News, On Campus

Bachiochi Analyzes Historical Women’s Rights Advocates’ Stances on Bodily Autonomy

Early women’s rights advocates had different opinions about bodily autonomy from modern abortion-rights advocates, according to Erika Bachiochi, author of The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.

“For Victoria Woodhull and her peers in the 19th century women’s rights movement, owning and controlling oneself and one’s sexual organs did not extend to owning or controlling the fate of one’s unborn child through induced abortion,” Bachiochi said.

Students and faculty gathered on Tuesday evening to hear Bachiochi and Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at Harvard Law School and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, speak about the arguments underlying the recent Dobbs Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that protected the constitutional right to abortion.

“As [Mary Wollstonecraft] wrote most famously, ‘Society can only be happy and free in proportion as it is virtuous,’” said Bachiochi, a legal scholar and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Bachiochi said the earliest women’s rights advocates fought for both men’s and women’s rights to fulfill social and familial obligations. 

“So when the earliest American women’s rights advocates put quill to parchment at Seneca Falls in 1848, they built upon Wollstonecraft’s conception of rights as needed to virtuously fulfill their familial and social obligations,” Bachiochi said. “The document expounded upon the right and duty of both men and women to exercise the God-given capabilities of our common rational nature.” 

Bachiochi said while women’s rights advocates argued for bodily autonomy, they also believed the responsibilities of motherhood began while a woman was pregnant.

“The early women’s rights advocates thus agitated strongly for their decisional and bodily autonomy and for reproductive agency,” Bachiochi said. “But, they also understood women to be mothers with all of the responsibilities of motherhood—not just when their children were born, but from the time they began developing in their mother’s womb.” 

Bachiochi connected her discussion of women’s rights to other realms of advocacy, such as the early movements for worker rights as seen in the famous Lochner v. New York Supreme Court case. According to Bachiochi, the court struck down state legislation that regulated numbers of hours worked, among other restrictions.

Bachiochi said political activist Florence Kelley’s critique of Lochner argued the right to bargain and negotiate contracts should consider the responsibilities employers have to their employees, similar to the one a parent has to their child.

“So, [Kelley] argued that the Lochner Court’s liberty of contract was a legal fiction that ignored the power asymmetries between industrial capitalists and their laborers, rendering the worker vulnerable to exploitation, ultimately undermining the capacity of poor worker’s care for their families,” Bachiochi said.

Bachiochi utilized Kelley’s arguments in her takeaway conclusions on the issues of abortion, women’s rights, and autonomy.

“The abstract legal concept of the autonomous being tends to ignore, and in many cases, exacerbate the sexual asymmetries inherent in childbearing and caregiving,” Bachiochi said.

March 23, 2023