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Reproductive policy and the social construction of motherhood

  • Bonnie Stabile (a1)

Background. Reproductive technologies allow women to embrace or forgo motherhood, but a woman’s ability to make autonomous reproductive choices depends on access to these technologies. In the United States, public policies — laws, regulations, appropriations, and rulings — have either broadened or narrowed this access.

Question. Have U.S. public policies affecting reproductive choices conformed to attitudinal distinctions about motherhood itself?

Methods. I identified policies covering infertility, contraception, and abortion and examined them contextually within the Ingram-Schneider social construction framework.

Findings. Women’s choices fell within social construction quadrants as being positively portrayed and powerful; negatively portrayed but powerful; positively portrayed but powerless; and negatively portrayed and powerless. Married heterosexual women embracing motherhood were likely to be viewed positively and to reap benefits. Women forgoing motherhood, poor women, and women seeking to form nontraditional families were likely to be viewed negatively and to bear burdens; critical among these burdens was restriction of access to technologies that could be used to support a decision to avoid motherhood or to achieve motherhood through nontraditional methods.

Conclusion. Yes, U.S. public policies affecting reproductive choices have conformed to attitudinal distinctions about motherhood itself. These policies may also have altered those choices.

Corresponding author
Correspondence: Bonnie Stabile, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, 3351 Fairfax Drive, MS3B1, Arlington, VA 22201. Email:
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Anne Schneider  and Helen Ingram , “Systematically pinching ideas: A comparative approach to policy design,” Journal of Public Policy , 1988, 8(1): 6180.

Anne Schneider  and Helen Ingram , “Social construction of target populations: Implications for politics and policy,” American Political Science Review , 1993, 87(2): 334347.

Helen Ingram  and Anne L. Schneider , “Improving implementation through framing smarter statutes,” Journal of Public Policy , 1990, 10(1): 6687.

Robert C. Lieberman , “Social construction (continued) — comment/reply,” American Political Science Review , 1995, 89(2): 437.

Miranda R. Waggoner , “Motherhood preconceived: The emergence of the preconception health and healthcare initiative,” Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law , 2013, 38(2): 346347.

Susan Markens , Surrogate Motherhood and the Politics of Reproduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Arthur L. Greil , Julia McQuillan , Karinna M. Scheffler , Katherine M. Johnson , and Kathleen S. Slausen-Blevins , “Race-ethnicity and medical services for infertility: Stratified reproduction in a population-based sample of US women,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior , 2011, 52(4): 117.

Kathryn J. Watkins  and Tracy D. Baldo , “The infertility experience: Biopsychosocial effects and suggestions for counselors,” Journal of Counseling and Development: JCD , 2004, 82(4): 394402.

Rachel K. Jones , Ushma D. Upadhyay , and Tracy A. Weitz , “At what cost? Payment for abortion care by US women,” Women’s Health Issues , 2013, 23(3): e173e178.

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Politics and the Life Sciences
  • ISSN: 0730-9384
  • EISSN: 1471-5457
  • URL: /core/journals/politics-and-the-life-sciences
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