This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Politics and Poverty: Women's Reproductive Rights in Arkansas, 1942-1980




Welch, Melanie

Type of Degree





Today, many of us think of birth control and abortion in terms of women's rights and reproductive choice. But, as this study will illustrate, for much of the history of birth control and abortion in Arkansas, it simply has not been that way, especially for poor women. In this dissertation, I argue that this analysis of Arkansas's social and medical history shows how reproductive choice became a class-based privilege. Historically, as this study of Arkansas will illustrate, birth control and abortion have had different meanings for different people. In the 1940s and 1950s, birth control in Arkansas was promoted by women and men as a way to address rural poverty, though without consistently targeting racial minorities. Birth control advice for poor women conformed to the prevailing attitudes about sexuality that, theoretically, confined sex to within marriage. Abortions were illegal in the 1940s and 1950s, but could be defined as medical matters, whether legal or illegal. Doctors treated women who experienced complications from illegal abortions and were held legally responsible for determining when and abortion was medically necessary to save a woman's life. In 1964, birth control became a part of public health in Arkansas. By this time, a new concept of "population control" had become nationally popular. Arkansas birth control advocates adopted this concept of "population control" to further their cause. At the same time, this concept implied that certain groups of people, in this case the poor's, population needed "controlling." The examination of the history of birth control and abortion in Arkansas calls on us to rethink our post-second wave feminist movement notions of reproduction control as a part of women's self-determination. In the early 1970s, second wave feminists began to make their presence felt in Arkansas, and began to assert that birth control and abortion were women's reproductive rights. In Arkansas, the feminist redefinition of birth control and abortion as women's rights coexisted with the utilization of birth control in state public health. As this case study of Arkansas illustrates, feminist claims of abortion rights changed the nature of the debate over birth control as a part of health policy. In the larger sense, this study of Arkansas challenges us to think about the meaning of the right to privacy. Fuller recognition of the right to privacy would mean that women, especially poor women, could make reproductive choices with less fear of excessive or coercive intrusion by policymakers, lawmakers, or opponents of abortion.