New Law Book Could Change the Face of Reproductive Rights

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Feb 27, 2015

If you’ve ever been in law school or know someone who has, you’re familiar with the incredibly heavy and imperious-looking books students must pour over. Called casebooks, these volumes are the center of a legal education.

But up until this month there wasn’t a single casebook dedicated to a key area of the law–reproductive rights. That’s why UC Berkeley law professor Melissa Murray wrote "Cases on Reproductive Rights and Justice." The groundbreaking new book creates a new pathway for legal education. "It really defines a field,"Murray says.

"A bound textbook–by its very existence–declares the legitimacy of its contents and of the subject," says Jill E. Adams, executive director of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at UC Berkeley law school and an executive editor of the book. "This will aid students and instructors in persuading law school administrations to offer courses that might have been viewed mistakenly in the past as too specialized or peripheral."

"Cases on Reproductive Rights and Justice" covers hundreds of lawsuits across a variety of areas, because, says Murray, "families are all over the law." The book also incorporates documents that provide context for the cases it centers on. For example, a chapter about regulating reproduction includes an excerpt from a 1970 medical text on the history of contraception. Murray’s co-author, Kristin Luker, is a sociologist and Murray says that they worked hard to make sure the book reflected a broader, cross-discipline perspective.

The book begins with a definition of reproductive justice informed by advocates and activists. It also lays out the concept of intersectionality–how sociopolitical factors shape people’s lives in overlapping ways.

Issues of race, class and gender are not relegated to specific chapters; they inform the entire book. For example, in addressing Griswold vs. Connecticut, the case that opened the door for legalizing contraception for married couples, Murray writes about how the pill was tested on women in Puerto Rico in ways that may have been exploitative.

"The interest in controlling reproduction has been racialized almost from the start," says Murray. "The earliest efforts to medicalize obstetrics and gynecology came from doctors who were experimenting on enslaved women. The criminalization of pregnancy has been laid out on the bodies of black women. There is a really racialized discourse in the effort to control reproduction and sexuality."

Adams says the framework and resources in "Cases on Reproductive Rights and Justice" will influence how lawyers and policymakers do their jobs. Many law school graduates will become judicial clerks, legislative aids and public defenders or prosecutors," says Adams. "They will infuse their memos, meetings and briefs–and enlighten their high-powered bosses–with the knowledge and framing they learned from [the casebook]."

Armed with this way of thinking, "a clerk can help her judge understand the benefits of sending a pregnant mother with an addiction to a family-friendly treatment center, rather than to jail," Adams says. "A legislative aid can foretell the unintended consequences, particularly for poor, rural, and immigrant women, of a seemingly innocuous regulation requiring an abortion provider to have hospital admitting privileges."

With conservative politicians pushing a record number of laws that limit reproductive rights, optimism may be a necessary attitude for a lawyer focused on this area.

"[The casebook] has the potential to enlighten a generation of legal thinkers and community leaders about how laws regarding sex, families and reproduction intersect with other areas of policy," says Adams. "It could show how the struggle for reproductive justice is inextricably linked to efforts to … rework systems to meet the needs of marginalized communities and redistribute power."