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In 1997, Dorothy Roberts wrote a salient book titled Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Roberts explicates the crusade to punish Black women—especially the destitute—for having children. The exploitation of Black women in the U.S. began in the days of slavery and, appropriately enough, Roberts introduces her first chapter with an illustrative story:
When Rose Williams was sixteen years old, her master sent her to live in a cabin with a male slave named Rufus. It did not matter that Rose disliked Rufus "cause he a bully." At first Rose thought that her role was just to perform household chores for Rufus and a few other slaves. But she learned the true nature of her assignment when Rufus crawled into her bunk one night: "I says , ‘What you means, you fool nigger?' He say for me to hush de mouth. ‘Dis my bunk, too,' he say." When Rose fended off Rufus's sexual advances with a poker, she was reported to Master Hawkins. Hawkins made it clear that she had no choice in the matter:
De nex' day de massa call me and tell me, "Woman, I's pay big money for you,and I's done dat for de cause I wants yous to raise me chillens. I's put you to live with Rufus for dat purpose. Now, if you doesn't want whippin' at de stake, yous do what I wants.
Rose reluctantly acceded to her master's demands:
I thinks ‘bout massa buyin' me offen de block and savin' me from bein' sep'rated from my folks and ‘bout bein' whipped at de stake. Dere it am. What am I's to do? So I ‘cides to do as de massa wish and so I yields.
The story of control of Black reproduction begins with the experiences of slave women like Rose Williams. Black procreation helped to sustain slavery, giving slave masters an economic incentive to govern Black women's reproductive lives. Slave women's childbearing replenished the enslaved labor force: Black women bore children who belonged to the slaveowner from the moment of their conception. This feature of slavery made control of reproduction a central aspect of white's subjugation of African people in America. It marked Black women from the beginning as objects whose decisions about reproduction should be subject to social regulation rather than to their own will. (22-23)
Once slavery was abolished Black people no longer had to worry about their children being the property of slaveowners, or anyone else.
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In the days of slavery, racism created "the possibility of unrestrained reproductive control" (23) but is that not unlike today? Racism still exists so it is unreasonable to think that the same practices implemented years ago are completely obliterated. Perhaps the protocol is not as blatant as it was formerly, but reproductive control of Black women continues to exist in some form.
First it was the slaveowners governing Black women's reproduction and then along came the eugenics movement. Francis Galton, founder of eugenics, was a distant relative of Charles Darwin. While Darwin purported there was evolutionary change through natural selection, Galton proposed a faster method, one that is socially regulated. The eugenics movement was a program designed to "encourage the procreation of people of superior stock"(60). The advocates of this program saw it as a way to improve society; however, "eugenicists opposed social programs designed to improve the living conditions of the poor. They argued that adequate medical care, better working conditions, and minimum wages all harmed society because those measures enabled people with inferior heredity to live longer and produce more children"(65). Eugenicists accepted "intelligence as the primary indicator of human value" (63). The IQ test became the chief measurement psychologists used to "demonstrate that Blacks and recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were intellectually inferior to Americans of Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian descent"(63). Roberts points out that "at the turn of the century white Americans, believing that immigrants were reproducing faster than native Anglo-Saxons, were gripped by a fear of ‘race suicide'" (60). It was this fear that prompted the eugenics based practice of "compulsory sterilization to improve society by eliminating its ‘socially inadequate' members" (65). The category of socially undesirable people included those which were paupers, criminals, prostitutes, and the feeble-minded among others. A plan to remedy race degeneration by sterilization is nowhere more evident than in Buck v. Bell. In its 1927 decision, the Supreme Court approved the sterilization order.
Rejecting arguments that the Virginia sterilization law violated Carrie's equal protection and due process rights, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes explained the state's interest in preemptively sterilizing people with hereditary defects: "It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind" (69).
The eugenics movement ended in the 1940s when it was "discredited both as bad science and as an excuse for racial hatred" (88). By that time it had taken its toll for an "estimated 70,000 persons were involuntarily sterilized" (89) in the United States alone.
The influx and availability of birth controlin the twentieth century provided a new arena in which Black women could be exploited. With most forms of contraception a woman can stop using it when she wishes. There are a two exceptions: the IUDand Norplant. [Note: The Depo-Provera shot, while effective for 12 weeks (as opposed to per use like other contraceptives), does not require removal by a physician, thus rendering women capable of stopping usage.] Norplant is, "as Judy Norsigian of the National Women's Health Network puts it, ‘. . .a contraceptive that's controlled by the provider, not the woman'"(129). Margaret Sanger, a pioneer in the field of birth control, sought to increase the choices of liberated women whereas reproduction was concerned. Norplant, approved by the U.S. in 1990, seemed to be just another option in the methods of contraception. Originally, Norplant "was designed to limit the reproductive control of third World women to better accomplish the aim of population policy—producing fewer people in developing countries" (142). Due to its link with population control there has been much controversy surrounding Norplant. National welfare programs assist women in obtaining birth control. Roberts contends that "the willingness to pay for poor women's birth control but not for their basic needs is strong evidence that the government is more interested in population reduction than in furthering poor women's welfare" (138). Take, for example, the following case:
On February 2, 1992, twenty-eight-year-old Cornelia Whitner gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Kevin at Easely Baptist Medical Center in Pickens County, South Carolina. When the hospital staff discovered traces of cocaine in the baby's urine, they notified child welfare authorities. Two months later, Whitner was arrested for "endangering the life of her unborn child" by smoking crack while pregnant. (150)
While the story of Cornelia Whitner is exemplary of the lack of concern for women's welfare, the following case is proof of government concern for population reduction:
Darlene Johnson, a twenty-seven-year-old mother of four, stood before California Superior Court judge Howard Broadman for sentencing. She was eight months pregnant at the time. Johnson had already pled guilty to three counts of felony child abuse for whipping her six- and four-year-old daughters with a belt for smoking cigarettes and poking a hanger in an electrical socket. A child welfare report mentioned scars and bruises on the girls' bodies. Because Johnson had a prior criminal record for petty theft and credit card forgery, she faced serving time in state prison. At first Judge Broadman indicated he would grant Johnson's request for probation, which was also the recommendation of the probation officer assigned to the case. Then, noting that Johnson become pregnant again while receiving welfare, he made an unexpected proposition: he gave Johnson a choice between a seven-year prison sentence or only one year in prison and three years on probation, with the condition that she be implanted with Norplant. (151)
Darlene Johnson chose the latter option but was informed that her medical condition (diabetes, high blood pressure) made it dangerous for her to use the drug. Eight days later she returned to the judge only to find that Broadman "refused to rescind the order on grounds that Johnson had voluntarily agreed to its terms and that ‘[i]t is in the defendant's best interest and certainly in any unconceived child's interest that she not have any more children until she is mentally and emotionally prepared to do so'"(151).
The cases of both Cornelia Whitner and Darlene Johnson vilify women for bearing children. Dorothy Roberts illustrates:
In what way do these cases punish pregnancy? When a pregnant woman is arrested for harming the fetus by smoking crack, her crime hinges on her decision to have a baby. She can avoid prosecution if she has an abortion. If she chooses instead to give birth, she risks going to prison. Similarly, when a judge gives the defendant the choice between Norplant or jail, incarceration becomes the penalty for the defendant's decision to remain fertile. If she violates probation by becoming pregnant, she will be sent to prison. Prosecutors and judges see poor Black women as suitable subjects for these reproductive penalties because society does not view these women as suitable mothers in the first place. (152)
There is an increasing number of women across the country being indicted for crimes after giving birth to babies who test positive for drugs. The majority of these women are poor and Black (153). Black women that use drugs during pregnancies are more often reported than white patients. The New England Journal of Medicine published a "study of pregnant women in Pinellas County, Florida," (175) demonstrating this racial bias. It is evident that racism continues to thrive and the state of Black women's reproduction continues to suffer from it.
The law has always assisted in regulating reproductive rights, beginning with slave women's children becoming property of slaveowners. It continued through the eugenics movement with an onslaught of involuntary sterilization laws, and today Norplant, along with criminal punishment, assist the government in restricting Black women's rights to reproduction. Slavery is defined as "a condition of submission to or domination by some influence, habit, etc." Slavery wasn't abolished; it exists in other forms.
Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage. 1997.
Book Search Results
Eugenics: A Brief History
Francis Galton: an Exploration in Intellectual Biography and History
Charles Darwin, British Naturalist
Excerpts from the Supreme Court decision in: Buck v. Bell
Brand Name: Norplant
Is Depo-Provera for you?
National Women's Health Network
Margaret Sanger: Biographical Sketch
Norplant Petition Page: Population Group Demands Halt of Norplant Sales; Cites Health Risks to Women and Targeting of Minority Populations
Cornelia Whitner, Petitioner, vs. The State of South Carolina, Respondent
The Chronological Important Events in the Development of Norplant
Depo-Provera vs. Norplant