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How Women of Color Have Broadened and Redefined Reproductive Rights

Women of color in the US negotiate their reproductive lives in a system that combines various interlocking forms of oppression.

For decades, Black, Native, Latina and Asian American women have led the fight to control their own bodies, health and reproductive destinies, with or without the help of the mainstream pro-choice movement. The stories of just some of these groundbreaking activists are told in Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice. Order this must-read book today with a donation to Truthout!

Women of color in the US negotiate their reproductive lives in a system that combines various interlocking forms of oppression. As activist, scholar, and co-author [of Undivided Rights] Loretta Ross puts it: “Our ability to control what happens to our bodies is constantly challenged by poverty, racism, environmental degradation, sexism, homophobia, and injustice in the United States.” The groups in this book created their own definitions of reproductive rights — definitions that are grounded in the experiences of their different communities and that link oppressions. It is because of these intersections that women of color advance a definition of reproductive rights beyond abortion. Their critique of “choice” does not deny women of color agency; rather, it shows the constraints within which women of color navigate their reproductive lives and organizing.

Early in the abortion rights struggle, before these organizations were created, women of color resisted the coercion that masqueraded as “choice.” In a 1973 editorial that was supportive of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, the National Council of Negro Women sounded this important cautionary note:

The key words are “if she chooses.” Bitter experience has taught the black woman that the administration of justice in this country is not color-blind. Black women on welfare have been forced to accept sterilization in exchange for a continuation of relief benefits and others have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent. A young pregnant woman recently arrested for civil rights activities in North Carolina was convicted and told that her punishment would be to have a forced abortion. We must be ever vigilant that what appears on the surface to be a step forward, does not in fact become yet another fetter or method of enslavement.

Twenty-five years later, in her introduction to Policing the National Body, co-author Jael Silliman expands their critique:

The mainstream movement, largely dominated by white women, is framed around choice: the choice to determine whether or not to have children, the choice to terminate a pregnancy, and the ability to make informed choices about contraceptive and reproductive technologies. This conception of choice is rooted in the neoliberal tradition that locates individual rights at its core, and treats the individual’s control over her body as central to liberty and freedom. This emphasis on individual choice, however, obscures the social context in which individuals make choices, and discounts the ways in which the state regulates populations, disciplines individual bodies, and exercises control over sexuality, gender, and reproduction.

“Choice” implies a marketplace of options in which women’s right to determine what happens to their bodies is legally protected, ignoring the fact that for women of color, economic and institutional constraints often restrict their “choices.” For example, a woman who decides to have an abortion out of economic necessity does not experience her decision as a “choice.” Native American activist Justine Smith writes, in the Native context, where women often find the only contraceptives available to them are dangerous, where they live in communities in which unemployment rates can run as high as 80 percent, and where their life expectancy can be as low as 47 years, reproductive “choice” defined so narrowly is a meaningless concept.

All of the organizations in [Undivided Rights] include abortion and contraception as part of a much wider set of concerns. Access to resources and services, economic rights, freedom from violence, and safe and healthy communities are all integral to their expanded vision. While each group draws on its unique history, their similar definitions of reproductive rights reflect significant commonalities of experience and overall socioeconomic status. These include disproportionate rates of poverty, lack of access to health care information and services, lack of insurance coverage, and limited access to contraceptive services. For example, 23 percent of African American women, 42 percent of Latinas, and 25 percent of Asian American women lack health insurance, compared with 13 percent of white women. For women of color, reproductive and sexual health problems are not isolated from the socioeconomic inequalities in their lives.

A broader cultural understanding of reproductive rights encompasses the race, class, gender, and immigration experiences of each group, linking reproductive rights and access to health care. For example, all the groups argue that culturally competent providers are crucial to achieving access to reproductive health services. In addition to health care providers knowing the language of the people they serve, cultural competency requires an understanding of and respect for the cultures, traditions, and practices of a community. Stereotypes and a lack of accurate knowledge about communities are barriers to interpreting women’s needs. They are also obstacles which prevent women who need information and care from getting it.

The expanded definitions also incorporate the less obvious ways in which the fertility of women of color is undermined. For example, several of the groups include environmental issues in their definition of reproductive rights and in their advocacy. Asians and Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health responded to the threats from environmental toxins in their neighborhood and constructed a very broad definition that explicitly encompasses the right to safe food and a clean environment. The Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center definition, coming out of Native Americans’ historical struggle for survival, includes sovereignty, the right to live and parent as Native Americans. By incorporating more issues into the concept of reproductive rights, these definitions provide a nuanced and critical analysis of reproductive choices, birth control, and family planning.

Fighting for the Right to Have — or Not Have — Children

Women of color have had no trouble distinguishing between population control — externally imposed fertility control policies — and voluntary birth control — women making their own decisions about fertility. For women of color, resisting population control while simultaneously claiming their right to bodily self-determination, including the right to contraception and abortion or the right to have children, is at the heart of their struggle for reproductive control.

Although there has never been an official policy to reduce the growth of the US population, controlling fertility has been a persistent feature of other domestic policies directed at men and women of color, sometimes attempting to increase their fertility, but most often aiming to limit it. For example, during the colonization of the United States, Native American women were intentionally given blankets infected with smallpox. Population control during slavery took the form of brutal and coercive efforts to increase African American women’s reproduction, with slave owners using rape and forced marriages to achieve this end. However, since then, population control efforts have been intended to prevent women of color from having children. Eugenics laws, immigration restrictions, sterilization abuses, targeted family planning, and welfare reform have all been vehicles for population control….

Although rooted in racism, population control programs did at times, at least in part, meet the needs and desires of women of color for birth control, thus creating a complicated political dynamic. This was the case when Nixon’s federally funded family planning and contraceptive program was created in the 1970s. African American communities provided the majority of family planning clinic clients in the Deep South because, since slavery, controlling one’s own fertility had been associated with upward mobility. Despite the racist motivations of some proponents of the family planning — birth control movement, anthropologist Martha Ward, who researched federal population policies, notes: “Family planning became synonymous with the civil rights of poor women to medical care.”

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Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice

The history of Black, Native, Latina and Asian American women fighting for reproductive justice and health.

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Nevertheless, attempts to use family planning clinics to limit the population growth of communities of color were so blatant that they aroused a strong response from Nationalist movements that came to the conclusion that birth control and abortion were genocide. African American and Chicana women supporting birth control and abortion rights as part of their civil rights activism continually faced opposition from Nationalists who felt that the best way to fight racism and xenophobia was to encourage black and Latino communities to expand their population base. Thus, while women of color frequently worked with mainstream and Nationalist civil rights organizations, they had to criticize these organizations when they supported positions hostile to reproductive freedom. In 1970, Frances Beal, coordinator of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), made clear her support for both reproductive rights and civil rights:

We are not saying that black women should not practice birth control. Black women have the right and the responsibility to determine when it is [in] the interest of the struggle to have children or not to have them, and this right must not be relinquished to anyone. It is also her right and responsibility to determine when it is in her own best interests to have children, how many she will have and how far apart. The lack of the availability of safe birth control methods, the forced sterilization practices, and the inability to obtain legal abortions are all symptoms of a decadent society that jeopardizes the health of black women (and thereby the entire black race) in its attempts to control the very life processes of human beings.

Almost 20 years later, in 1989, activist and scholar Dorothy Roberts encountered the same issues when she spoke about threats to abortion rights at a neighborhood meeting, and a man in the audience took her to task: “He said that reproductive rights was a ‘white woman’s issue,’ and advised me to stick to traditional civil rights concerns, such as affirmative action, voting rights, and criminal justice.”

However, women of color have refused to divide civil rights from reproductive rights. Rather, they have transformed the fight for both by creating an ever-expanding comprehensive reproductive justice agenda.

Copyright (2016) by Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross and Elena Gutiérrez. Not to be republished without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.

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