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Reproductive Sovereignty or Bust!

Carol Downer

A radical feminist group’s goal is reproductive sovereignty.

Sovereignty means being independent or autonomous.  A nation is sovereign when it has its own set of laws that it can enforce within its boundaries without interference.  A woman is sovereign when she can decide her own destiny without State interference.   

"A woman is sovereign when she can decide her own destiny without State interference."The Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 did not give women reproductive sovereignty; it gave us the right to an abortion, but States can regulate if, how and when we get abortion.  For example, some State legislatures require minors to get parental consent, and now some States are closing down abortion clinics through oppressive regulations

I’d like to propose that women revive the meetings with other women to share vaginal self-examination to build a movement that could actually seize the means to gain sovereignty for themselves, and to change the power relationship between all women and the State?

Unless a substantial number of us learn how to reliably and safely prevent or terminate pregnancy ourselves, reproductive rights activists’ strategies will be limited to demanding, begging, petitioning, voting, and/or, lobbying, suing, or rabble-rousing whenever the political climate changes worsens.

It is feasible for many of us to become more in charge of our own health position.  Women’s health activists discovered in the 1970’s how to control our fertility with safe, effective contraception and how to abort early pregnancies safely with herbal abortafascients or with simple equipment in a group of minimally-trained women.  Additionally, we trained ourselves as midwives to assist women having safe and natural home birth.  Many U.S. women established on-going self-help clinics, women-controlled abortion and birth control and well-woman clinics and midwifery services.  Self-Helpers learned artificial insemination.  We shared home remedies to treat common vaginal infections.  We fitted each other with barrier method devices, such as diaphragms and cervical caps; we observed the changes in our cervix to enable us to avoid exposure to sperm during the times we were likely to be fertile, greatly enhancing the reliability of the fertility awareness method.  We learned we could detect conditions to alert us to seek diagnosis and treatment from medically trained personnel.

Yes, gaining sovereignty necessitated us doing more than reading books and attending sex education classes (as valuable as books and classes are).  Women researched existing medical literature and made the basic information available to all.  In self-examination groups and in running women-controlled clinics, we learned about most of women’s gynecological and obstetrical needs.  Today, when this knowledge is shared with small groups by peer facilitators, large numbers of women could learn how to incorporate it into their own health care.  In these peer-conducted groups, women would learn directly by actually seeing other women’s cervixes, thus learning what our bodies look like and how they function.

"A robust network of women’s health centers throughout the nation, staffed by women trained through self-help, would make it possible for any woman to use safer methods of birth control, or terminate an early pregnancy without having to go to a clinic." Unless there are many wider and deeper changes in our society, peer women’s health education would not be the choice of the majority.  Due to religious or other personal beliefs or convenience, they will rely on a medically certified person for health education and routine health care.  Politically, that’s not a big problem.  In order to effectively fight oppressive legislation, it would not be necessary to have all, or even a majority of women, adopt women-controlled health care.

A robust network of women’s health centers throughout the nation, staffed by women trained through self-help, would make it possible for any woman to use safer methods of birth control, or terminate an early pregnancy without having to go to a clinic.  And when a significant number of women have access to this body of knowledge and use it, the State would be deterred from arbitrarily depriving women of access to health care.  There would be general outrage, and the State would know that large numbers of women could defy it successfully.

It’s a tall order to spread this knowledge.  But, so is any other approach.  We’ll have to raise millions to help sisters travel to get abortions.  We can distribute drugs by mail to cause early abortion, but this has its legal and physical dangers also, and the State can cut off our supply.  Dramatic protests draws attention to injustice, but they will at best just spark wider protests; we’ll have to bring out massive turnouts of women again and again.

We see our reproductive rights shrinking.  The Courts are not supporting us, and the State legislatures are gutting our reproductive rights, so isn’t this a good time to start playing a new game?  

The good news is that the number of women who choose to have a natural birth at home is increasing, as are midwives.  We still have feminist health centers which provide abortion and well-woman care.  There is a burgeoning movement of alternative health providers, such as breast-feeding consultants, fertility-awareness teachers, full spectrum doulas.  These providers are making women-controlled health care a reality.  We need to build on these solid gains made by feminists over the last 40 years.

Would the State attack women learning to take charge of our health care?  Probably.  We will need to support midwives and alternative providers when that happens.  However, isn’t it time to stop putting all of our radical feminist energies into political agitation to fight for access to medical services that can be regulated away.  Isn’t it time to exert our collective efforts to independently provide those services to ourselves? 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Carol Downer

Carol Downer introduced the concept of vaginal self-examination in 1971 and co-founded the Feminist Women’s Health Center in 1972.  She is the editor and/or co-author of several books, including A New View of a Woman’s Body.

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