I just finished reading Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts for the Pandagon book club. Amanda’s thoughts on it are great and fairly comprehensive, so check them out, and go participate in the discussion if you’ve read the book yourself.
I’m pretty sure that this book was on my wish list already, before it was announced as the July Pandagon book. I wanted to read it because I’m always trying to learn more about reproductive rights and the history of reproductive rights, but also because I’m currently trying to learn more about issues that affect women of color. I’ve long-heard the argument that white feminists (like myself) tend to ignore reproductive rights issues that women of color face in favor of a focus on keeping abortion legal, even if it’s only readily available to middle and upper-class women. Other than an awareness of past eugenics and forced sterilization campaigns, as well as the knowledge that abortion access is largely restricted to women of color due to the scarcity of clinics and the lack of public funds for the procedure, I really honestly did not know what those issues were, though.
This book is an excellent primer on exactly that. Killing the Black Body traces the history of reproductive rights issues since Black women were first brought to America through slavery. The book is astonishingly comprehensive. It’s also really dense and written in a highly academic manner. But Roberts is a great theorist and historian, not to mention even-handed and highly persuasive. It’s a 312 page book, and I marked 40 passages.
The main argument of this book is that Black women’s reproductive capacity has consistently been used against them throughout American history as a means of race control and devaluation. From the time of slavery, Black women’s role as mothers has been discredited, minimalized, directly attacked and used to blame Blacks for the inferior social status that has been constructed by whites. They have been forcefully impregnated, had their children stolen from them, sterilized against their will, coercively implanted with Norplant, refused welfare due to their procreation and sent to jail because of their reproductive choices.
One of the earliest images in the book that recurs symbolically throughout is how whites first theoretically divided the concept of woman and fetus. As slaves, Black women’s main value was the capacity to produce offspring, i.e. more slaves for the white owner. When a pregnant slave would rebel or upset the slave master, there was the need to reconcile punishing the woman without harming the economically valuable fetus inside of her. So they would dig a hole just large enough to fit her pregnant belly, force her to lay face down in it so that the fetus would not be harmed and whip her back, effectively sending the message that she was nowhere nearly as valuable as the unborn child she was gestating.
This concept is repeated through accounts of Black women being forced into prenatal care, cesarean sections and other medical treatment “for the good of the fetus,” because the women themselves were deemed too selfish or ignorant to choose for themselves. It’s also seen when looking at the cases of almost-exclusively Black women who have been imprisoned for smoking crack while pregnant. For racist reasons, only crack smokers are targeted, with other types of gestational drug use either ignored or treated. Instead of being offered treatment for their drug habit, these women have their babies removed from their care, are dragged out of the hospital post-birth in shackles, sometimes sent to jail while pregnant “for the benefit of the fetus” and often forced to be implanted with Norplant as a condition of probation. All of this happens even if the woman seeks help for her drug problem because of concern for her fetus, and even if the baby is fine when it’s born. Horribly, if a pregnant woman found to be doing crack chooses to abort rather than carry her pregnancy to term, the charges will be dropped. She is effectively punished for her decision to procreate.
The latter example is linked to the social view that developed after slavery, which states that Black women, particularly those on welfare, do not deserve to procreate. Masked as an attempt to keep more children from being added to welfare roles, politicians have long-advocated penalties for women who are on welfare when they give birth, tried to institute forced contraceptive use by women receiving public assistance, and tried to cut off welfare funds from women who have children out of wedlock. Of course, this affects white women, too, but Black women are a highly disproportional number of welfare users and single mothers.
Other, less-obvious forms of racism are also discussed, including those embedded within the reproductive rights movement. One example is the pro-choice movement’s support or blind eye turned towards forced and coerced sterilization of women of color. Prominent pro-choice groups have also opposed waiting periods for sterilization supported by women of color activists, in order to provide easier access to middle-class white women. Sadly, they over-looked the historically coercive nature under which many women of color have agreed to sterilization while drugged, during or directly after labor, or due to lies that they would lose their welfare benefits without the procedure.
Another example is the Norplant debacle. Pro-Choicers widely supported the use of long-acting birth control option Norplant, and eagerly advocated public funds for implantation. The problem is that no other birth control option besides sterilization was covered through Medicaid, the device can only be discontinued with the assistance of a doctor, and removal due to side-effects was not covered. Due to widespread promotion and use as well as the inability to have the device removed, huge numbers of Black women became effectively sterile at the government’s expense and support.
Roberts argues for a notion of reproductive liberty that recognizes race as an inherent reproductive rights issue. Reproductive rights and race, she argues, are inseparable, and the longer white activists take to realize that and keep ignoring what people of color have to say, the more Black women will be victimized and the more history will repeat itself. After reading this book, I can’t help but agree.
I honestly feel like, and hope, that this book has changed me. As a reproductive rights activist, I don’t think that I will ever be able to look at the issues in quite the same way again. And I think that’s a good thing. If you’re interested in reproductive rights, you should definitely pick up this book, no matter what your skin color. It’s disheartening to learn of the extreme and persistent racism in America, and how whites genuinely have tried to kill the black body. But it’s also empowering to have the knowledge and to be able to spread it, to recognize that you don’t have to be compliant with this racism any longer.