DOROTHY ROBERTS: In contemporary America there is a prevalent belief that poor black women shouldn't have children. And that their having children is the cause of black people's problems, well, indeed, of America's problems. I think for a long time the denigration of black women's reproduction was just ignored by mainstream feminists because they had the image of the white mother in mind. Even though there are restrictions on white mothers, it's a fundamentally different kind of regulation. And then there are other feminists who are so wedded to abortion rights as the most important issue and to abortion as the be all and end all of reproductive freedom that there s a resistance to seeing coercive birth control policies as also being oppressive. They don't get that distributing Norplant and Depo-Provera in poor communities and telling women, "This is what you should use," could be oppressive. (source: MS Magazine)
Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty
DOROTHY ROBERTS: A perfect example is sterilization. In the seventies, a group of feminists opposed waiting periods and rigid informed consent procedures for sterilization. Women of color said, "Let's put limits on sterilization because doctors are guilty of abuse." But this just didn't register with some of the mainstream reproductive rights groups that had been pushing for greater access to sterilization for white, middle-class women. While poor black women were, in some cases, forcibly sterilized, sometimes without their knowledge, let alone consent, white women had a hard time getting sterilized. There were all sorts of formulas to figure out if you should allow a white woman to be sterilized. This exemplifies how diametrically opposed the experience of the struggle for reproductive rights has been for these two groups. (source: MS Magazine)
DOROTHY ROBERTS: And now there is this boom in popularity for the fertility business, which was primarily designed to help white, middle-class couples have children. That seems like a fundamental moral contradiction that people should be grappling with. We need to think about whether there should be limits on the fertility industry. It's virtually unregulated. The multiple births that result from these technologies point to the contradiction of a public not willing to pay the expenses of one additional child born to a welfare mother, yet willing to support seven children born to a white couple. (source: MS Magazine)
Between 1929 and 1974 over 7,600 people were sterilized by the state of North Carolina.
DOROTHY ROBERTS: Why shouldn't we be able to at least think about, debate, and consider whether there should be limits on the fertility business, which requires public expense so that a particular group of people can have children? But white men, especially, get very upset when you start questioning their right to have children. I can't tell you the number of red faces I've encountered. People get very defensive when you suggest that their decisions about having children might have some racial implications. The response I get all the time is, "This has nothing to do with racism. I just want children like me." (source: MS Magazine)
DOROTHY ROBERTS: The thing about reproduction is that, more than anything else, it tells you how a society values people. When many black groups read my book and invite me to speak, their focus is on genocide. I actually don't claim that these are policies designed to eliminate black people. I think it functions more on the ideological level to support a whole host of policies that keep blacks at the bottom. But I'm not so sanguine as to say that they couldn't have that aim at some point. There is a danger that when the public gets used to policies that use reproduction as a solution to social problems, they might be more amenable in the future to actual policies of genocide. Around the time Norplant came out, an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested it was a solution to black poverty. The paper did issue an apology, but a lot of people supported it. And there was legislation proposed all over the country to use Norplant to keep poor black women from having children. And then there's CRACK, Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity, a private organization that offers women who use drugs and alcohol $200 to be sterilized. People jumped on that as the solution to drug use during pregnancy. It is scary that people will leap to these drastic solutions involving reproduction when we dont have adequate health care or drug treatment. These policies support high incarceration rates for black people, high removal rates of black children from their homes by the child welfare system, and a horrible education system. They say we don't need to spend money on social welfare programs or figure out racism and poverty; the solution is to keep these people from having children. (source: MS Magazine)
DOROTHY ROBERTS: I am a firm believer that you start with the experiences of the most oppressed people. It expands our view of what reproductive liberty is. And the [job of feminists] has to be to expand the way we think about reproductive freedom. I've had lots of debates with activists who argue that the way to appeal to a broad white audience is to place white middle-class women's issues at the forefront, because those women are more likable and empathetic. One example is in the prosecution of substance abuse during pregnancy. Even though most of the prosecutions were against poor black women who smoked crack, the strategy in California, for example, was to make this about the infringement on the liberties of white middle-class women. They tried to make the argument that if this kind of policy keeps going on, in time, you wont be able to drink coffee while you re pregnant. But you don't get any fundamental change this way. You have to focus on the people who are being hit the hardest and figure out an agenda that centers on them. The difficult question is, how do you get around the fact that many white Americans won't do anything that they see as benefiting black people? (source: MS Magazine)