Minnesota Law

Spring 2024
For the Record

Tethering the Past to the Present: Dr. King and the Long Arc Toward Reproductive Freedom and Justice

Professor Michele B. Goodwin delivers Minnesota Law’s 9th Annual MLK Convocation

Professor Michele B. Goodwin and Assistant Dean of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Ra'Shya Ghee '13. Photo credit: Tony Nelson
Professor Michele B. Goodwin and Assistant Dean of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Ra'Shya Ghee '13
Photo Credit: Tony Nelson

While Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is well known for his advocacy concerning racial acceptance and equality, former Minnesota Law Professor Michele Bratcher Goodwin and Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Ra’Shya Ghee ’13 reminded audience members of King’s often forgotten legacy of promoting reproductive justice during Minnesota Law’s 9th Annual MLK Convocation, “Dr. King and the Long Arc Toward Reproductive Freedom and Justice.”  

Goodwin is currently the Linda D. & Timothy J. O’Neill Professor of Constitutional Law and Global Health Policy at Georgetown Law, where she is also the co-faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. 

Goodwin and Ghee used Dr. King’s landmark acceptance speech, given after receiving Planned Parenthood’s inaugural Margaret Sanger Award, to illustrate how the fight for reproductive freedom today is not so far removed from similar struggles in the past. 

Assistant Dean of Experiential Education Mitchell E. Zamoff’s opening remarks framed the discussion.

“Here at Minnesota Law, we know that lawyers play a critical role in defining, protecting, and expanding reproductive freedoms,” said Zamoff. 

Dean Ghee noted that in Dr. King’s acceptance speech, he marries the struggles for racial justice and racial equality to our struggle for reproductive freedom. She asked Goodwin her thoughts on why it was important for King to do so.

“Dr. King recognized that thevery first journeys of lawmaking in this country involved questions of reproduction,” Goodwin shared. “Those questions of reproduction were very specifically questions related to Black women and girls and their bodies.” 

Drawing on records left behind by Thomas Jefferson urging fellow slave owners to populate their plantations with Black women rather than men, Professor Goodwin added that Jefferson preferred Black women because he profited from their presence and labor every few years. Specifically, Goodwin stated that Jefferson’s choice shed light on “forced coercive labor” of a sexual nature upon Black women’s bodies. 

Goodwin added that Dr. King intended with his speech to bring the audience to a common understanding of the key objectives and intersectional interest of fights for racial justice and reproductive justice.“He was showing that that past tethered to the present,” she said.

Goodwin explored the relationship between King’s words and the era during which they were spoken. She noted that King gave his speech during the Great Migration, a time in which African Americans fled the racial violence and Jim Crow policies of the South while searching for refuge in northern and midwestern cities.

King’s speech articulated the challenges African American transplants would face in these more densely populated regions. He acknowledged what was reasonable in the south—having an abundance of children who took on sharecropping and farming responsibilities—could not be sustained, for example, in one-bedroom Chicago tenements. 

Professor Goodwin said that King’s solution to this unsustainable way of living was family planning. Goodwin skillfully discussed how women deserve the right to decide the scale and scope of their family, and that diminishing a woman’s options denies her dignity. She drew on King’s speech to demonstrate that from slavery to Jim Crow and beyond, laws forcing women, especially Black women, to bear children whom they could not adequately accommodate require both racial and reproductive advocacy.

Dean Ghee asked Professor Goodwin to expand on how Dr. King’s work often invokes a strain of antebellum history. She also asked Goodwin to consider if there are viable arguments in favor of reproductive freedom using the 13thAmendment.

“Abolition of American slavery, sexual assault, and rape was on the minds of the abolitionists,” Goodwin said. She added that when abolitionists fought for the 13thAmendment’s prohibition on involuntary servitude, they were also very cognizant of sexual involuntary servitude, which yielded both political and economic interests. Professor Goodwin encouraged lawyers to recalibrate their thinking of how various constitutional provisions relate to the concerns of women, characterizing these arguments as a “muscle that hasn't been worked by many lawyers quite yet.”

Dean Ghee asked Professor Goodwin what steps those interested in intersectional advocacy could take to ensure the progress of both racial and reproductive movements. Goodwin said that these movements require advocates to read with intention, become students of history, and contemplate how historical treatment of other rights, such as voting rights, can affect decisions in the United States. Ghee agreed that doing such things helps advocates contextualize arguments properly and paint a full picture of a cause. 

Assistant Dean of Experiential Education Mitch Zamoff, Professor Michele B. Goodwin, and Reauna Stiff '25
Photo credit: Tony Nelson

Professor Goodwin referenced the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case overturning Roe v. Wade and holding that the Constitution confers no right to abortion. Goodwin said that before the Supreme Court’s decision, an important lower court decision from Judge Carlton Reeves in Mississippi contained critical comments in the footnotes, which could be missed without a thorough reading of history. Originally, Judge Reeves discarded arguments from Mississippi claiming abortion bans are rooted in concern for the health and safety of women. Instead, he implored the state to show where in its history it could point to other ways women’s health and safety had been prioritized. Judge Reeves looked at the status of women, specifically Black women when analyzing reproductive justice.

In response to questions from the audience, Professor Goodwin urged legal advocates to evaluate how to use their training to protect and advise physicians who attempt to uphold reproductive freedoms. Goodwin asserted that hyper-surveillance and hyper-policing have become dangerous for healthcare providers and patients alike. 

She also emphasized the importance of voting. “If one looks at what we have experienced in recent years in this country, it says a lot about why voting matters,” she said. “The votes that we cast today say a lot about what our future will look like.” 

To view the video of this conversation or listen to the podcast, visit the event page

Reauna Stiff '25 is a law student from Southern Illinois. She is the president of the Black Law Student Association (BLSA), an admissions ambassador, an instructor for the RISE (Race Informed Student Instruction) group, and a student attorney in the Innocence Clinic. Reauna is generally interested in civil rights litigation, personal injury matters, and appellate advocacy.