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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Strong Hearts and Poisoned Waters: The Exclusion of Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement in the U.S. (2004)

by Puck   

Abortion is not and has never been only a "white issue." Although few people today realize it, women of color have been involved from the very beginning. Women of color have played and continue to play a crucial part organizing for and shaping the struggle for reproductive freedom in the US.

Who Gets Abortions?

Currently, Latinas are two times as likely as white women to have an abortion; black women are three times as likely. Black women obtain 24 percent of abortions in the US. Indeed, polls show that over 80 percent of African Americans support family planning, yet few are members of the prominent reproductive rights organizations.

Why? A look into our recent past shows that people of color have valid reasons to suspect the motives of predominantly white groups advocating for the single issue of abortion rights.

During the last century, the pro-choice movement, or the family planning movement, often dismissed or ignored concerns of women of color when they weren't problems for white women as well. Devastatingly, the reproductive rights movement of the past at times allied with eugenicists and other white supremacists in opportunistic political coalitions meant to further the abortion rights movement.

Understanding the Past

Being pro-choice or a feminist today means having to acknowledge and transcend the racist legacy of collaborations between white feminists, conservatives and eugenicists who shared common ground on parts of the abortion issue. How we fight for reproductive freedom today must be informed by the reality that for many women of color, abortion is just one fight in a larger struggle of class and racial oppression. Unlike for some white or middle class women, the lack of access to reproductive freedom that many women of color face has more to do with the limitations placed upon them by their ethnic and class background than by the actual legal status of abortion or geographic availability of abortion clinics.

Early on, the Black community saw reproductive control as being an essential key to liberation, and they have fought for it since the times of slavery. Black women have been underground providers of safe and affordable abortions. Later, African American women organized with other women of color and brought tens of thousands to participate in rallies demanding an end to forced sterilizations.

Then and now, many feminists of color challenged white feminists who framed abortion rights as a woman's issue that was unconnected to other social injustices.

As Black feminist and activist, Loretta J. Ross explains:
Many Black women still do not see abortion rights as a stepping stone to freedom because abortion rights do not automatically end the oppression of Black women.
Sadly, the vital participation and intellect brought to the reproductive rights movement by women of color are noticeably absent from many white feminist accounts of history.

The Privilege of "Choice"

Until recently, mainstream and preeminent pro-choice organizations have promoted a narrow view of reproductive liberty that focuses on the "right to choose" abortion. This can come across as sounding trivial and consumeristic. The language of abortion rights politics can also be culturally insensitive and alienating to recent immigrants and women who come from religious backgrounds- even those who support and get abortions.

Women of color have also been subjected to controlling and coercive reproductive policies and, as a result, many continue to distrust public health services and are more apt to view family planning programs with apprehension.

As Brenda Romney, an African American activist, explained:
When our children were [white men's] property, we were encouraged to have children. When our children are ours, we are not worthy parents. Those are the messages, the background and the context of health care in general.

This is some of what Black women bring with them when they seek health care information or abortion services."

Therefore, many women of color feel that it is more central to their needs to demand for economic justice and healthcare- including reproductive rights- instead of focusing on the aspects of "choice" and availability regarding abortion and birth control.

An Issue of Survival: Birth Control as Social Control
Abortion was not openly discussed in the Black community because other survival issues were key.
- Lois Smith, an African American member of the Jane collective (a collective that provided safe and sliding scale abortions before Roe v. Wade passed)

Eugenicists promote the idea that essentialist traits such as intelligence and criminality are biologically determined and can thus be eliminated or emphasized through the selective breeding or elimination of "pure" races.

The ideology of eugenics became applied public health policy in the U.S. during the 1960s and `70s. Industrial tycoons like the Rockefeller family funded it; prestigious universities studied it, and governors introduced legislation proposing the compulsory sterilization of Native American, black and poor women in order to "fight the war on poverty." In truth, these policies were aimed at decreasing the explosive political potential of minority populations and pacifying white fears of social unrest during a time of increasing militancy in the struggle for civil rights.
During the 1960s, family planning services became accessible for large numbers of poor women of color through federally subsidized programs like Medicaid. Although this was seen by most feminists as a victory, on the flip side, the government also began coercing Native American and black women on public assistance into getting State-sponsored hysterectomies by threatening to revoke their welfare benefits if they refused.

During the 1970s, it is estimated that up to 60,000 Native American women and some men were sterilized. Indian Health Service had a "captive clientele," since Native women often lacked access to services other than those paternalistic public ones located on reservations. In 1975, for every seven babies born, one woman was being sterilized. Shockingly, the IHS sterilization campaign was paid for entirely with federal funding.
Puerto Rican women were also sterilized at astronomical rates by U.S. tax dollars. During the same time, several Mexican American women were sterilized at a County hospital without much explanation or information. A national fertility study conducted by Princeton University found that 20 percent of all married African-American women had been sterilized by 1970.

Given that experience, it is no surprise that in the communities of color targeted by government-controlled depopulation programs, birth control and abortion were equated with genocide for years to come. Many poor women of color felt that they had been "tracked" toward sterilization and were outraged at having been denied the opportunity to have children in numbers of their choosing.

"While birth control was demanded as a right and an option for privileged women, it became an obligation for the poor," Ross recalled.

When women of color organized successfully for laws requiring the "informed consent" of patients undergoing hysterectomies in an effort to cut down on forced sterilizations, they had to so often without support from mainstream white abortion rights groups- who were then too obsessed with their own narrow self-interest to see the broader feminist struggle at hand.

No Substitute for Social Justice

Access to abortion and birth control do not exist free of social values. White people of all political motivations have supported abortion when it suited their interests and set the stage for years of racial tension and mistrust in the arena of reproductive rights policy. Today, eugenic ideas like "overpopulation" and biological determinism continue to influence public health and social policies that blame poverty, crime and pollution on the rising population growth of brown and black people- ignoring the root causes of social ills: unequal distribution of resources in a society deeply segregated by white supremacy.
A recent example of this phenomenon was the Norplant controversy during the 1990s. Norplant is unusual because it is a contraceptive that is 99 percent effective and can last up to 5 years after its initial administration. However, it requires the insertion of six matchstick-sized capsules under the skin of a woman's forearm. Although Norplant is expensive and can cause negative side effects including depression and irregular, heavy bleeding, public subsidies covered the costs for many poor women of color. Politicians framed the initial cost as an expenditure that could save millions of dollars nationally in the welfare costs it would take to raise the children of "irresponsible women."

Several states wanted to require mothers on welfare to use it as a condition of receiving their benefits. Debates ensued in the national media: "Can Norplant Reduce the Underclass?"

Commonly, women who suffered negative side effects and asked for their Norplants to be removed were denied and had to endure paternalistic, bureaucratic and controlling service providers.

Hope Prevails

During the 1980s, feminists of color clamored louder than ever to be heard. Women of color gained in numbers as well as prominence within mainstream pro-choice organizations, and some assumed leadership positions. Reproductive rights groups put more energy into reaching out to people of color. Health activists of color broke through the "conspiracy of silence" surrounding abortion in their communities, framing reproductive rights as a human rights and healthcare issue. The first "March for Women's Lives" was organized in 1986. Ross, who worked with the National Organization for Women (NOW), was employed to find organizations of women of color to endorse this first national march dedicated to abortion rights. She reflects on the changes in the years since:
In 1986 Black women were skeptical about joining a march for abortion rights sponsored by what was perceived as a white woman's organization. Although all the leaders of the Black women's organizations I contacted privately supported abortion rights, many perceived the issue as marginal, too controversial, or to 'white.'
By 1987 NOW was responding more clearly to the voices of women of color.
By 1986, the annual march was endorsed by 107 organizations of women of color, and by 1989, "more than 2,000 women came together to form the largest delegation ever [at the time] of women of color to support abortion rights.

Women of color were responsible for expanding the focus of the abortion rights movement. Their influence can be found in the shifting language used by mainstream groups -- from one centered around abortion to one emphasizing reproductive rights. The work women of color had been doing all along in their communities to support reproductive freedom slowly began to be recognized and at times supported by mainstream feminist groups. Most importantly though, women healthcare activists of color continued to push for more and more justice- for more social justice in the pro-choice movement and more feminism in their communities.

Here in the year 2004, at the eighth March for Women's lives, let's reflect on the mistakes of the past and the injustices of the present. We still have a long way to go. Let us constantly strive to bring about more instances for increasing numbers of people to experience self-determination, true democracy and justice in their lives. We must not let our vision of liberation be obscured by political compromises that promise only a few of us legitimacy and victory. We must all be free simultaneously, or none of us can truly be free.

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