Reproductive Health, Justice, and Politics in American History – Syllabus

Course Description

In this upper-division course, we will explore reproductive health, justice, and politics in American history. We will examine reproductive issues from a historical and structural perspective to understand how reproduction and reproductive rights intersect with hierarchies of power. We will study the relationship between the physical body and the body politic; reproductive rights and choices; ethics, legislation, and the essentialization of women as reproducers over the course of American history–from the colonial period to the 20th century. 

Learning Outcomes

  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of the intersectional nature of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and sexuality as they relate to reproduction.
  • Students will demonstrate competencies essential for informed inquiry across disciplines
  • Students will demonstrate competency in written and oral communication
  • Students will recognize, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information and ideas from multiple perspectives

Required Texts

Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, ISBN 9780520288201

Elena Gutierrez, Fertile Matters: The Politics of Mexican-Origin Women’s Reproduction, ISBN 9780292716827

Deirdre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, ISBN: 9780820351353

Additional articles will be available through google scholar or the library’s databases.


Reproductive History Narrative: You will conduct an interview/oral history with a person of your choice (this can be a family member, friend, or a stranger) regarding a past or ongoing event in their reproductive life (pregnancy, childbirth, miscarriage, prenatal care, abortion, adoption, access to birth control, sex education, etc.). Describe the interview in 4-5 pages. Use quotes from the interviewee as necessary. This narrative is not simply a transcript of your interview. You must condense the interview into your own narrative. Be sure to describe the interview process and any significant interactions with the interviewee beyond the scope of the questioning. Incorporate, or relate this interview to, at least one of the course readings, lectures, or films in your narrative.  In your interview, you should inquire about your subject’s lived experience and their perception of the situation. What options did they believe they had? Also consider the following questions: what disturbed you? What surprised you? How has your perspective on reproduction changed after conducting this interview? Be considerate of your interviewee’s privacy and offer to use a pseudonym. Take notes or a recording (with the interviewee’s permission) of your interview and use these notes to help you write your narrative. Depending on the length of the interview, you may need to provide context on the issue(s) your interviewee describes.

Discussion: On scheduled days, we will discuss the readings. Your participation is essential for a dynamic discussion. Please be prepared by having all your readings complete.

Case Brief: A case brief is a short summary of a court opinion that functions as synthesis of the whole case and its main points. It should introduce us to the case and its main facts, and the issue or basic legal question being discussed. You must also tell us the court’s holding, or the majority’s answer to the legal question and their reasoning behind it. For this assignment, you will write a 5-page brief of a historical case that relates to reproduction. Some options include, but are not limited to: Roe v. Wade, People v. Belous, Griswold v. Connecticut, Eisenstadt v. Baird, Bigelow v. Virginia, Hodgson v. Minnesota, Rust v. Sullivan, or Planned Parenthood v, Casey. This paper must use at least three scholarly sources *outside* of class material.

Case Brief Presentation: You will present your findings on your reproductive policy or case to the rest of the class in 5-7 minutes (followed by 2-3 minutes for questions).

Final Reflection: In this 2–3-page paper, you will reflect on your quarter in this class. Identify at least two concepts or topics that we discussed in class, and relate them to the present-day, your community, or yourself. Address the following questions: What did you learn in this class? How did your perspective change?  What disturbed you? What surprised you? How has your perspective on reproduction changed since taking this course? 

Grade Breakdown

Discussion: 20%

Reproductive History Narrative: 25%

Case Brief: 25%

Case Brief Presentation: 10%

Final Reflection Paper 20%

Course Schedule

This schedule is subject to change at the professor’s discretion.

Week 1

Introduction to the course

Topic: What Is Reproductive Justice?

  • Read: Ross & Solinger, Introduction

Week 2

Topic: Reproductive Justice in American History: An Overview

  • Ross & Solinger, Chapter 1

Week 3

Topic: Reproductive Justice in American History: An Overview

Book Discussion

  • Discuss Medical Bondage in its entirety

Discussion Questions:

  1. Share an anecdote or passage that surprised or interested you.
  2. When discussing the experiences of enslaved women, Cooper uses the term “maternal-fetal conflict.” What is “maternal-fetal conflict”?
  3. This book can obviously teach us a lot about race, medicine, and gynecology, but did it help you un-learn something?
  4. What connections can you make between this book and some of the topics we’ve discussed in class so far?
  5. Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

Week 4

Topic: Being “Well Born”: Eugenics Then and Now

  • Sofair & Kaldjian, “Eugenic Sterilization and a Qualified Nazi Analogy,” Annals of Internal Medicine, vol. 132, 4 (February 2020): 312-319 and Lira & Stern, “Mexican Americans and Eugenic Sterilization,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies vol. 39, 2 (Fall 2014): 9-34.

Week 5

Topic:  Pregnancy

Reproductive History Narrative Due

Topic: Abortion

Week 7

Topic: The Right to Parent

1. According to Gutiérrez, what is a “social problem”?

2. What factors contributed to the construction of Mexican women’s fertility as a “social problem”? The documentary touches on the nationwide program under which the sterilizations in Los Angeles took place. Do you think this had more to do with race and ethnicity or socioeconomic status?

3. After reading the book and watching the film, were you surprised by anything?

4. Is parenthood a privilege or a right? Is fertility inherently political?

Week 8

Topic: The Right to Parent, Continued

  • Ross & Solinger, Chapter 4, Epilogue

Week 9

Topic: Adoption

  • Kahan, “’Put up’ on Platforms: A History of Twentieth Century Adoption Policy in the United States, The Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare vol. 33, 3 (September 2006): 51-72.

Week 10


Case briefs due at time of presentation

Final Exam Period

Final Reflection Paper Due

Reproductive Health, Justice, and Politics in American History: Supplemental Reading List

Enslaved Women

Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Beacon, 2017).

Daina Ramey Berry and Leslie M. Harris, eds. Sexuality and Slavery: Reclaiming Intimate Histories in the Americas (U. Georgia Press, 2018).

Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (U. Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South (Harvard U. Press, 2006).

Environmental Justice

Philip Shabecoff and Alice Shabecoff, Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins are Making our Children Chronically Ill (Chelsea Green, 2010).

Julie Sze, Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (MIT Press, 2006.)

Dorceta Taylor, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014).


Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (Dialog, 2012).

Paul A. Lombardo, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (Johns Hopkins U.P., 2010).

Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers o Better Breeding in Modern America (U.California Press, 2015).


Jenny M. Luke, Delivered by Midwives: African American Midwifery in the Twentieth-Century South (U. Press o Mississippi, 2018).

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (Vintage, 1991).


Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches & Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (U. North Carolina Press, 1996).

Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Vintage, 1998)

Mixed Race/Interracial Unions

Julian B. Carter, The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880-1940 (Duke, 2007).

Elise Lemire, “Miscegenation”: Making Race in America (U. Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford, 2010).

Native Americans

Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (U. Nebraska Press, 2011).

—. A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World (U. Nebraska Press, 2014).

Brianna Theobold, Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century (U. North Carolina Press, 2019).


Catherine Ceniza Choy, Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoption in America (NYU, 2013).

Dána-Ain Davis, Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth (NYU, 2019).

Randi Hutter Epstein, Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth (W.W. Norton & Co, 2010).

Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade(Penguin, 2007).

Janet Golden, Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America into the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2018).

Alicia Gutierrez-Romine, From Back Alley to the Border: Criminal Abortion in California, 1920-1969 (U. Nebraska Press, 2020).

Jennifer Holland, Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement (U. California Press, 2020)

Don Lash, “When the Welfare People Come”: Race and Class in the US Child Protection System (Haymarket, 2017).

Judith Walzer Leavitt, Brought to Bed (Oxford, 2016).

Leslie J. Reagan, Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America (U. California Press, 2010).

Modhumita Roy and Mary Thompson, eds. The Politics of Reproduction: Adoption, Aboriton, and Surrogacy in the Age of Neoliberalism (Ohio State U.P., 2019).

Richard W. Wertz and Dorothy C. Wertz, Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America (Yale, 1989).

Shannon Withycombe, Lost: Miscarriage in Nineteenth-Century America (Rutgers U. Press, 2018).

Sexual Violence

Sharon Block, Rape & Sexual Power in Early America (U. North Carolina Press, 2006).

Sarah Deer, The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America (U. Minnesota Press, 2015).

Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Knopf, 2010).

Featured Image: New Voices, Reproductive Justice, 2015,

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