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History Department hosts discussion on abortion rights

September 16, 2022

Cloe Tarlton
CONTEXTUALIZING ABORTION: History professors discussed the Dobbs decision and the history of abortion at a well-attended talk on Thursday evening. Students listened intently to the panelists and moderator, Assistant Professor of History Sakura Christmas.

The history department hosted an event entitled “How did we get here? Historians on Roe v. Wade” last night.

The event, which was widely attended by students, filling Adams 208, consisted of a panel of five professors: Associate Professor of History and Chair of the History Department David Hecht, Professor of History Patrick Rael, Associate Professor of History Meghan Roberts, Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies Rachel Sturman and Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies Sakura Christmas.

The group engaged in a discussion with the Bowdoin community about the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that was handed down in June.

Christmas, who moderated the talk, opened by explaining the history of the Supreme Court’s role in justifying arguments and setting precedent regarding abortion. She highlighted the difference between the usage of history by historians as opposed to the justices’ use of history, especially concerning the Dobbs decision.

“We are very much aware of what parts of the past have gotten left out of that history that the [justices] are choosing to rely on. By looking at those facets of the past that have been either overlooked or deliberately ignored, that perhaps could help us reimagine a different kind of future,” she said.

Roberts, who specializes in the history of science and medicine as well as women and gender, gave background on the history of abortion in pre-modern Europe. The context of abortion spans centuries, she explained, and while abortion has been made illegal in certain states, the broader history is more nuanced.

“Abortion actually was not illegal for much of European history—that’s really a nineteenth century development. You’re not going to see a lot of people in early modern Europe who are pro-choice in the same way that someone might be today, but it is absolutely understood to be a practice that would have been understandable in many situations,” Roberts said.

Roberts also answered a question about medical migration, or the practice of moving from one region to another in search of medical practices. She detailed its past and its potential current implications.

“[The idea of] a very restrictive state that you need to move from in order to access health care, that’s a more modern problem,” Roberts said. “When people talk about, ‘Oh, we’re going back to the Middle Ages, we’re going back to the pre-modern era,’ in fact, it’s worse than going back to the Middle Ages, because the Middle Ages had nothing like the prison complex that we have today.”

Rael explained the way that the justices utilized history in the Dobbs decision. He highlighted Justice Samuel Alito’s view on the Fourteenth Amendment in his majority opinion and how his view could play a role in other cases that could potentially overrule other historic decisions, including Griswold v. Connecticut and Obergefell v. Hodges.

The panel is part of a larger, intermittent series held by the history department that responds to and attempts to conceptualize current events as they happen.

“We’ve done one on the yellow vest protests in France, and then we did one online during the pandemic—that would have been fall 2020—about the 1619 Project. So this particular panel doesn’t necessarily come out of the blue, per se. We’ve done others before,” Christmas explained.

Closing out the talk, Roberts discussed next steps in the national debate over abortion rights.

“In many other contexts—both temporally and geographically—political activism looks like a lot of things. So if this is a situation that you want to get out of, I would encourage you to think creatively and collectively about how to do that, and to not restrict [your activism] just to the voting box.”


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