Righting Centuries of Reproductive Wrongs at the MARCH FOR WOMEN'S LIVES

April 22, 2004

By Professor Margaret M. Russell, Santa Clara University School of Law and former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union

Margaret M. RussellThe March for Women's Lives on April 25 will have special meaning for me as a mother, civil rights scholar, and woman of color.  Gearing up for the March  has given me a chance to reflect upon the centuries of struggle of Black women in the United States to defend the dignity of our bodies and reproductive choices.  This dignity is the very essence of freedom.

The history of Black women and reproductive rights is best described as a chronicle of reproductive wrongs.  These harms range from eighteenth and nineteenth century exploitation of enslaved women to increase the slave population, to present-day efforts to control Black women's choices through welfare policy, abortion restrictions, and criminal prosecution.  For women with race and class privilege, the struggle for reproductive autonomy in the United States historically has meant emancipation from stereotypical assumptions that motherhood is both their destiny and their primary societal mission.  Black women endure a more complex set of burdens.  These burdens are rooted in the lasting belief that Black women's reproductive choices - including motherhood - warrant neither legal protections nor social respect.  Therefore, the struggle for the reproductive rights of Black women has focused on liberation from government policies that at various points either compelled or punished childbearing.

The story of Black women in the United States originates with slavery, which legalized both racial and gender subordination by permitting slave masters to coerce slave women's childbearing to replenish the masters' labor force.  One of the first American slavery laws, a 1662 Virginia statute, accorded the legal status of slave to the children of slave mothers and white fathers.  The institution of slavery was dependent upon rape, slave-breeding, and other forms of control of Black women's reproductive capacities.  The law, in cases such as Banks' Administrator v. Marksberry (1823), sanctioned slave masters' ownership of Black women, their offspring, and their future descendants; slave mothers had no legal claim to their own progeny.  This situation led in some circumstances to self-induced abortion and even infanticide, through which slave women rebelled against forced childbearing and the inevitable bondage of their children.

Throughout the twentieth century, Black women continued to face the onus of racism in their quest for reproductive autonomy.  By the 1920s, the compulsory childbearing suffered by Black women of the slave era had metamorphosed into policies targeted at reducing the birth rates of "free" Black communities.  Leaders of the eugenics movement (the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century effort to control "hereditary" traits within the human population) sought to curtail the birth rates of Blacks and other racial minorities by deeming them genetically "inferior" and "unfit."  Racialized reproduction control was advanced through anti-miscegation laws (laws prohibiting marriage between a white person and a person of another race), stringent immigration policies, and mandatory sterilization laws.  The common thread among all of these developments was the denial of reproductive rights to Black women.

Remnants of these policies persist today.  Even as it claims to promote the welfare of children and families, our government erects roadblocks to basic health care.  Many restrictions on reproductive health care disproportionately affect Black women, especially poor Black women.  As a result, the unintended pregnancy rate of Black women is almost three times that of white women, the maternal mortality rate is four times higher, and the rate of death from HIV is nineteen times higher.  Government programs promote the prosecution of drug-addicted pregnant women when the provision of social services would greater serve the public interest.  Programs deny benefits to children born into families on welfare, thus increasing the likelihood that those children and families will sink deeper into poverty.

As we join the March for Women's Lives to fight for reproductive autonomy in the twenty-first century, we march in honor of the Black women who came before us who were - quite literally - denied control over their own bodies and choices.  We also march for all those women who today are still denied the dignity and basic human right of reproductive freedom.  The March for Women's Lives is a march for the freedom of all lives.    

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These remarks are adapted from Professor Russell's essay, "African-American Women and Reproductive Rights," in Historical and Multicultural Encyclopedia of Women's Reproductive Rights in the United States, edited by Judith A. Baer (Greenwood Press, 2002).

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