights), and about the tensions that were then evident in the movement for reproductive rights – especially between those who focused primarily on preserving access to abortion and those with a “justice lens” that included abortion access within a much larger agenda.


Q: In the book, you focus on your mother, Beatrice Kornbluh Braun, and also on your neighbor, Dr. Helen Rodríguez-Trías. What do you see as their respective roles in the efforts to decriminalize abortion and fight sterilization abuse, and what was it like to write about your mother?


A: In 1968, my mother drafted a piece of legislation that would have completely removed abortion from New York State’s legal code. She did this as a member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and of a movement to make the Democratic Party stronger on civil rights, including women’s civil rights. A version of her bill passed in April 1970.


Although it wasn’t as liberal as Mom’s approach, the law in New York was a quantum step ahead of every other state law in the U.S., because it had no residency requirement: people from all over the country could suddenly come to New York for safe, legal abortion care – and they did come, from every corner of the U.S. It set the stage for Roe v. Wade. 


Dr. Helen Rodríguez-Trías was our next-door neighbor for much of the 1980s in a high-rise apartment building in Manhattan. She cofounded and led the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, a unique reproductive rights group dedicated to ending the sterilization abuse that was then practiced primarily upon young, unmarried and poor women, and women of color.


She defined sterilization abuse as a violation of reproductive rights, since sterilization meant the end of one’s reproductive ability. She also cofounded the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, whose members argued that we needed to go beyond Reproductive Rights and seek instead Reproductive Freedom – which included all of the things a person would have to have in order to make a genuinely free choice about when, or whether, to bear and raise children.

Writing about my mother was wonderful and difficult. It was an opportunity to mourn my loss of her, which was really the precipitant for this book project, and to keep her close by. But it was also a chance to think about some of the limitations in her understanding of reproductive rights.


Without in any way disrespecting her contribution or that of other white, middle-class activists in NOW and groups like NARAL (today, NARAL Pro-Choice America), I worked hard to show that they didn’t fully understand the challenges faced by women and others who were not like them, and that this distorted their politics. We still see the effects of their limitations today.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: The research process was unusual because it occurred in the midst of a global pandemic. When COVID-19 became a mass event in the U.S., I was in the middle of a research leave and residency at Princeton University. I had just written the first major portion of text for the book, and was planning repeated research trips to New York City, the state library in Albany, and the major women’s history archives on the East Coast.


What I wound up doing instead was focusing on interviews, especially interviews with the people who knew Dr. Rodríguez-Trías and participated in activist efforts that opposed sterilization abuse and demanded Reproductive Freedom.


The most surprising thing I learned was that Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rican activist groups played such a huge role in the reproductive rights movement! It was because of their experience on the island of Puerto Rico, and their observations of what was happening to Puerto Rican, Black, and poor women in New York, that the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse formed and helped to transform the movement’s approach.


I was also very surprised to learn that the history of Roe v. Wade, a huge legal and constitutional landmark, was less about the niceties of judicial doctrine and more about a grassroots movement that changed people’s – including Supreme Court justices’ – minds.


Q: Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, what do you see looking ahead for the abortion rights movement?


A: What I see looking ahead is a series of locally based campaigns that look a lot like the campaign in which my mother participated, to changed particular pieces of state legislation, to educate and organize people so that we can express our views in state referenda, and so that we can support the legal work that will be ongoing to keep the rights we have and push the envelope to improve them.


I also think the movement will have to continue a process of self-examination that has been occurring for several years, and which was given special urgency by renaissance of mass civil rights demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd, among others.


It is time to learn from the example of Dr. Helen Rodríguez-Trías and her colleagues and allies, and learn how to preserve abortion access while also seeking a broad menu of other rights.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a couple of ideas for “big-think” projects that draw on my years of research on feminism and other major movements for social change.


And, although it is early days yet, I am considering a project on the struggle for same-sex marriage rights that starts with a couple who were once very famous among gay and lesbian Americans (there was at the time no combined movement for “LGBTQA+ rights”) but have been left out our memories of the recent past. More soon!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: At the end of the day, I’m optimistic. The overturning of the ruling in Roe was a terrible defeat. But when I study the thinking, organizing, and activism of our predecessors in the decades before and after Roe, I know that it’s possible today to achieve victories that are as huge and surprising as the victories they achieved. We will have Reproductive Freedom.


Thanks so much.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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