Faculty Focus

Carol Sanger

Reproductive Rights

Professor Carol Sanger has amassed a tremendous body of scholarship dedicated to examining the law surrounding abortion, motherhood, and family

By Mary Johnson

Winter 2010

On a Thursday afternoon in late January, Professor Carol Sanger turns to her ringing phone, slips her glasses over the edge of her nose, and eyes the caller ID. It’s a reporter from a national news network covering the trial of Scott Roeder, the man who killed Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller because he believed abortions constituted infant murder. The reporter has called with what he refers to as “a simple question that shouldn’t take up much time:” Is the fetus a person? Sanger, a renowned reproduction law expert, lifts the phone to her ear and launches into a detailed legal analysis. The field is controversial—and complex. Fifteen minutes after picking up the phone, she is still answering that one “simple” question.

Sanger, the Barbara Aronstein Black Professor of Law, is a first stop for many journalists covering the intersection of abortion and the law, as well as issues related to gender, families, and motherhood. Her nine-page CV is teeming with articles about working mothers, the role of cars in rape prosecutions, infant safe haven laws, and undocumented families. At the Law School, Sanger teaches interdisciplinary courses on both motherhood and abortion, and she has presented on reproduction and related topics at prestigious academic institutions around the world. Still, despite her demonstrated prowess in the field, reproductive rights law is a relatively new scholarly interest.

“I thought for a long time that there was no point in writing about abortion because, until the early 1990s, it was too precarious a right,” recalls Sanger, who also directs the Law School’s Careers in Law Teaching Program. But about eight years ago, she observed that abortion had become more encumbered by detailed restrictions and limitations. Although the basic right had been secured, Sanger determined that the impact of abortion regulation warranted more detailed study.

Sanger’s most recent articles on the subject address laws that take regulation to what she believes is a disturbing extreme. In the November 2008 issue of the UCLA Law Review, she examines mandatory ultrasound laws, which have been implemented in 16 states across the country. These laws require that a woman undergo an ultrasound and have the opportunity to view the resulting image before having an abortion. State legislatures claim the mandatory ultrasound statutes promote informed consent, but Sanger argues that they are, in fact, less directed at medically informed consent than what she calls “morally informed consent.” Mandatory ultrasound, she writes in the article, “is harassment masquerading as knowledge.”

In another recent article that appeared in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law in November of 2009, Sanger discusses a subset of parental consent laws that, she argues, inflicts serious harms upon pregnant minors. In several jurisdictions, teenagers are required either to obtain parental consent before having an abortion or to participate in a court hearing during which they are often asked to divulge intimate details about their sexuality, as well as the reasons why they cannot confide in their parents. “Bypass hearings should especially concern lawyers,” Sanger writes, “because of how the legal process is used to patrol teenage abortion and to harass girls who petition for relief.”

Sanger has also begun to analyze another aspect of reproduction: how the law deals with the issue of stillbirths. In recent years, 27 states have enacted laws that allow the issuance of birth certificates for stillborn babies. Sanger wants to determine both the function and the ramifications of these laws. “What is the meaning of giving a birth certificate to a baby who never lived, at least in the legal sense of the word?” she asks. “Is this a kind of therapeutic use of law?”

In March, Sanger presented her recent paper, “Stillbirth: Birth and Death and the Problem for Law,” at the interdisciplinary conference “Birth: Rites and Rights” at the University of Cambridge.  The paper explores the legal problems at hand in the case of stillbirths, and it also incorporates another of Sanger’s current areas of focus: women’s emotional responses to various forms of pregnancy loss, ranging from miscarriage to stillbirth to abortion. She recently lectured on this subject during Columbia University’s Feminist Intervention Series.

Sanger’s work consumes her, and that work, coupled with her obvious fervor for the field, excites students about the complex relations between legal regulation and women’s lives. “Her mentorship and teaching always reminds me that law does not exist solely in the classroom or in a bubble, but has real impact on everyday lives,” says Jenny Ma ’11, Sanger’s research assistant. “Her work continues to inspire me and pushes the limits of my own thoughts and scholarship.”