An interview with Linda Fentiman, Visiting Scholar
As a Visiting Scholar with the Center’s Law School Initiative, Linda Fentiman spent the spring and summer of 2010 studying the social and legal construction of motherhood. Providing scholars with the time and space to flesh out innovative legal theories that can broaden protections for reproductive rights is precisely the aim of the Visiting Scholar program, and Fentiman was an ideal candidate. For more than 20 years, she has taught bioethics, mental disability law, and health, as well as criminal law and white collar crime. A professor at Pace University Law School since 1996, Fentiman directed the Law School’s Health Law and Policy Program and developed the Pace Health Law Distance Education Program. The following is an interview with Professor Fentiman on her time as a Visiting Scholar at the Center.
Why were you interested in becoming a Visiting Scholar at the Center?
As a woman who came of age in the struggle for reproductive rights, I was very excited by the opportunity to work with, and learn from, the talented lawyers who work at the Center. I also wanted to continue my own writing on issues involving the criminal prosecution of pregnant women who use drugs and the difficulties pregnant women face when they lack access to prenatal care and substance abuse and mental health treatment. I have been examining recent neuroscience research on the nature of addiction and integrating it with criminal law and social science work on deterrence. For me, the ability to have a quiet but welcoming space to do this work and to connect with colleagues who are also interested in healthcare and reproductive liberty was perfect.
Is the U.S. legal academy receptive to scholarship on reproductive rights and international human rights?
I think there is a fair amount of scholarship on reproductive rights and international human rights that gets published. However, there is frequently a tendency to marginalize this work and to see it as outside the mainstream, belonging to “women’s” or “gender” journals, or human rights law reviews. The truth is that “women’s issues” and “reproductive issues” affect all of us, directly or indirectly. It’s about our mothers, our daughters, and our sisters. New ideas and theories-whether they come from lawyers or non-lawyers, academics or practitioners-must reach a wide audience.
It is also critical to remember that reproductive healthcare and human rights issues overlap with racial and ethnic discrimination and social injustice. If women’s health is not taken seriously, neither will the health needs of many other groups. The Center’s U.S. and International Legal Programs have been tremendously important in this regard, helping to bring reproductive healthcare in all its aspects to the forefront.
Why do you think it is important to build bridges between legal scholars and advocates?
It is vital for academics to stay connected to the real world that they are training their students to enter. We cannot stay in the ivory tower because that is not where our students will be working. For me, the chance to be involved in the real work of healthcare and reproductive rights advocacy at the Center has been invigorating and enlightening, and it has given me firsthand knowledge of what is going on in the trenches. The need to challenge efforts that limit women’s access to necessary healthcare and single out reproductive healthcare as different from, and lesser than, other healthcare has become very clear to me.
How has being a Visiting Scholar been a valuable experience for you?
The chance to be involved in the real work of healthcare and reproductive rights advocacy at the Center has been invigorating and enlightening, and it has given me firsthand knowledge of what is going on in the trenches. It has been incredibly valuable to work with colleagues who understand the significant impact of many government regulations, even ones where the intrusion of the state on women’s health and liberty might appear to be minimal. I have also been inspired by the Center’s international and human rights work, which has reminded me of the need to look beyond U.S. borders and U.S. law, a lesson I learned when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Poland several years ago. Ultimately, the chance to share my work with bright and intellectually demanding colleagues means that it will be a better product. At the same time, as a professor who teaches health law, I have offered the Center a broader perspective on the litigation and advocacy issues it pursues. The chance to both contribute to, and learn from, the Center’s work has been very rewarding.