"Court-Ordered Cesarean Sections in 1980s America"
Friday, March 23, 2018 - 3:35pm
155 Nicholson Hall
Rebecca Kluchin
Department of History
California State University, Sacramento

In June 1987, Angela Carder was twenty-seven years old, married, pregnant, and in remission from cancer. Twenty-five weeks into her pregnancy, she learned that the disease had returned and metastasized in her right lung.  Her prognosis was terminal and her condition deteriorated rapidly.  When George Washington University Hospital administrators learned that Carder was dying and lacked a plan to save her fetus, they initiated an emergency legal hearing to determine their responsibility to her pregnancy.  A judge ordered Carder to undergo an immediate cesarean section.  The baby lived two hours. Carder died two days later.  

Carder’s parents appealed the decision and in 1990, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled in their favor.  The Carder case became national news and entered popular culture when the popular television show LA Law ran an episode based on it. But the Carder case did not occur in a vacuum; in fact, one month before Carder died, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article that revealed twenty-one prior attempts of court-ordered cesarean sections, eighteen of which were successful.  Eighty-one percent of patients forced to undergo surgery were women of color and twenty-four percent were non-English speakers.[1]  The media attention granted to the Carder case obscured the other forced cesareans and erased women of color from the story.  This paper reveals this hidden reproductive history, places it in the context of other reproductive abuses, and locates women of color at the center of the story instead of on the periphery.  It argues that court-ordered cesarean sections simultaneously continued the long history of reproductive abuses directed at women of color and represented a new form of abuse specific to the post-Roe era and the politics of legal abortion.

[1] Kolber, Veronika, Gallagher, Janet, Parsons, Michael, “Court-Ordered Obstetrical Interventions,” New England Journal of Medicine, v. 317, no. 19, May 7, 1987, 1193.