Professor Michele Bratcher Goodwin spoke at the UCF Africana Studies’ second annual Dr. John Washington Lecture Series. Professor Goodwin is the Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California-Irvine School of Law and is the founder and director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy, creator of its Reproductive Justice Initiative, and the author of Policing the Womb: The New Race and Class Politics of Reproduction, among several other works. In addition, she is the founder and/or director of several other acclaimed programs and initiatives.
In her lecture, titled “Overcoming Injustice: Why Women’s Constitutional Citizenship Still Matters,” Goodwin outlined, in stark terms, a recent trend toward rolling back legal protections related to women’s sexual and reproductive health. She noted that several U.S. states now have worse health outcomes for pregnant women than nearly every other “developed” country, despite the greater wealth and power of the United States, because they have adopted policies which are not grounded in empirical research. Goodwin related this recent trend to much earlier practices aimed at controlling women’s bodies. She noted that political action on the part of women had helped to secure these earlier legal protections, and that continuing action on the part of new generations is critical to their safeguarding and promotion.
Goodwin noted that several prominent republicans of the nineteen sixties and seventies had been involved with planned parenthood and other pro-choice organizations, while Roe V. Wade had been decided on a 7-2 landslide. She noted that the empirical nature of public health policy had not been a partisan issue, it was accepted as valid by both parties. For instance, Goodwin pointed to the ubiquity of empirically-based sex education during the era, and characterized it as something broadly supported by both parties: a political afterthought. But as non-empirically-based, often nakedly ideological means of measuring public health policy became increasingly prevalent during the eighties and nineties, it became common for children to be enrolled in forms of sex education whose curricula were not based in science.
She noted that places which have introduced abstinence-only curricula tend to have increased rates of negative, often bizarre health outcomes: women throwing themselves downstairs to induce miscarriage, boyfriends or parents forcing women and girls to drink bleach for the same end. She noted that people in these places have do not have meaningful access to accurate information about their bodies or about healthy sexual practices.
One particularly jarring case which Goodwin revealed, and which is recounted in Policing the Womb, involved a gruesome description of a dead woman whose body was kept medically “viable” to save the braindead fetus in her womb. It had taken place in Texas, where a law exists that requires medical staff to provide care to fetuses in any event, regardless of the mortality of the mother. Body fluids were pumped in and out of the corpse, the bed was made to constantly vibrate, the dead woman’s neck given a tracheotomy: all in an effort to save a fetus which tests showed was completely braindead, and of which there is no cure. Even though the medical staff knew that all was futile, and even though the woman’s family protested, the effort continued on, because politicians in Texas had moved away from empirically based public health policy.
After reading some sections from her book, Goodwin opened the discussion up to Q&A. Following a brief hesitation on the part of the audience, Goodwin received a question to which she seemed happy to reply. A student had asked her the equivalent of “what, exactly, is there that we can do?” to which she quickly replied “vote.” She then noted that she realized the themes in her talk were difficult to hear, but that they are meant to be motivating. Shortly before ending her lecture, Goodwin added one more piece of advice, telling the audience, if they felt up to it, to one day run for office.