February 14, 2019
Happy Black History Month! Today’s book rec is Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts. This is a fascinating book that traces the infringements on the bodily autonomy of black women in the context of reproductive health from the days of slavery to the 1990s, when the book was written. It talks about how slave owners would carve out a small depression in the ground and make a pregnant woman lie down with her stomach in it so that the fetus was protected while she was being whipped, and how that is a perfect encapsulation of the attitude of America towards African American women: more value was placed on the possibility of new life (i.e. more property) than on the well-being of the woman. From slavery it moves on to the eugenics movement, which frequently sterilized women of color and “feeble-minded” (i.e. usually poor, uneducated women) without their consent in an attempt to create a better society through superior genetic “stock.” They wanted to encourage healthy “worthy” people to breed while discouraging unworthy people from breeding. (Nazi Germany was very interested in this idea, if you’ll recall. This is where they got the inspiration.) This movement coincided with the birth control movement, mostly led by Margaret Sanger, and how Sanger let the language of positive eugenics take over the rhetoric she used to advance her cause, which in itself was not eugenic at all. The women served by her birth control clinics were mostly enthusiastic about being able to participate in family planning, but they distrusted an organization run entirely by white people, suspecting that the white people wanted to make them commit “race genocide,” to reduce their numbers until eventually none of them were left. This was also the fear when a new type of birth control, Norplant, was created, and doctors were coercing low-income and women of color to submit to. It was an arm implant (a predecessor to Nexplanon, which I have, and which I’d recommend) but it was more dangerous, and required minor surgery to remove (which doctors were reluctant to do). There’s also a discussion of welfare reform and so called “welfare queens,” that mythical creature who had more children in order to live off the largess of the state and the idea that poor people having children they couldn’t afford was costing taxpayers money, and why should I have to pay for someone to sit at home and eat bonbons? etc. There’s a chapter on the criminalization of women addicted to drugs having children (they literally charged women with supplying drugs to a minor via the umbilical cord. Unbelievable). It finally ends with new reproductive technologies like IVF and sperm donation, and how they are targeted towards white people.
It’s an interesting, provocative book, and I really want an updated version. I remember someone a while back arguing that police violence against unarmed black men was a reproductive rights issue, since women had the right to expect that their children will live without being murdered by state actors, and I wonder what Roberts thinks about that. Definitely give it a read.