Racial and Gendered Stratification of The Reproductive Justice Movement

by Zarya Shaikh, November 3, 2021

The birth control movement, infertility treatments, and abortion rights campaign deliver liberation to all who benefit from them. Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) folx are not the intended benefactors of these initiatives. BIPOC individuals, particularly those with lower socioeconomic status in comparison with their white counterparts, are hindered from reaping the benefits of the reproductive justice movement. This is a reflection on “a select group of college-educated, middle and upper-class, married white women” using BIPOC people as a stepping stone towards achieving freedom and privileges in their own lives (Bell, 1984, pg. 1). White women exclude BIPOC folx on the basis that they do not share the same “class, race, religion, sexual preference” (Bell, 1984, pg. 5). This phenomenon occurs on a global scale, stifling the growth and success of BIPOC populations across the world. It is for this reason that the absence of BIPOC folx in these movements is a powerful act of resistance that stands in opposition to BIPOC-life-threatening governmental policies on a day-to-day basis. On a cursory glance, birth control and abortion rights may not seem tied to infertility. However, involuntary infertility and abortion on an institutional level have proved to be a discriminatory implementation of birth control designed to limit populations of BIPOC people. To understand how birth control has been used as a limiting agent, one must first understand the prevalence of infertility. Infertility exists with significant global incidence—“some portion of every human population is affected by the inability to conceive during their reproductive lives” (Inhorn, 2002). It is a genderless occurrence by nature. So why do countries explicitly blame women for infertility when statistically men are predominantly infertile? This is a problem that starts not at the time of testing for pregnancy but when trying for pregnancy. In author Carole S. Vance’s chapter “Social Construction Theory,” Vance discusses the archaic notion of “women’s innate sexual passivity” (Grewal and Kaplan, 2006, pg. 31). Women are thought to be submissive and not have any libido until a man awakens a preconceived, insatiable hunger. Sex is painted as a desire that women yearn for, which can only be fulfilled by men. This association between sexual acts and identities perpetuates harmful stereotypes that can incur real-world consequences as seen by the onus falling on women time and time again for not being able to conceive.

In reality, there are several influencing factors, including reproductive tract infections, that can lead to tubal infertility, postpartum complications, post-abortive complications, dietary or environmental toxins, and more. To counter infertility, whether tubal infertility and/or male infertility, new reproductive technologies (NRTs) have been used. They are expensive and, therefore, accessible only by people who can afford them. NRTs elude people with lower socioeconomic status because in vitro fertilization (IVF) services like this are generally offered by a private sector accessible by “elites” (Inhorn, 2002). Options that are available to people who cannot afford IVF turn to formal healthcare alternatives. Those alternatives neglect the physical and mental wellbeing of the individuals they are used on. Tracey Loughran and Gayle Davis, who authored The Palgrave handbook of infertility in history: Approaches, contexts and perspectives, attribute the monopoly of reproductive technologies to the Global North and Global South. These two compete for treatment and “popular, legal, and medical approaches to infertility” (Loughran and Davis, 2017, pg. 397). There is a damning association between status and power in the form of race, gender, and socioeconomic privilege. The feminists of Global North, comprising of developed countries, advocate “for women’s rights to reproductive choice and control . . . [and] that discourse . . . was ill-adapted to the needs of women in other parts of the world” (Loughran and Davis, 2017, pg. 388). The common trend that a select few continue to speak for the collective masses remains true in this case. In the Global South, feminists who work towards accessibility of infertility treatments have been met with pushback from authorities and institutions. Even if there is a recognition of the need for ethical, or at least humane, alternatives to abusive sterilization and birth control, the institutions and authorities in developing countries have made it difficult to find a good support base. While the efforts of these outspoken feminists towards advancements in technologies have been promoted in advertisements as self-empowerment, other feminists condemn the science behind the scenes as unethical and exploitative of women’s bodies.

The histories of birth control, infertility treatments, and abortion movements are fraught with the exploitation and oppression of BIPOC women. In Women, Race and Class, feminist Angela Davis addresses the absence of BIPOC representation in the birth control movement and abortion rights campaign specifically. Davis attributes the apprehension of Black individuals to the underlying danger of the birth control movement—“involuntary sterilization” (Davis, 1982, pg. 354). There is an abhorrent history of abortion among slaves accompanied by limited resources and access to birth control. Starting at the time of slavery and continuing today, the social stratification of feminists is prominent, especially when discussing the rationale for limiting or expanding family size. For instance, lower-income families are expected to restrict their family capacity to accommodate the taxation and superiority complexes of middle-class and rich families. Eugenic, racist and capitalistic views have clouded the “progressive potential of the birth control campaign” (Davis, 1982, pg. 360). In the 20th century, the American Birth Control League dominated the conversation by calling on Black people to pursue birth control as though it were compulsory sterilization. Davis notes, “What was demanded as a ‘right’ for the privileged came to be interpreted as a ‘duty’ for the poor” (Davis, 1982, pg. 358). Years later, we are still seeing the same control enforced through the popular meme: “What’s classy if you’re rich but trashy if you’re poor?” Davis exposes this call as a disillusioned choice that culminates in the forced sterilization of “Native American, Chicana’ Puerto Rican and Black women . . . in disproportionate numbers” (Davis, 1982, pg. 360). One initiative, started under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt, forced sterilization of over 35% of all Puerto Rican women. This action was enacted as a means to address the economic problems of Puerto Rico by reducing the birth rate to be less than or equal to the death rate (Davis, 1982, pg. 363). In reality, this surgical sterilization was devastating. It was promoted as an incentive to limit unemployment rates. However, Davis states this is not the case: “The increasing incidence of sterilization has kept pace with the high rates of unemployment” (Davis, 1982, pg. 363). This act of misdirection to harm BIPOC populations is not a new issue.

Daniel J.R. Grey’s ‘She Gets the Taunts and Bears the Blame’: Infertility in Contemporary India presents a timeline of “the relatively abrupt transition from views of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) as morally and medically dubious to their widespread acceptance” (Grey, 2017, pg. 242). Grey discusses the myriad of issues characterizing the population control measures established in India. He highlights the (lack of) morality involved in forcing sterilizations upon women and girls who do not consent with the full understanding that these procedures will bar them from having biological offspring. Fallacies embedded in the Indian government’s five-year plans to achieve a reduction in birth rates resulted in direct and indirect fatalities of surrogates, parents, and children involved. Surrogacy as an alternative to infertility is plastered as a “‘mutual benefit’ to both infertile couples (whether foreign or domestic) and to impoverished Indian women” but is not a realistic expectation (Grey, 2017, pg. 246). These examples epitomize failures of the system to foresee and adapt to changes that may not be politically favorable for the government.

For these reasons, it is important to expose forced sterilizations and provide BIPOC folx with the support they need to safely access birth control and abortion procedures without a double entendre facade. One such organization is the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health which distributes its reproductive health resources to Latine/xs. To make medical decisions, one must have information available to them in an accessible format. Reproductive justice must be for the people it serves just as disability justice advocates for a system that prioritizes disabled peoples and their needs. Piepzna-Samarasinha, a queer disabled femme writer, dreams of disability justice as it relates to the concept of care work. Care work is a practice in which BIPOC individuals also benefit from the work being done behind the scenes and can take care of themselves. Disability justice by itself was created as a counter to white disabled folx who did not recognize or elevate BIPOC activists. White people cannot and should not be at the forefront of conversations intended to prioritize BIPOC peoples. BIPOC and marginalized folx should be able to tell their story and access resources as dictated by what they deem necessary instead of having them dictated by an outsider. 

The Black Mamas Matter Alliance is one organization that approaches reproductive justice by seeking to change policy. They call for Black women-led initiatives and address legislation that leads to poor maternal health outcomes. Alternative modes of resistance can be adjusting literature in academic courses to include BIPOC-perspectives. If not for my Women’s Gender, and Sexuality major, I would not have learned about eugenics. It has not come up in any of the classes I have taken for my Biochemistry major. It is simply not a conversation unless one seeks it out. Universities like our own can be allies to the cause by giving a platform to BIPOC advocates, especially in biology courses that discuss reproduction.


References

Davis, A. (1982). Racism, birth control and reproductive rights. In Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class (pp. 202–271). Lond: The Women’s Press; New York; Random House, Inc. 

Davis, G., & Loughran, T. (2017). The Palgrave handbook of infertility in history: Approaches, contexts and perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan. 

Grewal, I., & Kaplan, C. (2006). An introduction to women’s studies: Gender in a Transnational World. McGraw-Hill Higher Education. 

Grey, D. (2017). ‘She gets the taunts and bears the blame’: Infertility in contemporary 

India. The Palgrave handbook of infertility in history, Approaches, contexts and perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved from 

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057%2F978-1-137-52080-7_13

Hooks, B. (1984). Black women: Shaping feminist theory. In bell hooks, Feminist theory: From margin to center (pp. 1–17). Brooklyn, New York: South End Press.

Inhorn, M.C. (2003). Global infertility and the globalization of new reproductive technologies: Illustrations from Egypt. Social Science & Medicine, 56(9), pp. 1837–1851. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0277-9536(02)00208-3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s