World Wide Web Reviews:

On the Trail: Reproductive Rights Legal History on the Web

by Beth Fredrick

[Eds. note: This ongoing feature in Feminist Collections suggests and evaluates key websites on particular topics. This review is from the Spring 1998 issue.]

The extent to which major legal decisions affecting reproductive rights are beginning to fade from public consciousness is astonishing. Test it yourself. Ask anyone to name the decade in which the provision of contraceptive methods to unmarried Americans became legal nationwide. Few people - particularly those who came of age after the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Eisenstadt v. Baird - can even guess. At a time when nine in ten women who are at risk of an unintended pregnancy say they use a contraceptive method, such government involvement seems out of the realm of possibility. Test it on the World Wide Web and you will be similarly stymied, since a historical perspective is missing from many of the reproductive health sites where one might most likely be expected.

Nonetheless, as the constitutional notion of privacy is being reinterpreted as a result of new technologies and electronically shared personal data, Eisenstadt v. Baird as well as the more landmark cases of Griswold v. Connecticut, Doe v. Bolton, and Roe v. Wade are worth pursuing on the Web. Interestingly enough, they can be found through a few sites that are remarkable and useful for other reasons as well. (Note: in all cases, the URL is given for the exact location of the court case, but the full sites are also worthwhile.)

Site title: Women of the World
Developed/maintained by: Joshua M.K. Masur and the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy
Last updated: 8/23/95
Date of review: 3/15/98

A terrific site, clearly put together for the 1995 United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing and, unfortunately, not updated since. Nonetheless it hints at the potential for a more complete website for the Center on Reproductive Law and Policy so that this valuable information could be updated and added to - a plan now in the works. In the meantime, the site is a quick and easy way to orient oneself to reproductive law and policy in the United States and to compare it with Brazil, China, Germany, Nigeria, and India. The history is there, not only on contraception, but on sexually transmitted disease, abortion, violence, and a number of other topics. Without links (except to its webmaster), it is nonetheless an attractive site worth visiting.

Site title: National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League
Developed/maintained by: The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League
Last Updated: 3/12/98
Date of review: 3/15/98

[The organization changed its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America and URL to, per email from the NARAL website manager, March 11, 2003.]

In addition to a wealth of practical information for prochoice advocates, this easy-to-navigate site provides a straightforward introduction to reproductive rights history. Under "Publications," then "NARAL Factsheets" is a page called "Supreme Court Decisions," where relevant cases are presented in clear, plain English, chronologically, facilitating a quick grasp of the issues under consideration in each, as well as the outcome.

Site Title: Findlaw/Law Crawler
Developed/maintained by: Northern California Law Librarians
Last updated: 3/15/98
Date of review: 3/15/98

This site became an instant bookmark. An easily searchable site maintained by the Northern California Law Libraries, it provides access for lawyer and non-lawyer alike to the key details of Federal Circuit Court and Supreme Court cases (including the recently dismissed Clinton v. Jones). Search for such terms as "abortion" or "contraceptives" or a particular case. Though burdened by advertising, the site does present each full-text decision with links to related cases and websites. Also available on the site are law review articles and links to state law information.

Site Title: Oyez, Oyez, Oyez-A U.S. Supreme Court Database
Developed/maintained by: Jerry Goldman and Northwestern University
Last updated: 3/14/97
Date of review: 6/6/97

A link from Findlaw to a project supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation enables one to hear digital recordings of the actual arguments in a case. Created by political scientist Jerry Goldman and colleagues, it is fascinating in its capacity to bring not-so-ancient history to life.

Site Title: Pro-life Activist's Encyclopedia
Developed/maintained by: Brian Clowes, Steve Frezza and the American Life League
Last updated: unknown (Copyright 1995) [Copyright 1998]
Date of review: 3/15/98

Finally, for an alternate and exhaustive history of the maelstrom of issues surrounding reproductive rights, the Pro-life Activist's Encyclopedia provides detailed information in 140 chapters on everything from Supreme Court decisions to "Sex Selection Abortions" to "The Media's Pro-Sodomite Bias." Although the full-text presentation makes one scroll-weary and the site is generally graphically uninteresting, quotes interspersed throughout and thorough, linked footnotes provide additional appeal. Unlike the sites of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (both organizations with a clear prochoice agenda), the Encyclopedia site is much more opinionated in presenting the facts, and the information here seems not to be updated regularly. Yet, as a comprehensive catalog of the debate on reproductive health, it should not be missed.

Only twenty-five years have passed since Eisenstadt v. Baird changed Americans' lives. For all intents and purposes, however, government intrusion in an individual or couple's contraceptive decisions has become ancient history in this country. Nevertheless, for those searching for guideposts on how the courts and we as a society once worked to recognize and expand reproductive rights, these cases and the websites that feature them are an invaluable resource.

[Beth Fredrick is Director of Communications and Development and Director for Program Operations with The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization conducting reproductive health research, policy analysis, and public education (]

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