History of Health Activism Conference at Yale

Here is a Yale Daily News report on the conference, “Health Activism in the 20th century,” that I participated in at Yale last weekend.  (minor correction — MADD stands for Mothers Against Drunk Driving!)  As the reporter was only there for Saturday (bright and early at 8:30am!) and I was the first presenter, he didn’t get a chance to observe my brilliant presentation, Creating a Middle Ground: Feminist Health Activists and Emergency Contraception in the United States, 1970-2000! (I’m giving a shorter version of this paper at the History of Science Society meeting next weekend )  Here are the main points:

This paper looks at the changing position of the National Women’s Health Network (NWHN) on emergency contraception, aka the “morning-after pill.” Initially this group was a vehement opponent of emergency contraception and other forms of hormonal birth control.  By the early 1990s the organization had joined broader efforts to develop a dedicated emergency contraceptive product.  NWHN found that there was sufficient evidence about the safety and effectiveness of this contraceptive method to “cautiously support its use.”
More importantly, increasing restrictions on abortion and access to federally-funded birth control under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush convinced the organization that they needed to help ensure that women had access to emergency contraception when other birth control methods failed.

This paper is a chapter out of a book-length project on the history of emergency contraception in the United States, which is under contract with Rutgers University Press. This project aims to use the history of emergency contraception to illuminate key themes in the politics of birth control and abortion since the 1960s.

In terms of relevance to other issues in health activism in the twentieth century, one of my main points is how the history of emergency contraception reflects the professionalization of the women’s health movement. Since the 1970s, feminist health activists had gradually become insiders in reproductive health by earning professional credentials, which gave them the ability to reform organized medicine and health care policy from within. Although some of their contemporaries accused these newly-minted professionals of “selling-out” rather than furthering the cause of women’s self-empowerment,” the corresponding radicalization of the medical “establishment” was equally significant. This book is intended to contribute to recent scholarship on how women have used experience of the physical body as a source of knowledge production and feminist practice regarding women’s health issues. For example, Wendy Kline argues that “body knowledge” was central to the women’s health activism of Second Wave feminism, and that this feminist framework was abandoned as the women’s health movement adopted the professional credentials and scientific language of the health care establishment.
I suggest that rather than being a departure from Second Wave feminist strategies that were based on knowledge of the biological body, recent activism on emergency contraception demonstrates how women have continued to use personal histories of their bodies to transform reproductive health research and healthcare policy. Since the early 1990s, emergency contraception has served as a “bridge issue” that brought together former adversaries, including feminist health organizations, population and family planning people, and groups representing women of color who were the main targets of attempts to control the “population crisis” in the United States.

This coalition did not arise without a struggle and had to overcome much bad faith generated by sexism in the medical profession and the racist and coercive policies of the population movement. My book shows how these diverse groups created a “middle ground” between an older liberal feminist position that tended to support technological innovations such as hormonal contraception; and a more radical feminist position that criticized the use of hormones but was otherwise in favor of reproductive rights.

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