During the 19th century, slave owners forced Black women into pregnancy to facilitate more enslavement of Black people, and in the 20th century, the height of the eugenics era, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women were forcibly sterilized. Today, BIPOC in the United States are still disproportionately harmed by reproductive care and legislation, and the reproductive justice movement has formed as a result. Since its emergence in the ‘90s, reproductive justice activists advocate for the right to bodily autonomy, freedom to choose if and when to have children, and a safe environment to raise children.
Reproductive justice focuses on intersectionality, which can be overlooked in predominantly white discussions of reproductive rights. It promotes abortion and birth control access, better maternity care, and condemns the poor conditions in prisons and immigration detention centers that pregnant people and their children face, such as overcrowding and lack of medical care.
“Black women’s reproductive choices have always been at risk, as far back as slavery,” Anecia Roberson, co-founder of the reproductive justice organization, The Afiya Center, said. “In slavery, once it was decided that Black women could have babies and then go back out into the field to pick cotton, it was quickly identified that slaves could be born and bred right here in the United States. They didn’t have to go across waters to get slaves.”
In 1808, despite a booming textile industry, Congress ended international slave trade, so slave owners turned to Black women to birth more children ]into slavery. Any woman who was able to reproduce was persuaded to. If they were unable to have children, they could be separated from their families or have to do additional labor. The potential threat and fear of punishment led many women to succumb to pressure to become pregnant .
Later in the 19th century, the federal government forced Indigenous children to assimilate by cutting their hair, changing their names, and condemning their language and religion. They stripped children from their families and tribes, where they might die from infections like tuberculosis, or suffer trauma that would affect them and future generations. The government did not respect the autonomy of Indigenous families, preventing parents from raising their children and instead placed Indigenous children into unsafe conditions.
Then came the 20th century, which ushered a rise in the belief of eugenics. Eugenicists believed that the genetic quality of the population could be improved by removing undesirable heritable traits, deeming some groups “unfit” for reproduction, such as those with mental illnesses or disabilities, or BIPOC. States began to pass compulsory sterilization legislation, which the Supreme Court upheld in their 1927 decision, Buck v. Bell
The lack of autonomy granted to BIPOC women in history has prevailed to modern day. A lack of access to abortions and appropriate maternal healthcare are the result of dated stereotypes and are violations of reproductive justice.
“Obstetrics and gynecology, particularly in the United States, is really built off of and on the bodies of Black, enslaved women,” Dana Davis said. “We see that with the ways that medical professionals view Black people [and] Black birthing people, as not having as much pain.”
Davis is a professor of anthropology, urban studies, and critical psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is also a practicing doula and author of Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth.
Black women have a maternal mortality rate three to four times higher than white women, and are more likely to experience preventable maternal death, maternal health complications, and have less access to high-quality maternity care.
“Poor or low income or people who don’t have a college degree are often assumed to have certain kinds of behaviors that put them at risk for certain reproductive outcomes,” Davis said. “People have those same perspectives of Black women regardless.”
Davis offered professional tennis player Serena Williams as an example. In 2018, Williams revealed in an interview that while recovering from an emergency C-section in the hospital, she couldn’t breathe. She had asked nurses for a CT scan and blood thinners in case of a pulmonary embolism. The nurses and doctors didn’t listen, and it wasn’t until after they performed an ultrasound that they completed the CT scan which revealed she did have blood clots in her lungs.
“[Williams is] one of the most famous Black women in the world, and nobody’s listening to her,” Davis said.
There have been countless other stories, and while some, like the stories of Simone Landrum and Shalon Irving, gain media coverage, many go untold. Davis explained that these maternal health complications are caused by what she calls “diagnostic lapses,” in which racism skews a medical professional’s ability to make an appropriate diagnosis or provide the appropriate care, such as through the idea that Black women feel less pain.
Roberson, founder of the Afiya Center, became interested in reproductive justice after hearing about experiences like these from those around her. She realized the need for The Afiya Center when she was first invited to speak at a conference for the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision protecting the right to abortion.
“All these white women are down here talking about abortions and they’re talking about Black women and I don’t even see any Black women,” Roberson had thought. Then, when she watched the Wendy Davis filibuster blocking an abortion ban in 2013, she thought, “Nobody was talking about the fact that Black women were dying just [from] having babies.”
Many BIPOC women already lack access to abortions. Low-income BIPOC women that get insurance coverage through Medicaid and Indigenous women that get coverage through the Indian Health Service may not receive abortion coverage due to the Hyde Amendment, which restricts funds to provide abortions. Anti-abortion organizations may use racist rhetoric, such as billboards proclaiming the “most dangerous place for an African American/Latina is in the womb,” as justification for this lack of abortion funding.
Roberson began The Afiya Center to challenge how Black women’s stories and narratives are being told. The Afiya Center amplifies stories of Black women in regard to maternal mortality, abortions, HIV stigmas, experiences of transgender women and non-binary people, and other reproductive justice issues.
“The reproductive justice movement allows us to say Black Lives Matter, because Black lives do matter,” Roberson said. “It is racism that is killing Black women.”
Reproductive injustice also affects undocumented immigrants, especially those in immigration detention centers.
“Pregnant people in detention — their bodies are basically used against them as a credulous to deter immigration,” Rachel Fabi, an assistant professor of Bioethics and Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University who researches immigrant health, said. “[This] manifests as people being denied abortions when they want them, and forced to carry children to term.”
In 2017, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under Trump’s administration prevented teenage immigrants held in U.S. custody from receiving abortions. Fabi explained that many of these minors had unwanted pregnancies as a result of rape or sexual assault during their journey from their home countries, but they were coerced into keeping the pregnancy. In September 2020, the ORR reversed this policy after facing three years of litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It [also] happens to teens or pregnant people being denied prenatal care when they do want to carry a fetus to term.” Fabi said.
In 2017, a coalition of immigrant and refugee rights groups filed a complaint against the Department of Homeland Security after hundreds of pregnant women entered immigration detention centers in just months. The complaint calls for proper prenatal care and care after miscarriages, after several women reported not receiving this care.
Fabi also emphasized that immigrant detention centers are not the appropriate environment to raise children in, as threats of deportation can cause excessive stress for children of undocumented immigrants. Often, parents have left their home country in hopes to raise their children in a safer environment, but United States immigration policies continue to put stressors on families by keeping them in detention centers or threatening them with deportation.
Moreover, most undocumented immigrants cannot get insurance, but they may be able to receive some emergency services in some states if they are pregnant.
“People need to work more closely with community organizations to figure out what are the broad issues and concerns of a community, so that we can develop systems of care that are based on what communities’ needs are,” Davis said.
While reproductive rights have often focused on the right to abortions, the reproductive justice movement and BIPOC are advocating for widespread abortion access and maternity care that their communities need.
During the year of 2019, many states began to introduce abortion bans that undoubtedly affect women of color the most. Between 2011 and 2019, nearly 500 abortion restrictions were introduced across the country. Nearly 400 of those were in 2019 alone, with the intent to create a case for the Supreme Court. Biden signed a memorandum that allows abortions funds to go to foreign-aid groups, but the Hyde Amendment remains until the Senate takes legislative action. The United States has a history of disrespecting the autonomy of women of color, but it’s time to listen to them.
Last updated 4/22/2021
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