#BlackLivesMatter, and Black Health Matters, too: Reproductive Justice

by Anna Katz, 2017-2018 Campus Leader at Duke University

This November, I had the privilege of attending the first annual Black Health Matters Conference at Harvard University.  Given my work as a NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina Campus Leader and love for all things sexual health, I was particularly looking forward to Saturday’s panel Who and How: Sexual Health Activism for Our Most Underserved Communities.  As I ponder what shape my budding career might take, I am always thrilled to hear the varying ways activists approach this critical work.  With panelists working in academic, government, and the nonprofit sector, the event promised to offer several unique perspectives on sexual and reproductive health.

But perhaps most exciting was the opportunity to attend a reproductive health event that centered and amplified the voices of four Black women leaders in the sexual health field.  Mainstream reproductive rights activism historically sidelined women of color, trans women, poor women—virtually anyone who didn’t reflect middle- and upper-class white leadership.  Frustrated with this marginalization, a group of Black women created Repro Justice Repeal Hyde Art Projecttheir own movement, coining the term “reproductive justice” in 1994.  Now a national leader in reproductive justice, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”  To ensure that these rights are universally recognized, they believe, we must analyze power systems, address intersecting oppressions, center the most marginalized, and build coalitions across issues and identities.

In doing this work, we must first contextualize sexual and reproductive health activism within a history of reproductive oppression.  Our nation has a broad and shameful history of sexual and reproductive coercion of Black folks and other communities of color, contributing to an abiding distrust of health practitioners and organizations like Planned Parenthood.  From the forced reproduction of enslaved African and African American women to the coercive sterilizations of the American Eugenics Movement, from J. Marion Sim’s surgical experimentation on enslaved women to the non-consensual extraction of Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells, from contraceptive pill trials on Puerto Rican women to the infamous “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” folks of color have continuously been stripped of bodily autonomy, often for the purpose of “advancing” reproductive science.  The generational trauma of such violating practices cannot be minimized; as activists, we must acknowledge our nation’s ugly histories and recognize where the mainstream reproductive rights movement has failed the most vulnerable.  The panelists echoed SisterSong’s push for centering those who have been marginalized and emphasized that paying lip service to historically subjugated groups is not enough. “Activism is a doing, not a saying,” explained panelist Jill Smith, HIV/STI Project Manager at the Maryland Department of Health.

I am proud to be working with NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, an organization that is committed to serving all North Carolinians and prioritizing those disproportionately impacted by harmful policies.  In an attempt to echo this commitment on Duke’s campus, I am building partnerships with groups that tend to be excluded from reproductive health conversations.  I am thrilled to be kicking off next semester with a sexual and reproductive health trivia night in collaboration with The Bridge, an online community for Black and Latina women.  Through such coalition-building, perhaps we can build an on-campus reproductive justice movement that is truly inclusive and intersectional.

North Carolina’s Eugenic Past

By Claire, Communications Intern

Way back when we started this blog we had a post about the now defunct sterilization program in North Carolina.  A formal apology was issued in 2002, but until now talk of compensation for the victims of the program had been stalled.  Governor Perdue has stated she is determined to fix that problem while she is in office.  She set up the NC Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation under the Department of Administration in order to “provide information and assistance to affected individuals.”  Currently the Governor’s Task Force is assessing the best method for compensation.

North Carolina operated its eugenics board and sterilization program from 1929 to 1974.  Thirty-one other states had eugenics programs during this time as well.  The goal of eugenics committees was to identify “degenerate elements” in American society and prevent them from reproducing and passing their “degenerate genetics” onto the next generation.  They were concerned with actual inheritable traits like epilepsy, and traits they assumed to be inheritable like alcoholism, promiscuity and “feeble-mindedness.”  In North Carolina the population viewed by the board to be degenerate was overwhelmingly female and disproportionately people of color.  One third of the sterilizations were performed on people under the age of 18.  At least 7, 600 people were sterilized in North Carolina; only around 2,000 are still alive.

Eliane Riddick, who we covered in our first eugenics post, is a perfect example of how terrible and misguided the eugenics movement was.  Riddick was raped by a neighbor when she was 13.  She became pregnant and the eugenics committee saw her as a prime candidate for sterilization.  Underage, black, poor, unwed and pregnant; she was everything they thought needed fixing in North Carolina.   Instead of helping Riddick through her traumatic ordeal, they labeled her “promiscuous” and “feeble-minded.”  She was sterilized without her consent or knowledge right after her son was born.  Her rapist was never brought to justice.  Her story is not uncommon for the tens of thousands of people sterilized in the name of public health over the decades.  More information about her and about North Carolina’s shameful history can be found here.

We have to remember that choice is more than about the right to pregnancy prevention and abortion.  For so many people it is just the opposite.  Everyone deserves to make the best decisions for themselves with all the facts given to them in a medically accurate, unbiased way.   Forcing someone to be sterilized is just as bad as forcing them to be pregnant.

Anti-Abortion Campaigns Target Communities of Color

 By Claire, Communications Intern

The last year has seen a rise of anti-abortion billboard campaigns targeting of low-income communities of color that claim that abortion is a form of genocide.  The organizations behind these campaigns have also charged that Planned Parenthood specifically has purposefully targeted communities of color and is complicit to this “genocide.”

The first billboards appeared little over a year ago in Georgia.  They claimed that black children were an “endangered species.”  There are 170 billboards in five cities and states now.  The billboards are the brainchild of Ryan Bomberger’s anti-choice Radiance Foundation .  It is important to note that Bomberger’s mother was raped and carried him to term before putting him up for adoption.  In his work he has been very adamant that adoption is the best solution to pregnancy if the mother cannot afford or wants the child.   More billboards by the Radiance Foundation and other organizations have appeared in the wake.

Most recently, this past Sunday, the Radiance Foundation kicked off another series of billboards  in Georgia claiming that abortion is a form of slavery.  In his statement, Bomberger attempts to draw parallels between the denied humanity of black slaves and what he sees as a denied humanity of black fetuses.  These billboards are controversal enough that even the NAACP, who historically has been neutral in the abortion debate, have issued a statement.  Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the NAACP said in a statement, “Women are not forced to have abortions the way they were in servitude. Slavery was about not having the right to make any decisions. Women were actually bred to produce children for the purposes of profit.”

More after the break…

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Forced Sterilized in North Carolina

By Claire, Communications Intern

The flip-side of the right to not having children is the right to have children.  Over the course of the early- to mid-twentieth century, tens of thousands of women and men across this country were sterilized against their will by their state medical establishment in government-sanctioned eugenic programs.  In attempts to control the heredity of the American Race, those deemed unfit for reproduction were sterilized; those considered undereducated, ‘sexually promiscuous’, ‘mentally retarded’, epileptic, and otherwise degenerate.

These genetic degenerates could not be left to their own devices, and their futures were decided by Eugenic Boards of medical doctors, psychologists, and social workers.  IQ tests were given to discover mental retardation and family histories were build to find any trace of epilepsy, alcoholism, tuberculous, promiscuity, violence and a multitude of other degenerate factors.   It is thought that many of the women and men sterilized on the basis of promiscuity and mental retardation were merely victims of antiquated sexual norms and a lack of education.  Eugenic supporters claimed they were being progressive, and looking out for the best interest of everyone involved.   In some cases women and men were locked up in mental homes and asylums for their adolescent or adult lives to protect the rest of society.   The state of North Carolina participated in the social experiment of eugenics as well.

There are nearly 7, 600 victims from North Carolina like Elaine Riddick.   Ms. Riddick, who was sterilized in 1968 after becoming pregnant at 14 after being raped, has experienced health issues, emotional trouble and failed marriages due to her sterilization.  One of the youngest known victims was a 10 year old boy.   Governor Easley apologized in 2002 but no reparations have been issues for the couple thousand victims still alive.

Many times the families of these victims were threatened with loss of welfare benefits if they did not comply with the Eugenic Board’s decision.   This is the claim of Ms. Riddick whose illiterate grandmother signed off on the procedure.  She feared she would lose the aid she received from the state.  Many of the victims themselves did not fully understand that their sterilization would be permanent or what exactly sterilization meant.  This happened across the country.

The right to Choice is very important to women.   We fight the double-edge sword of anti-abortion and pro-sterilization rhetoric.  Mothers who fall into the categories of young, poor, unwed and so forth are vilified by political pundits and used as talking points to push economically and socially conservative agendas.  The attack on women’s bodies that we see in North Carolina and on the federal level is not a “pro-life” agenda.  It is an agenda to control the influences and behaviors of women.  It is an agenda that determines who can and should be a mother according to specific and ultimately arbitrary criteria.

We have reached a point in time when men (and women) in suits and white lab coats should stop making unilateral decisions about the bodies of individual women.  No woman knows what she needs more than herself.  No person can decide if a woman should be a mother more than her self.