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Reproductive Rights and the Long Hand of Slave Breeding

I hate liberalism’s language of “choice.” I always have. Redolent of the marketplace, it reduces the most intimate aspects of existence, of women’s physical autonomy, to individualistic purchasing preferences. A sex life or a Subaru? A child or a cheeseburger? Life, death or liposuction? In that circumstance, capitalism’s only question is, Who pays and who … Continued

I hate liberalism’s language of “choice.” I always have. Redolent of the marketplace, it reduces the most intimate aspects of existence, of women’s physical autonomy, to individualistic purchasing preferences. A sex life or a Subaru? A child or a cheeseburger? Life, death or liposuction? In that circumstance, capitalism’s only question is, Who pays and who profits? The state’s only question is, Who regulates and how much? If there is an upside to the right’s latest, seemingly loony and certainly grotesque multi-front assault on women, it is the clarion it sounds to humanists to take the high ground and ditch the anodyne talk of “a woman’s right to choose” for the weightier, fundamental assertion of “a woman’s right to be.”

That requires that we look to history and the Constitution. I found myself doing that a few weeks back, sitting in the DC living room of Pamela Bridgewater, talking about slavery as the TV news followed the debate over whether the State of Virginia should force a woman to spread her legs and endure a plastic wand shoved into her vagina. Pamela has a lot of titles that, properly, ought to compel me to refer to her now as Professor Bridgewater—legal scholar, teacher at American University, reproductive rights activist, sex radical—but she is my friend and sister, and we were two women sitting around talking, so I shall alternate between the familiar and the formal.

“What a spectacle,” Pamela exclaimed, “Virginia, the birthplace of the slave breeding industry in America, is debating state-sanctioned rape. Imagine the woman who says No to this as a prerequisite for abortion. Will she be strapped down, her ankles shackled to stir-ups?”

“I suspect,” said I, “that partisans would say, ‘If she doesn’t agree, she is free to leave.’ ”

“Right, which means she is coerced into childbearing or coerced into taking other measures to terminate her pregnancy, which may or may not be safe. Or she relents and says Yes, and that’s by coercion, too.”

“Scratch at modern life and there’s a little slave era just below the surface, so we’re right back to your argument.”

Pamela Bridgewater’s argument, expressed over the past several years in articles and forums, and at the heart of a book in final revision called Breeding a Nation: Reproductive Slavery and the Pursuit of Freedom, presents the most compelling conceptual and constitutional frame I know for considering women’s bodily integrity and defending it from the right.

In brief, her argument rolls out like this. The broad culture tells a standard story of the struggle for reproductive rights, beginning with the flapper, climaxing with the pill, Griswold v. Connecticut and an assumption of privacy rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and concluding with Roe v. Wade. The same culture tells a traditional story of black emancipation, beginning with the Middle Passage, climaxing with Dred Scott, Harpers Ferry and Civil War and concluding with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Both stories have a postscript—a battle royal between liberation and reaction—but, as Bridgewater asserts, “Taken together, these stories have no comprehensive meaning. They tell no collective tale. They create no expectation of sexual freedom and no protection against, or remedy for, reproductive slavery. They exist in separate spheres; that is a mistake.” What unites them but what both leave out, except incidentally, is the experience of black women. Most significantly, they leave out “the lost chapter of slave breeding.”

I need to hit the pause button on the argument for a moment, because the considerable scholarship that revisionist historians have done for the past few decades has not filtered into mass consciousness. The mass-culture story of slavery is usually told in terms of economics, labor, color, men. Women outnumbered men in the enslaved population two to one by slavery’s end, but they enter the conventional story mainly under the rubric “family,” or in the cartoon triptych Mammy-Jezebel-Sapphire, or in the figure of Sally Hemmings. Yes, we have come to acknowledge, women were sexually exploited. Yes, many of the founders of this great nation prowled the slave quarters and fathered a nation in the literal as well as figurative sense. Yes, maybe rape was even rampant. That the slave system in the US depended on human beings not just as labor but as reproducible raw material is not part of the story America typically tells itself. That women had a particular currency in this system, prized for their sex or their wombs and often both, and that this uniquely female experience of slavery resonates through history to the present is not generally acknowledged. Even the left, in uncritically reiterating Malcolm X’s distinction between “the house Negro” and “the field Negro,” erases the female experience, the harrowing reality of the “favorite” that Harriet Jacobs describes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

We don’t commonly recognize that American slaveholders supported closing the trans-Atlantic slave trade; that they did so to protect the domestic market, boosting their own nascent breeding operation. Women were the primary focus: their bodies, their “stock,” their reproductive capacity, their issue. Planters advertised for them in the same way as they did for breeding cows or mares, in farm magazines and catalogs. They shared tips with one another on how to get maximum value out of their breeders. They sold or lent enslaved men as studs and were known to lock teenage boys and girls together to mate in a kind of bullpen.They propagated new slaves themselves, and allowed their sons to, and had their physicians exploit female anatomy while working to suppress African midwives’ practice in areas of fertility, contraception and abortion.Reproduction and its control became the planters’ prerogative and profit source. Women could try to escape, ingest toxins or jump out a window—abortion by suicide, except it was hardly a sure thing.

This business was not hidden at the time, as Pamela details expansively. And, indeed, there it was, this open secret, embedded in a line from Uncle Tom’s Cabin that my eyes fell upon while we were preparing to arrange books on her new shelves: “‘If we could get a breed of gals that didn’t care, now, for their young uns…would be ’bout the greatest mod’rn improvement I knows on,” says one slave hunter to another after Eliza makes her dramatic escape, carrying her child over the ice flows.

The foregoing is the merest scaffolding of one of the building blocks of Bridgewater’s argument, which continues thus. “If we integrate the lost chapter of slave breeding into those two traditional but separate stories, if we reconcile female slave resistance to coerced breeding as, in part, a struggle for emancipation and, in part, a struggle for reproductive freedom, the two tales become one: a comprehensive narrative that fuses the pursuit of reproductive freedom into the pursuit of civil freedom.”

Constitutionally, the fundamental civil freedom is enshrined in the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment’s language is unadorned, so it was left to the political system to sort out what the abolition of slavery meant in all particulars. In a series of successive legal cases, the courts ruled that in prohibiting slavery the amendment also prohibits what the judiciary called its “badges and incidents,” and recognized Congress’s power “to pass all laws necessary and proper for abolishing all [of those] in the United States.”

Bridgewater argues that because slavery depended on the slaveholder’s right to control the bodies and reproductive capacities of enslaved women, coerced reproduction was as basic to the institution as forced labor. At the very least it qualifies among those badges and incidents, certainly as much as the inability to make contracts. Therefore, sexual and reproductive freedom is not simply a matter of privacy; it is fundamental to our and the law’s understanding of human autonomy and liberty. And so constraints on that freedom are not simply unconstitutional; they effectively reinstitute slavery.

The courts and Congress of the nineteenth century understood contracts, and even a little bit about labor. Women they understood wholly by their sex and wombs, and those they regarded as the property of husbands once owners exited the stage. It is not our fate to live with their failings. It is not our fate to live with the failure of later courts to apply the Thirteenth Amendment to claims for sexual and reproductive freedom or even to consider the historical context out of which the Fourteenth Amendment also emerged. It is not our fate, in other words, to confine ourselves to the pinched language of choice or even of privacy—or to the partial, white-centric history of women’s struggle for reproductive rights.

Since that conversation in Pamela’s living room, the anti-woman spring offensive has come on in full. Virginia lawmakers ended up imposing a standard ultrasound mandate rather than the “transvaginal” version, one of at least ninety-two new regulations or restrictions that states have imposed on abortion since 2011, and one of at least 155 introduced in state legislatures since the start of the year. Rush Limbaugh revealed himself to be astoundingly ignorant of female sexuality. Rick Santorum demonstrated many times over that, for him, no idea in “the sexual realm” is too outlandish. They and their anti-woman allies have lobbed so many bombs it’s easy to get distracted, to assume a posture of defensive, and sometimes politically dicey, defense: but no federal money pays for abortion; women who delay child-bearing are more productive; the Pill eases painful periods; most of what Planned Parenthood does has nothing to do with abortion; contraceptives help against rheumatoid arthritis; Mrs. Santorum might have died under the fetal personhood platforms her husband touts; Sandra Fluke is not a slut…

What of it if she were? By any other name, ain’t she a woman? A human being? The descendants of slave masters have no more right to control her sexuality and reproductive organs, to deny her self-determination, than did their predecessors. Mother or slut, prostitute or daughter, law student or lazybones who just wants to have sex all day, she is heir in her person to a promise of universal freedom, one that does not make such distinctions but that recognizes an individual’s right to her life, her labor, her body and self-possession all as one. Forget trying to shut up a gasbag on the radio; there is a basic constitutional liberty to uphold.

The preachers and lay men and women now raising the “personhood” banner for their side have taken to calling the fetus and fertilized egg the new slave, and the movement for their legal personhood the new civil rights movement. The director of Personhood Florida compares himself to William Wilberforce, the nineteenth-century English abolitionist. A Catholic priest posting on Planned Parenthood’s “I Have a Say” video thread likens defenders of women’s bodily autonomy to slave traders. On their blogs and other propaganda the foot soldiers of this movement call Roe v. Wade a latter-day Dred Scott decision; they invoke the Thirteenth Amendment and vow to fulfill its promise.

These people are not stupid, and some are sincere, but they are wrong. They pervert morality and history in the guise of honoring both, and thing-ify women according to the logic of our cruelest past. There is another logic, and it calls us to complete the unfinished business of emancipation.