Rebecca Kluchin, PhD: On Her Fellowship and Foundation Board Position


‘We have to understand the present in the context of the past’

Rebecca Kluchin, PhD, studies the maternal-fetal relationship and the public and private evolution between a woman and her pregnancy.

As the 2014-2015 fellow for the Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine, Dr. Kluchin was able to nurture her second book, Pregnancy and Personhood: The Maternal-Fetal Relationship in America, 1850 to the Present.

“The fellowship allowed me to do the research and the time to think, the time to talk with physicians and public health experts,” she says. “It’s very rare that women’s health and women’s medicine gets this kind of support.”

Dr. Kluchin is an associate professor of History at California State University, Sacramento, and studies the history of women’s reproductive health in the United States. She also serves on the board of the Foundation, now known as the Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation.

Her first book, Fit to Be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980 (Rutgers University Press, 2005), won the Francis Richardson Keller-Sierra Award for best monograph published in 2009 from the Western Association of Women’s Historians.

She hopes her second book will have a wider following, attracting readership beyond academia. She is in the early stages of writing and expects to secure a contract soon.

The $5,000 fellowship enabled Dr. Kluchin to study at the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine an alliance of the Boston Medical Library and Harvard Medical School, where she examined records from the Boston Lying-In Hospital and papers by noted physicians.

“There is an incredible luxury in being immersed in a research library,” she says.

Among the documents she researched are letters written in the 1850s by Horatio Robinson Storer, an obstetrician and anti-abortion activist. She read the papers of John Rock, M.D., a Catholic physician who was a supporter of contraception.

“As you go through the records, they talk about specimens,” she says. “They are not seeing a person, they are seeing cells, and yet they are referred to with a hint of fondness.”

Dr. Kluchin explored the ways in which changing definitions of fetal rights, fetal personhood, maternal responsibility, and abortion have shaped the cultural understanding of pregnancy for millions of women across race and class. Her research shows that efforts to grant personhood rights to the “unborn” in the United States date back to the 1850s and have not always been embroiled in the politics of abortion.

“We have to understand the present in the context of the past,” she says. “If we can depoliticize these issues we can discuss them more rationally.”

Dr. Kluchin also gained insights after she lectured on a legal movement in the 1980s to obtain court-ordered caesarian sections for expectant mothers who refused surgery because of their religious beliefs.

“Afterward, more than 10 physicians came forward and talked to me about their own experiences,” she recalls. “It was incredibly exciting because the documents did not include those insights from the bedside.”

One doctor shared that her patient, a Jehovah’s Witness, discretely said that she would not object to the hospital obtaining the court order.

“She wanted to save her baby but she didn’t want to go against her religion,” she says. “Having the C-section under court order allowed her to remain consistent to her religion and ensure the safety of her baby.”

Dr. Kluchin, 40, is the mother of two young children. In order to minimize disruption to her family she opted to break her two weeks of research at Countway into two blocks spaced months apart.

“The Foundation showed incredible trust in me that I knew how to handle my project,” she says. “I have received many fellowships but none that has been so generous and flexible.”

At the annual meeting of the American Association of the History of Medicine, Dr. Kluchin talked about the Foundation and its mission.

“There were heads nodding, people who were aware of the Foundation and the important work it does,” she says. “Others were hearing about it for the first time and wanted to learn more.”

Serving on the Foundation board, she offers her insights as an historian. She says the history that is being preserved today will benefit historians for generations to come.

“I’ve had wonderful interactions with board members. These women are pioneers and are preserving an important legacy,” she says. “We are dependent upon what is in the archive, what is left for us to remember. For decades, scholars will rely on these oral histories, which give the interviewees full rein, and all that the Foundation has preserved.”

Alicia Lazzaro