A Health Justice Approach to Abortion Rights: The Promise and Perils of Medicalizing Civil Rights

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APHA 2022 Digital Meeting

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Online/ Zoom



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Medicalization has a complicated history in the legal regulation of abortion. Although scholars do not all agree on a definition of the concept, medicalization is typically defined as the framing of a phenomenon as medical in nature and properly within the jurisdiction of medical experts in terms of decision-making authority. Feminist scholars have often viewed medicalization suspiciously, especially in the context of reproduction, since medicalization has tended to correspond with physician control over women’s bodies. This Article traces out medicalization and demedicalization in abortion jurisprudence in the United States in order to understand what happens to access to and agency over abortion decisions on the ground when it is framed as medical in the law. I find that, whether abortion is medicalized or demedicalized, women are never able to openly exercise decisional autonomy over abortion care. Instead, women’s abortion decisions are subject to oversight by either medical or legal authority.

Nevertheless, after Roe v. Wade constitutionalized the issue, medicalizing abortion has tended to decrease legal restrictions on abortion care and thus increase women’s access to care on the ground. I contend that medicalization could be deployed in ways that advance reproductive rights and justice in a post-Roe world. Recently, a number of legal scholars have argued in favor of “medical civil rights —that medicalization could be used for advancing civil rights in the realms of anti-discrimination, housing, disability, and poverty rights. In this Article, I argue in favor of extending the medical civil rights approach to abortion. In particular, I argue that a health justice approach to abortion as a medical civil right could advance more equitable access to care.

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