Reproductive Justice in “Killing the Black Body”

by Jordan Jenkins

Penguin Random House

For centuries, Black women have been fighting for the right to give or not to give birth, as well as defending their literal wombs against defamation and harm. In 1997, this fight was given a new name: reproductive justice, a term coined by SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. The procreative liberties of poor Black women have historically been neglected by the reproductive rights movement. This neglect began with the control of Black bodies during slavery and is evident even today through its long lasting effects. It’s present in the more modern diminishing of the long-term effects of forced sterilization and birth control in low-income Black communities, the jezebel versus the mammy portrayal of Black motherhood, the mythical welfare queen, and many other derogatory and abusive parts of just the past 100 or so years of Black motherhood.

What has changed?

At the 20th anniversary lecture of Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body, Roberts discusses just how far reproductive justice has come since she began writing her book — as well as how far it still must go. The book left off optimistically, with high expectations of the reproductive freedom movement, but to Roberts’ dismay, many issues have been left unresolved. Her book’s stab at inclusivity in the feminist and reproductive freedom movement profoundly recognizes the struggles of intersectionality that many feminists and pro-women advocates at the time, and even still now, fail to acknowledge. With this, she highlights the historical abuse on the Black body and the longstanding effects that this abuse has caused. The intersectional theory, founded by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is a key element in Robert’s book. This theory explains that people’s identities should not be viewed separately, as they tend to influence the other. As a Black woman, it can be difficult to say which identity is more prominent, especially in different contexts — with additional identities, this becomes even more complex. With its inclusion in the Black feminist movement, there was a major shift in representative politics to better understand the issues in the early-on reproductive freedom movement. To be clear, there has been significant change in understanding intersectionality in reproductive justice, but at the 20th anniversary, Roberts acknowledged that there is still major room for improvement. This knowledge and education surrounding racial and class-based health disparities needs to be used to drive concrete change beyond diversity and inclusion tactics. There’s currently a need for action.

What does this mean to me and other Black women of today?

As a senior studying Public Health, interning at NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland has given me real life experiences of the things I have studied. In addition, reading Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body, has emphasized many of the things I’ve learned through external research. Even with the courses I’ve taken, there is a major gap in factual history concerning the abuse on the Black body outside of medical procedures. I think that many of my classes focus primarily on larger concepts to give students a general understanding, which is essential. But I believe that learning more in depth about things like racialized welfare reform, racial genocide through involuntary sterilization and forced birth control implantation, demonization of the Black womb, and the linkage between slavery birth and modern-day birthing issues in Black women would urge students to focus more on dismantling structural –isms to prevent further abuse rather than simply mending its wounds.

I took a class this past spring semester titled “What is the link between oppression and mental health in minorities?”. Towards the very beginning of the class, the professor opened with what many may view as a rather controversial statement. She claimed that at its core, health disparities have no racial implications — meaning race alone is not a deterring factor in health outcomes. After years of learning about the differences in health care and health concerns due to race, I found this claim widely inaccurate. What this class taught me, however, was that this statement is in fact true. Race does not determine health, as it is mainly a social construct, similar to what Roberts claims in her book. What causes these racial health disparities is racism. Black women do not have a 4 times higher maternal mortality rate simply because Black women have natural maternity issues in comparison to white women, but because of systemic racism that makes other crucial parts of a Black woman’s life different than that of her white counterpart. Once class is added as an extra layer, poor Black women are at an even higher rate of maternal mortality, as well as losing parental rights to their child, being imprisoned for drug use during pregnancy despite using drugs at similar rates as white women, coining the term “welfare queen…although most people on welfare are not Black” (111), involuntary sterilization from both the government and private medical practitioners, and so much more. Roberts discusses these issues in depth throughout her book, and it is clear that the issues she addresses are results of institutional issues and historical abuse.

The term racial health disparities is far too passive and puts the blame on natural differences between the races, instead of acknowledging systems purposefully put in place that caused these long-term issues. Reproductive justice is more inclusive and representative of the core issues surrounding reproductive liberties of marginalized groups. It expands beyond the right to abortion care, including dismantling stereotypes of poor Black motherhood, providing access to proper reproductive health care, ensuring access to adequate sexual and reproductive education early on, assisting with childbearing and care without stigma, and overall supporting healthy procreative liberties.

What are other instances of reproductive oppression and the attack on motherhood?

Reproductive and sexual health racism was brought to main media attention because of recent political behaviors involving immigration and the treatment of immigrants being detained. It is important to note that many of the people detained are people of color or Hispanic ethnicity. “Mexican nationals by themselves made up about 43 percent of the detainee population, and individuals from the Northern Triangle region of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras made up about 46 percent of the detainee population.” In ICE detention centers, women’s reproductive and sexual rights are being abused. Women are undergoing forced sterilization through IUD implantations, which goes back to the government’s longstanding history of determining deservingness of parenthood. There is the continued removal of sexual autonomy of a woman’s body through rape and coercion from both detained immigrants and officers. And the issue that seems to receive the most attention is the separation of mother and child, as many families are broken up and held in different areas.

What does this mean going forward?

After reading Roberts’ book and getting a deeper understanding of the history of reproductive oppression and the need for reproductive justice, acknowledging the implicit biases we all hold to some degree pertaining to reproductive health is crucial moving forward. Recognizing that misogynoir, misogyny and racism are deadly and interfering with procreative liberties is just the first step to solving these century long issues. Now we must actively engage with these issues to dismantle them and prevent future issues from arising. Roberts mentions advocating for liberty versus equality towards the end of her book. With this, she notes that “liberty stresses the value of self-definition, and it protects against the totalitarian abuse of government power.” She also acknowledges that liberty cannot be achieved without equity. Providing equitable access to reproductive health care, as well as deconstructing systemic boundaries that have historically deemed this unachievable is just one of many steps needed to proceed with reproductive justice. Black women are disproportionately harmed by systemic –isms that need to be removed in order to move forward.

The political leader of the pro-choice movement in Maryland.