We have another great review today, of Lori A Brown’s book “Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters and Hospitals.” It’s by Sophie Jones of Birkbeck College, University of London, and considers aspects of architecture, landscape & design, and wider ideas about feminism and attitudes to women’s health in the USA. Looks like a fascinating area for discussion.
- Georgia Belam
Review: “Contested Spaces: abortion clinics, women’s shelters and hospitals.” by Lori A Brown
By Sophie Jones
‘Is it possible to build non-sexist neighborhoods and design non-sexist cities? What would they be like?’ Posing these questions in 1980, Dolores Hayden vocalized the utopian impulse of feminist architecture. A generation of women architects were convinced that Hayden’s question had an affirmative answer. Their plans for housing complexes with integrated childcare centres and cooperatively-run kitchens were not merely isolated amendments to the world as they knew it, but blueprints for a materialist feminist revolution. In Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters and Hospitals, Lori A. Brown brings this heritage of feminist architecture to bear on contemporary approaches to these charged sites. Brown asserts, ‘Space matters. Space is at stake. Control over geography is being legislated by those who want to eliminate a woman’s right for reproductive choice.’ Her proposals, which include bullet-resistant windows and abortion clinics in shopping malls, bespeak a different political climate: these are constrained negotiations, not revolutionary demands.
Brown’s research into the spatial politics of abortion clinics—and, to a lesser extent, women’s shelters and hospitals—is primarily focused on the United States, with some comparative analysis of Canada and Mexico. The author, an architect based at Syracuse School of Architecture, announces her project as a dual intervention, correcting her discipline’s lack of social engagement while drawing public attention to the feminist politics of the built environment. Debates about abortion often prioritise the subject of time, dwelling on the abstract question of when the foetus acquires a right to life. Contested Spaces marks a welcome turn to the spatial, as growing numbers of women across North America face harassment outside clinic doors, if and when they manage the long, expensive journey to their nearest abortion provider. Brown has transformed these hostile landscapes into diagrams punctuated by sobering statistics. On one map, a stark black line represents a 404 mile journey across South Dakota to the only clinic in Sioux Falls—a route served by no public transportation.
The book, which Brown positions ‘somewhere between theory and practice’, is concerned not only with the siting, accessibility and security of buildings, but also with the way architecture manifests social antagonisms. This approach makes sense, but the abrupt shifts between registers are telling. A section about Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas abortion provider shot to death by a terrorist in 2009, segues awkwardly into a recommendation that clinics install meditation rooms for quiet reflection. The story of Paulina del Carmen Ramírez Jacinto, who was refused an abortion at the age of 13 after being raped during a break-in at her family home in Baja California, is followed by a consideration of the importance of lighting and paint choices in reproductive healthcare facilities. Noting the disjunction here is not a matter of policing the boundary between the serious and the trivial. Rather, it is to pay attention to the conditions that interrupt feminist blueprints for the future before they become reality.
Women, as Contested Spaces demonstrates, have historically found ways to repurpose structures designed to enclose them. In the 1960s and early 1970s, California’s Army of Three and Chicago’s Jane Collective helped women to access ‘menstrual extraction’ procedures, often in domestic spaces. Brown notes that, for these underground collectives, ‘Domestic space became the space of choice, liberation, security and safety from the law.’ Meanwhile, the Netherlands-based initiative Women on Waves dodges national abortion laws by providing terminations at sea. As Brown astutely observes: ‘Connected with neoliberal policies, this project exploits the idea of free trade zones and International waters and exists because it plays against hegemony’s own system through legal loopholes of globalization.’ A similar intervention occurred recently in South Dakota when, faced with a prospective ban on almost all abortions, Cecilia Fire Thunder proposed opening a clinic on her reservation, which was beyond federal jurisdiction. In mapping the coordinates of a world without punitive borders, these projects testify to the potential scope of feminist spatial theory.
Yet the visions for feminist space projected by past generations of abortion rights activists seem woefully truncated by contemporary compromises. Among these are the ‘bubble laws’ adopted in some US states, which institute ‘zones of protection’ around clinics and the patients entering them. For Brown, the difficulty of enforcing these laws lends their name an ironic resonance: the translucency and fragility of bubbles mirrors the precarious status of abortion access. Her interviews with private clinics in the most restrictive US states—which include Mississippi, South Dakota, and Utah—uncover inventive tactics for grappling with government pressure and anti-abortion hostility. Clinics have developed an impressive repertoire of strategies for combating the harassment of their patients: installing sprinkler systems outside clinics, scheduling landscaping work to spray demonstrators with grass, and setting up speakers to drown out protest noise with music.
With the battle lines drawn, the project of drawing up blueprints for revolutionary feminist health spaces appears simultaneously urgent and remote. Few clinics have the freedom to choose their location because many landlords refuse to let space to abortion providers. Meanwhile, renovation proposals attract excessive levels of scrutiny from public officials beholden to the anti-choice movement. Is it better to be a free-standing clinic, with the autonomy to install tight security at entrances and exits, or to be absorbed into a multi-unit complex, where patients and workers have more anonymity? When making design decisions such as these, providers feel trapped between a rock and a hard place.
Brown writes, ‘Reproductive healthcare facilities have become twenty-first century equivalents to medieval cities where walls and moats were once used for security from intruders.’ There is, perhaps, an alternative to this state of enclosure. One of the clinic directors told Brown that abortion needs to become part of a larger movement for social justice, linked to campaigns for childcare, education, and health. This is the insight of the reproductive justice movement, instigated by women of colour in the US who have drawn attention to the problems of isolating abortion as a single issue.
Contested Spaces opens with a synoptic journey through feminist geography and architectural theory, taking in Nancy Fraser on subaltern counterpublics, Iris Marion Young on pregnant embodiment, Homi Bhabha’s notion of a third space, and Elizabeth Grosz on the mutual constitution of bodies and cities. In her conclusion, however, Brown risks collapsing this nuanced discussion of space into a question of location. She writes:
I advocate for clinics to become more centrally located in our daily spatial lives. They need to be front and center in our society, not hidden away and difficult to access. Locate them in shopping malls where protests cannot happen due to malls not being public space.
Brown goes on to argue that terminations should be provided not only in mainstream hospitals but in shopping malls, military bases, jails, prisons, high schools and churches. Grouping these institutions together as elements of our ‘daily spatial lives’ evades the important distinctions between their modes of funding and management. It is odd that Brown does not consider the stake shopping mall abortion clinics might have in a privatised healthcare system, given the centrality of abortion to debates over the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile, the nuances of reproductive healthcare in prison are ill-served by the proposal for jail-based abortion clinics, particularly in the wake of revelations that California prisons subjected female inmates to forced sterilisation as recently as 2010. A tension between pragmatism and utopianism animates Contested Cities, and its conclusion appears to decide in favour of the former. Meanwhile, Hayden’s challenge – ‘What would a non-sexist city look like?’ – reverberates, as a reminder of way the architecture of reproductive justice can be integrated into a broader vision for social change.
 Dolores Hayden, ‘What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work’, Signs, Vol. 5, No. 3, S170-S187.
 Lori A. Brown, Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters and Hospitals (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), p. 101.
 Contested Spaces, p. 37.
 Contested Spaces, p. 78.
 Contested Spaces, p. 82.
 Contested Spaces, p. 185.
 See http://www.sistersong.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=141&Itemid=81
 Contested Spaces, p.