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Reproductive Rights Overview

Reproductive rights include such topics as abortion, birth control, sex education, the right to rear children, the freedom to plan a family and other matters related to reproduction. This section includes an explanation of what constitutes the category of reproductive rights, a brief legal history of reproductive rights, relevant case law, and more. See the corresponding sections on abortion, birth control and other reproductive rights topics for more detailed information.

What are Reproductive Rights?

Reproductive rights refer to the rights of an individual to make decisions regarding reproduction and reproductive health. This concept generally includes the right to plan a family, learn about reproduction in school, terminate a pregnancy, access and use contraceptives, and access reproductive health services. Reproductive rights advocates have faced opposition from those raising moral, ethical, and religious issues relating to reproduction. Reproductive rights remain an emotional and politically charged issue.

Abortion is generally the most hotly contested issue within reproductive rights. Defenders and opponents of abortion term themselves "pro-choice" and "pro-life" respectively. Pro-choice advocates argue that an abortion falls within an individual's constitutional right to privacy. They feel that the choice to terminate an "unborn fetus" lies with the individual and their doctor. Pro-life advocates argue that a fetus is a living being at the moment of conception and argue that abortion should be criminalized for the protection of the "unborn child."

Reproductive Rights: Laws and History

Much of the legal debate over reproductive rights has centered on abortion. Abortion was a legal practice throughout the United States prior to the country's independence and continuing until the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873. Although the act primarily targeted pornography, it also made it illegal to use the U.S. Postal Service to send contraceptives, abortifacients, and materials related to sexual education. Around this time states began to pass laws criminalizing abortion. This trend continued until the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which overturned state laws criminalizing abortion.

In more recent years federal lawmakers have restricted federal funding for abortions and some states have restricted access to abortions by requiring parental consent for minors, counseling, waiting periods, and other requirements designed to dissuade individuals from having an abortion. Certain kinds of abortions have been banned altogether, even where this endangers the life of the mother. Legislation has passed that establishes personhood for fetuses. On the other hand, during the same period, the Food and Drug Administration approved the abortion drug RU-486, which aborts pregnancies during the first seven weeks after conception.

Sex Education in Schools

Among the reproductive rights issues that has generated controversy is the question of whether and the extent to which it is appropriate to provide sex education in schools. Advocates of sex education claim that sex education results in lower rates of teen pregnancy and lower STD infection rates. Opponents of sex education in schools claim that the state has no place educating children about sex, preferring that parents teach children about sex in accord with their own values and at the time of their choosing. At present, debate focuses more on the content of sex education rather than whether or not it should be provided. Opponents frequently favor an abstinence-only approach to education, while advocates seek a broader discussion of reproduction.

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