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Michelle Francl, Susan Sherwin, Carole Joffe, Lynn M. Paltrow, and Monica Roa; Susan Band Horwitz ’58; Ana Maria Lopez ’82

Fetal Rights: what happened to the woman?

Photos by Jim Roese

Two panel discussions held during the launch weekend explored the legacy of Katharine Houghton Hepburn and her sister, Edith Houghton Hooker, A.B. 1900, who worked tirelessly for policies to improve women’s health and allow them to control their private lives.

“Embryonic politics,” said moderator Carole Joffe at Saturday’s “Reproduction and the Law” panel, “stem cell research, assisted reproduction, the expansion of the reproductive freedom movement to encompass the rights of women to have children and the rights of women to have the birthing experience they wish, the globalization of reproductive rights in its reframing as a human rights issue—all these were not part of Kit Hepburn’s political world.” Joffe, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, continued, “But in ways that I find both fascinating and deeply depressing…it feels like Connect­icut in the 1930s all over again. We are experiencing an acute backlash [against sex education and contraception], but if Kit were alive today, I’m quite sure she’d tell us not to despair but fight for what we believe even harder.”

Dr. Ana Maria Lopez ’82, a speaker for Friday’s panel, “Crafting Policy to Improve Women’s Health,” pointed out that “there are a number of spheres important for health, and all of them intersect with public policy. There is the microcosm of the individual and the one within the individual, and there is the macrocosm in which each individual lives and all of the influences that play on that. As we move forward to understand these intersections and ameliorate the gaps in health care, it is important to do so with an open mind and an open heart, understanding that change is hard.” Lopez is associate professor of clinical medicine and pathology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, and medical director of the Women’s
Health Initiative and the Arizona Telemedicine Program.

Health advocacy

“Women, who make up 60 percent of the population, must be motivated to go into scientific and technological fields and rise to positions that have an impact,” said Susan Band Horwitz ’58, Falkenstein Professor of Cancer Research and co-chair of the department of molecular pharmacology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York. “The Women’s Health Initiative, an extremely important study conducted over the last 15 years, was first launched by Dr. Bernadine Healy when she was head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH),” Horwitz said. “She is the only woman to have been NIH director.” Horwitz and fellow panelists stressed the importance of availability of childcare and flexible work schedules.

Jeanne Pieri Alio ’50 and Nicole Alio ’82; Janet Shapiro, associate professor of social work and director of the Center for Child and Family Wellbeing, moderator of Friday’s panel.

In general, Horwitz said, “a liberal education must include scientific literacy” so that citizens can make informed decisions about their own health care, understand the evidence required to make public policy, and advocate. “Every citizen should be able to analyze data and have a feeling for numbers and probabilities,” she said. “How often do physicians say to us, ‘I can do this or I can do this or I can do this. What do you think?’ And new vaccinations—should we take them? Should we give them to our daughters? Science is relevant to so many national policy debates—stem cell research, evolution, intelligent design, global warming.”

Lopez said she was told in medical school that women are simply men with ovaries. “We now know that for the same disease, such as cardiac, symptoms, outcomes and treatments may differ by gender. Men are not simply women without ovaries. We must understand both the differences and the similarities.”

New York Times health and science reporter Denise Grady listed a surprising number of important questions about women’s health which have yet to be answered by scientists. “I’d like to point out to students interested in research that their work is cut out for them,” she said. “We need a lot more research on eating disorders; they are one of the most intractable of psychiatric or behavior problems. Migraine headaches are a debilitating problem suffered primarily by women, but their precise causes remain undetermined. Issues only beginning to be studied are treatments for hot flashes and uterine fibroids, hormone replacement therapy, safe appetite suppressants, embryo screening, and genetic counseling.

Women have been orphaned by the system, not deliberately but because people have been afraid to address these issues or to study them; it’s an ethically difficult area,” she said.

Fetal vs. maternal rights

Grady also drew attention to the dilemma posed by the general recommendation that no medications should be taken during pregnancy. This presents a challenge, however, for women with asthma, depression, diabetes, and hypertension; as more women postpone pregnancy, more are prone to have such chronic illnesses. Research can be done only with the cooperation of women who have chosen to take medication. Friday’s discussion between panelists and audience broadened to issues concerning the safety of assisted reproductive techniques. Saturday’s panelists looked at the ways in which a policy focus on fetal health rights might compromise a woman’s own health.

Attendee Kimberly Blessing ’97 asked panelists about the advocacy movement for prepregnancy. “As a military spouse and subject to the military healthcare system, I have been bombarded with all kinds of information about how to prepare my body to have children, even though I don’t want to,” she said.

Deirdre McQuade ’90; Monica Roa

In April 2006, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a report detailing measures to be taken by physicians to intervene in the life, health care and behavior of all women, “from menarche to menopause…even if they do not intend to conceive,” to make sure they are healthy and prepared to give birth. “Separating childbearing from the management of chronic health problems and infectious diseases places women, their future pregnancies, and their future children at unnecessary risk,” states the report.

“I have mixed feelings about this report, and it makes me mindful of the strange world I’ve entered at the intersection of so many issues,” said panelist Lynn M. Paltrow, J.D., founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, New York. “The report does see women as valued only in terms of their potential reproductive capacity, but if it is true, as it says, that 85 percent of all women have children by the age of 44, there is some reality content there.” Paltrow suggested that it is more helpful to criticize the report for putting all responsibility on the individual rather than on society and the community, and not addressing solutions, for example, to conditions that cause women to be poor, to lack health care, or to be trapped in abusive relationships.

Susan Sherwin, professor of philosophy and women’s studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, argued that public and bioethical debates about reproduction policies need to broaden from a focus on the rights of embryos to include women’s well-being. “Many women of course welcome the pregnant state, but many, including some who are welcoming it, find it to be harmful for their health and personal, social, economic wellbeing,” she said. “Coerced pregnancy is especially dangerous to women’s health.”

Panelist Monica Roa, a 29-year-old Colombian attorney and activist on behalf of reproductive rights, spoke about how a constitutional challenge she filed resulted in a May 10, 2006, ruling by Colombia’s highest court that abortion must be permitted when a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life or health; in cases of rape and incest; and in cases where the fetus has malformations incompatible with life outside the womb. Abortion had previously been outlawed in all circumstances.

Figures from Colombia’s Social Welfare Ministry show that about 300,000 illegal abortions were performed every year in the country.

“We wanted Colombian society to discuss the issue of abortion as a matter of gender equality, social justice, and public health,” said Roa, who is director of the Gender Justice Program at Women’s Link Worldwide, Bogotá, Colombia. “The moral and religious positions should only be relevant as personal choices and not as public policy.”

Roa’s challenge was the first to use international human rights law, arguing that Colombia was violating its obligations under international treaties to ensure the following constitutional rights: 1) the right to equality and to non-discrimination (by criminalizing a medical practice that only women need and which, in certain cases, is necessary to save their lives); 2) the right to life, health and integrity (by failing to recognize the effects the total criminalization of abortion has on the life, health and integrity of women); and 3) the right to dignity, reproductive autonomy and the free development of personhood (by obligating women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, including when it goes against the woman’s best interest for her physical, psychological or emotional well-being).

Susan Sherwin; Katharine Houghton greets alumnae at lunch on Saturday.

Roa said that is was important that the concept of “health” used by the court is also that put forward by the World Health Organization: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being,” that includes the ability to lead a “socially and economically productive life.”

In the case of rape under the new law, “a woman only needs to present to the health-care provider a denouncement of the incident,” said Roa. “She doesn’t have to prove anything or go through medical examinations…. And under Colombian law, any sexual intercourse with a girl under 14 is rape.”

However, Roa told the audience, the first legal abortion—for an eight-month-pregnant 11-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather—had to go to the highest court before the procedure was authorized. The Church condemned the action and excom­municated the medical team that performed the procedure. Public opinion in Colombia, which is 95 percent Roman Catholic, was initially 85 percent opposed to any liberali­zation of the law. After extensive media coverage of the case, it had changed to 85 percent in favor of the new law.

“One of the strategies that worked best for us in Colombia,” Roa said, “was to point out that those of us who work for abortion rights would like an ideal world in which abortions are not necessary, where there is sex education, availability of varied methods of contraception that are 100 percent effective, 0 percent rate of sexual violence. This gives us common ground and unveils the reality that the religious right who are against abortion are usually also against all of the possible ways of preventing the problem of unwanted pregnancy.”

Women deserve better

After the launch weekend, the Bulletin asked attendee Deirdre McQuade ’90, director of planning and information for the Pro-Life Secretariat of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to respond to comments made by panelists. McQuade, formerly with the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), responded as an individual and an alumna, not on behalf of the bishops.

“As the non-profit organization, Feminists for Life, is fond of saying,‘Abortion is a sign we have not met the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion’,” emailed McQuade.

“I agree that women deserve better both at home and overseas. It’s a basic social justice issue. We cannot simultaneously work toward a more just world in which abortions are no longer considered necessary and, at the same time, compound the injustices against women and their children by making it easier for men to exploit them. The cry for universal access to abortion inverts the best of the modern feminist movement: non-violence, non-discrimination, and justice for all. It pits women against their own children without addressing the terrible conditions they face. In the spirit of Susan B. Anthony and other early American feminists, we can stand in friendship with women who have had abortions,while working toward the day when no one has to go through what they went through ever again. Solidarity, compassion, and the love of justice call us to that higher standard. The resources spent liberalizing Columbia’s abortion law should have been devoted to lifting the burdens on women who, out of desperation, sought illegal abortions there.

“As an alumna and co-founder of the original Bi-Co Students for Life group, I was deeply saddened to witness the celebration of reproductive rights as an end in itself. Women deserve better, and so does the Bryn Mawr College community. I hope that the Katherine Houghton Hepburn Center assumes a richer, more courageous vision for women and inspires students, faculty and alumnae alike to help make abortion unthinkable.”



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